Fast Lerner tips Villa to smash glass ceiling

American owner warns Liverpool off O'Neill and says famous fans such as Prince William will soon see them join football's elite

Randy Lerner used to move in the same political circles as George W Bush, but when the Cleveland Browns owner and former credit-card tycoon purchased the majority shareholding in Aston Villa, he never anticipated he would be buying into the British establishment.

The future monarch Prince William is a Villa supporter, and to hear the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, assert his football allegiance, you might be excused for believing he used to make fortnightly trips from the playing fields of Eton to the mountainous terraces of the Holte End.

The 48-year-old Lerner, who has just completed his fourth season in partnership with Martin O'Neill after buying the club from Doug Ellis for £62.6 million in the summer of 2006, is still striving to break into a rather different elite. For the third season running, Villa finished a respectable sixth in the Premier League but fell six points short of qualifying for the Champions' League. As a result, questions were inevitably raised about the extent to which both men remain committed to the club – and how they can possibly bridge the gap between the claret-and-blue and the top four.

O'Neill spoke ominously in the spring, in between Villa's Wembley disappointments in the Carling Cup final and FA Cup semi-final, of assessing his "options" at the end of his current 12-month rolling contract. He has now told Lerner, with whom he has had a warm relationship, that he will be staying.

The Villa chairman, who has been in the Midlands on Villa business this week, is nevertheless aware that other, ostensibly bigger, clubs covet the Irishman. Liverpool, for one, may be in the market for a manager if Rafael Benitez's uneasy reign reaches its conclusion. "Liverpool aren't taking Martin O'Neill away from us," Lerner said, his eyes narrowing and his customary philosophical mode of discourse giving way to a steely-eyed aggression doubtless honed in the world of big business.

A New Yorker from Brooklyn, Lerner developed an affection for Villa while studying law at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1983 when the club held the European Cup. He clearly still believes in O'Neill as the man to take them through the "glass ceiling" to which he referred intermittently. "He fills me with enthusiasm. It's been an education. It's pretty inspiring," he said. "And it's fun."

The top managers, he argued, were "complicated, animated people" who had "a lot of personality, lots of points of view and a lot of history". As for where O'Neill's particular qualities and character fitted into this breed, he added: "He's played for Brian Clough and was in the North of Ireland during a tumultuous period. That informs his personality. It's also why his tenacity – and what it takes to get something done – is what it is."

That perseverance has been evident in the way O'Neill has parted Lerner from £179m of his estimated $1.5bn fortune to spend on players. But when the owner said last week that he would not sanction a deal for a £30m striker even if his manager thought the player would make the difference between sixth place and fourth, sections of the press claimed the fans might perceive the statement as signifying a lack of ambition. How would he sell his rationale to a public wondering why Lerner cannot, or will not, splash out like Manchester City's Arabian owner or even the Tottenham Hotspur board?

"I'll tell the truth," he said. "We have tried to build this club in a steady, reasonable way and £30m players have not been part of that process, given the way we've done it, though it may be for other clubs."

Sounding not unlike Arsène Wenger talking about the fragile concept of team spirit, Lerner elaborated. "First thing you're gonna have is, 'What do you pay the guy?' as well as, 'Does it make sense in the dressing room and what are the other guys thinking?' It's just not consistent with anything we've done, certainly since I've been around. Secondly, to anybody who asked me I would simply say, 'I can't afford it'."

Pressed on whether the latter admission cast doubt on his status as a man of financial substance, Lerner was "prepared to give that assurance" yet explained that even he was not immune to global recession. "You've got countries going out of business, for God's sake. The financial crisis, broadly speaking, certainly impacted on me and us as a family. But it's had no bearing on the wherewithal or ability or commitment to continue to work for Aston Villa.

"And if I felt it had impacted on my ability to go forward, I would admit it and make plans to deal with it. I wouldn't like to think I'd be a person who would not say that and then go to sleep at night thinking, 'How do I live this lie?' Can I continue to grow the club and try to realise our ambitions? The answer is yes."

Calls for Villa to splash out have echoes, ironically, of the "Deadly Doug" era, when John Gregory and David O'Leary both maintained greater funding was required to compete in the Premier League's upper reaches. When Leeds United reached the Champions' League under Peter Ridsdale's free-spending stewardship, Ellis was among the first to point to the unsustainable level of their outlay on transfers and wages, and Lerner refuses to burden Villa with the kind of debt that contributed to Portsmouth and Hull City falling like Icelandic ash.

"I think prudence and financial discipline kind of work their way around your reality," he said. "Those who do 'em, and do 'em well, do OK. And those who don't will mess that up as well. It's a real concern, but not a crippling one.

"If I go out and get hit by a truck," he said, glancing out into Birmingham's mean streets, "and it turns out that I've left behind a business that can't stand on its own, then what have I really done but provide four good years. Or four reasonable years. Or four decent years."

Good? Reasonable? Decent? Therein lies the rub. Even the owner is not exactly sure how to define the progress which Villa, despite the lack of silverware, have unquestionably made. While Lerner talks about the need for "patience" and his desire to "grow" the club (as part of the strategy he points to the upgrading of the training HQ to impress potential signings), he also acknowledges that O'Neill is fiercely ambitious.

And impatient to gatecrash football's upper crust? "Yes! He's supposed to be. There's no manager on the planet who doesn't have his eye on the prize. He's Martin O'Neill. He wants to win."

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