Lerner, the popular billionaire who joined transatlantic trend

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The Independent Online

There is no doubt Randy Lerner loves his sport. The experts say it, the fans say it. But those same people are unsure what would lead a man raised on American football - specifically raised on the Cleveland Browns - to invest his wealth in English "soccer".

"You never know what motivates people - whether it's strictly financial or whether it's also an investment in the sport," said Rick Gentile, a former CBS television sports broadcaster and now a member of the faculty at Seton Hall University's Centre for Sports Management.

"The latter would be a far more interesting theory. As a fan of the sport I would hope it's the latter and that he feels soccer's profile will be enhanced by buying a foreign team. If so there may be exhibition games and the hope that Browns fans might show an interest."

Gentile added: "Soccer does not need a lot of help outside of this country but for whatever reason it has always failed to gain a toehold here." Lerner is not the first owner of an National Football League (NFL) franchise to enter the world of the English Premiership. Most infamously, Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, last year took control of Manchester United, leading to outrage among some fans and even the intervention of the Government.

Meanwhile, the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, was last year in talks about possible investment in Liverpool. "Liverpool is a great brand and it's something our family respects a lot," he said. "We're always interested in opportunities and growing, so you never know what can happen," he said at the time.

But if Glazer was partly lured by the glamour of United, and Kraft was interested in Liverpool's "brand", can the same be said of Lerner and his $118.8m (£62.6m) bid for Villa? One Aston Villa fan looking for answers to such questions yesterday sought insight on an internet forum on the Browns website. He received this response from a fan, nicknamed Zombo.

"He seems well liked, well respected, and he isn't cheap when it comes to spending money on the team. Of course, he has a strong emotional attachment to the Browns, as he grew up a huge fan and his father owned the team before him, and this is a life-long dream.

"However, he may be all business with a soccer team that is on the other side of the Atlantic and that he is not emotionally invested in."

Another fan, nicknamed Inspecta, added: "He has not won anything yet. But he has us heading in the right direction this year. But if you want my honest opinion, he will pump money into the Browns before some soccer team."

Lerner, a 44-year-old billionaire, became head of the Browns franchise in October 2002 following the death of his father, Al Lerner, the founder of a successful credit card company who had owned the team since 1999. The team had undergone turbulent times.

In 1995, the then owner of the Browns announced his intention to move the team to Baltimore and it required a formal settlement to ensure the team's name, colours and history were to remain in Cleveland.

Lerner's love of the Browns began as a boy. By the age of seven he and his sister were regularly attending Browns games. "My desire to win is endless, like any Cleveland Browns fan," he once said. "It's a burning, burning desire to be part of the Cleveland Browns I've always read about and known."

But it is not as if Lerner, who has a home on Long Island, New York, and two children, has only known the world of sport. He studied at the Columbia Law School in New York and spent a year at Clare College, Cambridge. He spent a number of years working as a lawyer on Wall Street. He is said to be worth about £700m. Despite recent investment and an ongoing gentrification, the city of Cleveland, on the shores of Lake Erie, remains a somewhat hardscrabble, blue-collar community. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River which runs through the city caught fire, such was the amount of debris and pollution in the water.

If the city has a reputation for a certain toughness, Browns fans have an equal renown for loyalty and endurance despite their team's lack of silverware - the Browns last won the NFL Championship in 1964, before the final was known as the Super Bowl. They were the years of the legendary Jim Brown, perhaps the most successful running back in history.

And yet despite this lack of success, the Browns claim to have the largest and most extensive fan base of any NFL team. Collin Agee, president of a Browns fan club in Washington DC - one of countless such clubs throughout the US and around the world - said: "Some people will tell you that's because the city does not have much else going for it and so people will get on it for civil pride."

Lerner has said he believes he can help Villa return to their glory days. "It is my belief and the basis for my bid to acquire Aston Villa Football Club that it can compete at the highest level within the Premiership and in Europe," he said.

Browns fans are still waiting for him to bring such success for their team, but the outlook is good. Another Browns fan, Sheila Hatchell, from Hampton, Virginia, said hopefully: "I think we've got a pretty good team coming up on its way. We've still got a few things to iron out but I think we're coming along."

Overseas owners How Lerner compares with other head honchos

* CHELSEA
Owner: Roman Abramovich
Nationality: Russian
Date of takeover: July 2003
Cost: £140m
What does he own? Chelsea Village plc, which owns the club. He has since invested almost £500m.

FULHAM
Owner: Mohammed Al Fayed
Nationality: Egyptian
Date of takeover: May 1997
Cost: £100m invested
What does he own? The freehold on Craven Cottage and also acquired a major shareholding in the club.

MANCHESTER UNITED
Owner: Malcolm Glazer
Nationality: American
Date of takeover: June 2005
Cost: £790m
What does he own? 98 per cent of United's shares bought on the stock market through Red Football Ltd.

PORTSMOUTH
Owner: Alexandre Gaydamak
Nationality: French (of Russian extraction)
Date of takeover: July 2006
Cost: £52m
What does he own? Bought Milan Mandaric's controlling stake, becoming owner.

Claret, Blue and Browns: How new chief's two clubs compare

* ASTON VILLA
Sport: Football
Established: 1874
Nickname: The Villans
Team colours: Claret and blue
Stadium: Villa Park
Capacity: 42,553
Rivals: Birmingham City
Manager: Martin O'Neill
Star player: Milan Baros
Last Championship: First Division 1980-81
Total squad wages: £33m (2004)
Cost of season ticket: £330-£475
Cost to buy: £62.6m

CLEVELAND BROWNS
Sport: American Football
Established: 1946
Nickname: The Browns
Team colours: Seal brown, orange and white
Stadium: Cleveland Browns Stadium
Capacity: 73,200
Rivals: Pittsburgh Steelers
Head coach: Romeo Crennel
Star player: Charlie Frye
Last Championship: NFL 1964
Total squad wages: £53.3m
Cost of season ticket: £211-£1435
Cost to buy: £280m

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