Exclusive interview with chairman Randy Lerner
The entrance, as always, is low-key but the depth of feeling never diminishes. Randy Lerner arrives at Villa Park with an easy smile as he and Paul Faulkner stride in tandem towards the home dressing room. Along the corridor, the images on the wall portray proud men from the turn of the 20th century congregated around the Football League trophy, more familiar faces displaying the European Cup and also League Cup-winning teams. With the players warming up on the pitch, he joins Alex McLeish inside the dressing room and, along with the chief executive, they discuss the game.
It will turn out to be open and compelling. Norwich take the lead from an Anthony Pilkington free kick before Darren Bent and Gabby Agbonlahor combine to deadly effect in front of the visitors' goal, Bent scoring twice (set up twice by Agbonlahor) and the academy graduate and Holte End favourite scoring, too. Approaching the stadium, the chairman explained to a group of supporters by the players' entrance that his eldest son is attending a new school in the American Midwest and he has therefore not been able to travel to games as frequently as in previous seasons. Perhaps his enjoyment of the game is heightened by this reality. Certainly, his sense of relief and excitement while sat in the stands with family and friends is palpable. "How did I feel? Terrified," he says, half-jokingly. "I didn't want to bring bad luck and, obviously, I'm thrilled that we played well today. As a former player and a manager, Alex understands my situation, I know, as do many in this game. But part of my job is to be visible - even while remaining, some might suggest, quiet to silent! - and I've not done that well enough. I know that to some extent and I've been at this long enough for people to know that I'm committed and yet at the same time, given the craziness we've faced over the last 18 months, I should have done more. Certainly I could have been more communicative.
"I get it and I understand but my focus is on the nuts and bolts of operating the club and in reality this takes place in the week. Most of my visits in the last two, three years have been digging in with senior management and figuring out how to think through decisions.
"This is part of the deeper, personal philosophy which is to make sure the hidden parts are built well. I understand this does not get the same applause and it's easy to say 'Yes, the enthusiasm is there,' but the criteria have shifted from year one to year five, six, seven and examples of enthusiasm may be less conspicuous."
The past 18 months have been tumultuous for Villa fans and also for the Villa board. The Villa chairman and his chief executive have had to deal with losing two managers and their staffs. Neither exit had been anticipated and on both occasions they were tested. Towards the end of 2010 the Villa squad was in flux. The club and Manchester City had gone through a protracted back and forth dealing over whether James Milner would leave in the summer transfer window and heading into the January window they both felt an almost desperate need for change. For points, too.
"We knew the style of play was changing under the new manager [Gerard Houllier] and that he hadn't really had time to shape the dressing room as he was following Kevin [MacDonald, caretaker manager as the 2010-11 season began], who also had to operate under barely reasonable circumstances," the chairman acknowledges. "What's more, I had been very hard on our guys on the business side regarding our wage bill to revenue level and under those circumstances what Paul and Robin [Russell, Villa's chief financial officer] pulled off in January was particularly impressive. Who knows how Darren would have been valued had Paul waited until later in the window to get his transfer from Sunderland done?"
Bent's nine goals over the second half of the season would prove critical and, with very strong performances in the last two games of the season in particular, Villa were able to finish ninth in the Barclays Premier League.
"But just as it seemed time, finally, to take a deep breath and regroup a little, we needed to focus hard on the totally unforeseen reality that we would be back out looking for another manager, as well as facing the regrettable - and yet, to be fair, expected - departure of Ashley Young to Manchester United and the much less anticipated move to Liverpool of Stewart Downing," the chairman elaborates. "That was a difficult and uncomfortable period. Paul and I felt that, above all, the club needed stability. We needed a manager who would understand Villa and could bring credibility and experience to the dressing room and had chemistry with us and trust in our approach. We researched and debated and discussed probably two dozen odd managers from all over until we came to feel that, despite Alex's last post, he met the criteria. Not only is he affable and optimistic, well-liked and certainly well-respected among peers and players alike, but he fit our plan. He fit our feeling that a modern manager needs to balance the hysterical urgency to win and win quickly with the equally crucial need to not squander the work of our academy."
Did the reaction of some supporters make him question this decision at any stage? "It certainly raised the stakes but, if we are right in terms of the fundamentals, then over time Alex will do as he's always done and that is make Villa better," he insists. "What Paul and I knew was that he had the right ingredients. With some good luck, and his trademark hard work and commitment, we felt our chances would be good. We felt his strengths simply outweighed any concerns. When you spend time with Alex, a lot of the sensitivities go away very quickly. Time with Alex is not only engaging, it is compelling. He's pure football. That, in the end, is what you want.
"Sir Alex Ferguson wrote to me after the appointment, a proper letter, talking about his feelings about Alex. It was something you don't easily forget and it's now in a safe deposit box. Given what Sir Alex Ferguson means to the game of football, I don't think you could get many things that you would be more proud of, or reflect better on Alex McLeish."
The manager has led Villa to a sound and solid start to the season and, for the chairman, the way ahead is to build on the strong foundations that are in place. "Sometimes I think you need to do less and allow the pieces you've put in place to settle in and gel. You know, I'm not always sure of what's next but I'd love to come up with a plan for the North Stand and yet I'd also like to strengthen the squad. Our goal, originally, was to invest across three areas: the ground, the squad and Bodymoor Heath. We felt that if that were done carefully we could grow Villa in terms of sustainable revenue and that would give us some flexibility moving forward. I think Alex feels that we have some promising young players coming through and yet we also know that on this level there is no substitute for experience. Taken together, I'd say that we are focused on running Villa well and fighting to be in position, ultimately, to get back into Europe. If we can get that to happen, I'd expect that more will follow."