Villa confirm approach from Irish group over £64m takeover

The group of potential purchasers is headed by the brothers Brian and Luke Comer, owners of the Irish property company Comer Homes Group. They have assets worth £1bn, from which they are reportedly prepared to finance an attempt to restore Villa to their former pre-eminence. But reports that they have already done a deal with Ellis and the club's other major shareholder, Jack Petchey, are premature.

Villa admitted in a morning statement to the Stock Exchange that there had been contact between the club and the consortium. The group was put together by an Aston-born, Solihull-based businessman and lifelong Villa follower, 51-year-old Michael Neville, and contains two other businessmen, one a South African.

However, the club cautioned that the proposals - under which the 82-year-old Ellis and Petchey would sell their combined stake of 58 per cent at £5.60 per share - were still at a speculative stage.

Villa's statement read: "The directors of Aston Villa plc have noted the weekend press comment and confirm that they have received a preliminary approach from Mr Michael Neville on behalf of a consortium group, which could lead to an offer for the company.

"However, the board have not met with any other members of the consortium group, nor received any confirmation of the availability of sufficient funding to support any potential offer. So they can only treat the approach as speculative at this stage. Your board will continue to look at maximising shareholder value, and also ensuring that the club is sufficiently funded for the future."

Under the terms of the takeover, which would effectively see Comer become Villa's parent company, the club would be guaranteed 20 per cent of Comer's annual profits from property development. The money available could elevate Villa from middling competitors in the transfer market to being rivals to Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, if not Chelsea and their seemingly unlimited resources.

Ellis, who has previously rebuffed approaches from a consortium fronted by the former Birmingham City and Manchester City defender Ray Ranson and from groups of Russian and Venezuelan businessmen respectively, previously maintained that the only way he would leave Villa Park would be in a box.

But the Comer offer - which may include a non-executive boardroom role for him - allows Ellis both to realise a good price for the club and to be able to claim that he has safeguarded its future.

There has been an initial surge of exhilaration among supporters, many of whom have protested against what they perceive as Ellis' ultra-cautious, even parsimonious leadership of a club that lifted the European Cup barely two decades ago. One critic of the Ellis regime, Jonathan Fear of the pressure group Villa Fans Combined, complained of an "air of stagnation" at Villa Park and expected stay-away supporters to "come flocking back" if the deal went ahead.

Meanwhile, the focus turned on Villa's would-be owners yesterday. Neither Luke Comer, 47, nor his brother Brian, 45, is known to have any previous affinity with the Birmingham club, lifelong or otherwise. Both, though, are keen sportsmen. Luke trained Cachel Bay, the horse that came in last in the Derby in 2001. Brian is an enthusiastic golfer and bought a house on a course in Hertfordshire, the county where Luke also has a home.

There is no suggestion that the brothers harbour thoughts of replacing their compatriot David O'Leary as manager. O'Leary became accustomed to lavish spending at Leeds United under the chairmanship of Peter Ridsdale, but he has been forced to recruit more modestly since arriving at Villa two and a half years ago.

Comer brothers built up fortune from run-down properties

Luke and Brian Comer, the multimillionaire Irish brothers who are providing the financial muscle to the proposed takeover of Aston Villa, have amassed their considerable fortunes via their property business.

After starting out in the trade as plasterers in their native County Galway, they moved to England and founded Comer Homes 15 years ago. The company now has assets estimated at £1bn.

Neither Luke, 47, nor Brian, 45, have any known affiliation to Villa, a spokeswoman for Comer Homes said yesterday, although Luke's long-term involvement in horse racing - as an owner, trainer and stud owner - gives him a shared interest with Villa's chairman, Doug Ellis.

Luke owns several racehorses and a stud farm in Dunboyne, County Meath. The most high-profile event in his training career was the 2001 Epsom Derby, when his horse, Cashel Bay, a 300-1 shot, finished 12th.

The brothers spend much of their time in England. Brian owns a golf course, where he lives, at Forest Hills, Hertfordshire. Luke lives in the same area.

Their spokeswoman declined to comment on their personal wealth and said no statement regarding Villa is expected until later in the week. The brothers' have a proven track record in transforming old institutions, in a literal sense at least. Many of their building projects have involved buying old, run-down buildings and transforming them into luxury apartment and business complexes, mostly in London, with their flats selling for up to £1m each. A 500-home development is under way at a former naval accommodation block in Weymouth, where property prices will boom because the town will be the Olympic sailing centre in 2012.

Luke made headlines in Ireland last week when his daughter, Sandra, 24, who had been receiving treatment in South Africa for alcoholism, made contact after going missing for two months.

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