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Blogservations: My memories of Sir Doug Ellis

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Blogservations: My memories of Sir Doug Ellis

Sir Doug Ellis was capable of both taking you sky high and bringing you down to earth, as I can testify from personal experience.

When Villa visited Berlin and Dresden in the summer of 1992, for instance, he managed to get me a club class seat on a flight for which I didn’t even have a ticket. 

That made amends for the time he offered me a seat on a plane which never left the runway.

But first the flight that actually happened. I was working for the Birmingham Mail at the time and my booking for the outward journey to Berlin had been made only a few days before departure. Although I was able travel out with the team, there was no seat available on the direct return flight from Berlin to Birmingham. 

Instead, I was booked on a plane to Düsseldorf, followed by a connection back to the Midlands.

DougBlog5Doug Ellis was unaware of this, so when we arrived back at Berlin airport at the end of the trip he said: “Right, let’s get you checked in and we’ll go for a coffee.”

My explanation about my alternative plans for the homeward journey didn’t impress him one bit.

“That’s no good,” he said. “Go to the British Airways desk and tell them you want to change your ticket.”

Unfortunately, my budget-priced ticket was not transferable but Doug summoned the airport supervisor, outlined just how much he spent each year with BA, and demanded that a seat be found for me.

Ten minutes later, I was handing over my suitcase with the rest of the tour party, although I noticed I’d been given a brown boarding card while manager Ron Atkinson and the players were clutching blue ones.

Not only was I about to board a flight for which I had no ticket, the chairman had even got me upgraded. But that wasn’t the end of it. 

Having spent a couple of hours enjoying a gourmet meal and sipping champagne with secretary Steve Stride, the chairman even arranged for me to sit in the cockpit for the landing.

DougBlog2That memorable flight from Berlin was a far cry from one Doug Ellis had offered me 18 months earlier. 

On the morning of Villa’s third round FA Cup tie against Wimbledon in January, 1991, I rang Doug about a story I was working on for the Mail, he invited me to accompany the team on a trip to France the following day for a friendly against Auxerre. 

Defender Derek Mountfield had picked up an injury so there was a spare seat on the small plane Villa had chartered. It certainly sounded appealing, although he pointed out that the trip would be cancelled if Villa happened to draw that afternoon. 

In that event, preparations for the mid-week replay at Plough Lane obviously had to take priority.  

Stuart Gray’s late equaliser ensured that Plan B came into operation. Instead of indulging in a brief spot of French Leave, I headed for Wimbledon’s old home the following Wednesday, got drenched walking from the car to the ground, and then watched Villa lose 1-0 to an Alan Cork goal in the last minute of extra-time. 

If Doug was only too happy to help out with my travel arrangements, he was rather less receptive when I once asked if I could take his photograph. 

We were both in Dublin for Paul McGrath’s testimonial dinner and a Euro ‘96 qualifying match between the Republic of Ireland and Austria.

Doug invited me to join him in a taxi he had booked from the Burlington Hotel to Lansdowne Road.  He also had a car park pass, he said, so the taxi driver would be able to drop us off right outside the stadium.

DougHolteWhatever power he may have yielded at Villa Park and the Football Association, it cut no ice in the Emerald Isle that afternoon. About a quarter-of-a-mile from the ground, all roads had been cordoned off and there was no way we were going to be allowed through, car park pass or not.

There was no option but to get out and walk, together with thousands of fans, and it struck me that Doug probably hadn’t done this since he was a lad. To be fair, he seemed perfectly at ease as we took a pleasant stroll on a warm, sunny afternoon, along the tree-lined avenue leading to the stadium. 

But there was another shock in store for him when we arrived. Premier League grounds have Directors Entrances for board members, players and invited guests, but at Lansdowne Road, everyone must first pass through communal turnstiles, whether you are the chairman of Aston Villa or Joe O’Bloggs from Limerick.

I was first to push my way through the gate, and as I had my camera handy, it dawned on me that I might get a snapshot of Doug doing likewise. No chance.

“You can put that away,” he snapped as he emerged from the turnstile. “I’m not having a picture taken of me doing this!”

“But it’s not for the paper,” I pleaded, “just for my private collection.”“I don’t care,” he said. “Take a picture of something else.”

That night, back at the Burlington Hotel, Doug Ellis delivered a heartfelt after-dinner speech about the legendary McGrath, while I sat back and enjoyed the occasion as a guest – a thank-you from Paul for producing the programme for his Villa testimonial game against our old rivals from across the city.

Doug and I had also stayed at the same hotel in 1988, when I travelled with the team on a pre-season tour of Scotland. 

On the first night, following a game against St Johnstone, we stayed at the Railway Hotel in Perth, and the staff had clearly been given no indication about prioritising the allocation of rooms. 

Mine was enormous, so imagine my embarrassment at breakfast the following morning when Doug complained that his had been tiny and cramped. I decided it was best to say nothing.

DougBlog1That was the trip when Doug introduced Graham Taylor to the delights of salmon fishing, the chairman’s favourite sporting pursuit. 

If he was adept at landing a leaping salmon or two, though, he wasn’t nearly as proficient on the golf course.

I must admit I was a touch apprehensive if he could join me on the pitch-and-putt course at the Erskine Bridge Hotel on the banks of the Clyde, particularly when he mentioned that his last round had been in the Bahamas.

I almost froze on the first tee, praying that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself but luckily my shot landed on the green. Ten minutes later, as Doug attempted to get out of the rough and the seventh or eighth attempt and I encouraged him to keep his head down, I felt an enormous sense of relief.

At least he acknowledged his shortcomings of the golf course. When we finished and he headed off for a flight to London for a Football Association meeting, he said: “Thanks for the game – and the lesson!”

It was obviously a slightly different relationship when I became Villa’s programme editor in 2001. 

At around 9.15am on my first morning in the Villa Village, he phoned to welcome me to the club and assured me I would be working with him rather than for him.

But not long afterwards, he passed me in the corridor, he said: “Ah, Rob, I’ve just signed a rather large expenses claim from you!”

There was no hint of accusation in his tone – it was just Doug Ellis’s way of keeping his staff on their toes and letting us know who was the boss!

RIP Sir Doug - you'll be greatly missed, thanks for the memories!

Rob Bishop
By @robbishopavfc 11th October 2018