Randy Lerner: The View From Across the Pond (Will We Ever Love Him That Much?)




Aston Villa, Randy Lerner's other athletic baby, lost in the finals of the Carling Cup in February against Manchester United, spoiling a chance for Randy to add his first piece of hardware as a pro owner. The Browns, further from that goal, to be sure, now have Holmgren at the helm and a suitcase full of draft picks for this week's draft.

It's as good a time as any to check in with an actual Aston Villa fan and a reporter familiar with the team and delve a into the schism in perception of Mr. Lerner between us Browns-lovin' Yanks and the Villa-lovin' Brits.

There's a clear favorite sports owner in Cleveland — Dan Gilbert. You couldn't find a single soul who wouldn't pick Gilbert at the top. Finishing the rankings, Lerner would fall second, not because any fan would want to give him credit, but because Larry Dolan is so miserable and cheap that he has to be dead last on the list. If there were a category for "Would beat him with a tire iron," then most fans would probably pick that option.

So Lerner falls in the middle by default, for now, and about the only nice thing a fan might say about Randy is that he has a lot of money and he doesn't mind spending it. Beside that minor compliment, there's a whole busload of hate directed at Lerner.

I think, fundamentally, it stems from three things:

First, and this is the most obvious: He's been the one constant in all the losing. All the GMs and coaches were hired by him, so he's on the hook for their failures.

Second: Randy inherited the team. He didn't buy it. Even if he acts like a good steward of football in Cleveland, everyone's going to still think that this is not what he wanted. He'd rather be off in England with Villa. Managing Berea isn't a priority.

Third: Randy is aloof. No media, no interviews, no recorded sounds, no recorded video. I think he actually takes perverse pride in his reputation as a recluse. He doesn't intervene into the dealings of the Browns, he doesn't comment about games or stories or news items in the newspapers. While Browns fans don't want a Jerry Jones at the helm of the team, they probably want someone who is a little more vocal, accountable, and public in their support of the franchise.

The second and third parts are, I think, a large part of the reason that Aston Villa fans fawn over Lerner. He was among a small wave of Yanks to buy soccer clubs, and virtually the only one who hasn't faced a near mutiny over how he's run his team. He opens his checkbook, writes lots and lots and lots of big checks for transfers, took pride in the tradition of Villa, stays out of the way and lets Martin O'Neill run the club. He's the unobtrusive Yank with the deep pockets. Why would they hate the guy?

I wanted to know for sure, however, so I reached out to two guys who would know. First, an actual Aston Villa fan and blogger. Damian runs The Villa Blog and was kind enough to answer some questions and provide his perspective on good ol' Randy. Second, Matthew Slater, a sports reporter for BBC.

So, fellas, what's with the love?

From Matthew Slater:

1) The EPL is not like the NFL at all. There are no rules! Money talks and you can buy success....it's just very, very expensive so British fans like their owners to be rich, generous and optimistic. So far Randy has been all three.

2) He bought Villa at the right time. For most of previous decade, the team were bumping along, having fallen way off the pace of the top teams. But things were slowly improving. And then something important happened. Weeks before Randy bought the club it appointed a new manager (bit like an NFL head coach but with general manager-like powers too). This guy, Martin O'Neil, had been a success everywhere he had ever been and was a no-brainer as an appointment...in some ways Villa were lucky to get him and it is pretty clear Randy had little to do with this (although his chequebook's arrival might have influenced O'Neil to sign up). Lerner's money has enabled O'Neil to bring in new players and hold on to the good ones they already had. O'Neil has also bought mainly young British players, endearing the club to the neutral fan.

3) His PR moves have been surprisingly smart (given what you all tell me about his actions back in Cleveland). To Villa fans it doesn't matter much that he says nothing, their last boss never shut up and he was hopeless. They like Randy because he appears to "get" the traditions of the club. He paid for a new statue of a famous old player at the stadium and he then refurbished a local pub popular with the fans. Things like these go down well with British fans. He also passed up the opportunity to earn money from a shirt sponsor (all Brit clubs have sponsors on their kits) by giving it to a local charity. Another nice touch.

4) He's not the Glazers or Tom Hicks/George Gillet (who own Liverpool). The antipathy towards these American owners from their own fans has reflected well on Lerner....he looks good just because he's so much better than they are.

So he's doing pretty well over here but as a word of caution I should point out just how fickle British football fans are. If things start to go wrong at Villa the Randy honeymoon will end.

And from Damian:

Football is basically about winning things and with 91 other teams taking it seriously, to get to the final is a massive achievement. Winning it would have been the biggest thing to happen to our club, in terms of silverware, since we last won the same tournament in 1996 and before that in 1994. Aston Villa are a big club and big clubs need silverware.

Winning the League Cup would have been very good for Lerner. Not winning it puts extra pressure on the team to do well in the FA Cup and/or League. Going backwards in the league is not seen as a positive thing and last season we finished in the same place as the season before (6th). We need to go forward this season .... or win silverware. It is an important season for Lerner - not a critical one, but an important one. Randy had a great advantage when he bought Aston Villa and that was the previous owner; Doug Ellis.

Basically he was hated, so Lerner didn't have to do much to get the supporters on side. In fact, he had to do very little and well, he hasn't done anything that ´good business practice´ didn't dictate.

The pub was a building in ruins and hadn't been open for years and wasn't worth much on the books. He did it up and opened it and now the value of the pub is worth a lot more and it increases the worth of the club. It was just good business and he now has a new revenue stream.

The supporters love him because he is easy to love. Any owner could have come in and done as well considering he only paid £63mn for the club. Compare that to the £800mn the Glazer family paid for Manchester United and the £220mn Gillet and Hicks paid for Liverpool.

Basically, Lerner is still in his honeymoon period. He has a right hand man, Charles Krulak, referred to as The General here, who joined a few forums and started talking of a five year plan to get Champions League football - in essence finishing in the top four - and people bought into it as realistic and honest and it is, but we later found out that there is no five year plan, but that was a good couple of years later and by then, everyone was sold on Lerner.

We ultimately like Lerner because he has done everything he had to do to win people over. He clearly listened and acted on the main concerns of fans and for that he must be applauded, but there will come a time when a free scarf or a free bus ride to an away game isn´t going to be enough - I mean, lots of clubs do this and have done it before us and we like it, it is great, but football is about winning things and we want to win things.

Follow me on Twitter: @vincethepolack.

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