Lerner's £63m bid accepted to end Ellis era

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The Independent Football

Doug Ellis' 38-year association with Aston Villa effectively ended after the club yesterday accepted a takeover bid from the American billionaire Randy Lerner, who pledged to restore the club to Europe and is also prepared to give Martin O'Neill the longest managerial contract in the Premiership.

Villa made a statement to the Stock Exchange recommending that shareholders accept the bid from the Cleveland Browns owner, which values the club at £62.6m. There now follows a three-week period during which other groups can outbid Lerner, and Villa would consider any new bids.

As and when the takeover is completed by Lerner's company, Reform Acquisitions Ltd, O'Neill is expected to have fresh funding to spend on players to bolster the threadbare squad he inherited from David O'Leary.

O'Neill is also understood to be close to signing a long-term deal if Lerner takes control. The former Leicester and Celtic manager, who faces his first Premiership match in six years at Arsenal on Saturday, took over at Villa on 4 August after agreeing a 12-month rolling contract with Ellis.

However, a source close to the American claimed O'Neill had already held "detailed discussions" with Lerner and agreed the terms of a much longer deal. The source told the BBC that O'Neill and Lerner struck up a good rapport when they met and that they "share a mutual love of football and American football". O'Neill also secured assurances from Ellis that he would relinquish control of the club.

Lerner's takeover will end the long reign of the 82-year-old chairman, who will step aside some £20m to £25m better off. The man known as "Deadly Doug" has run Villa since 1982 and also had an earlier spell at the helm. The imminent end of the Ellis era was welcomed by fans. The chairman of the Aston Villa Shareholders' Association, Jonathan Fear, said: "I can see nothing but positives from it. They're going to build the club and restore it to what it was." The anti-Ellis protest group, Villa Fans Combined, last night disbanded.

Despite the consistent hostility of many Villa fans, Ellis described his involvement since taking over for the first time nearly 38 years ago as "a sincere pleasure". He added: "The club have been an enormous and immensely enjoyable part of my life. I wish to thank the many staff at Villa over the years for making the club what it has been and what it is. I am sure this transaction will be the beginning of a new chapter in the club's proud history."

Among the first of the seven managers Ellis sacked - the number he dispensed with led to Jimmy Greaves creating his "Deadly" nickname - was Tommy Docherty, who believes the takeover announcement marks the end of an era at the club. "He might not have spent a lot of money on players but he has never got the club into any debt," Docherty said. "Fans can scream and shout for his head but if it was their money, they would not throw it about either. It's the end of an era but the beginning of a new one as Martin O'Neill is an outstanding manager."

Lerner, 44, inherited his fortune from his late father, Al, the founder of the MBNA credit-card company. Lerner said: "It is my belief and the basis for my bid to acquire Aston Villa that it can compete at the highest level within the Premiership and in Europe. The club has a rich history and a long tradition of passionate fan support."

The move was welcomed by the playing staff as well as the fans. The Villa defender Aaron Hughes believes the club can look forward with optimism. "We have a new manager and now it looks as though we have a new guy taking over the club," he said. "You look at football anywhere and when that happens it injects new life into everyone.

"Hopefully, that will be the case for us. It can take us forward into the new season. This is a big club, big in history and certainly the potential we have at Aston Villa is big as well. With new management and new ownership we can do really well. The lads have really taken well to Martin. Hopefully, we can turn the corner after a bad season. We have a tough game against Arsenal to start but we have nothing to lose."

Lerner headed one of a number of consortia hoping to buy out Ellis. Local businessman Michael Neville led one group while another was put together by Nicholas Padfield QC. Athole Still, the agent of Sven Goran Eriksson, headed a fourth interested group.

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