If you ask the question of why the best-supported club in Englands second biggest city have managed just one English championship in the last one hundred and two years, there is a chance that some – if not many – Aston Villa supporters will have a ready-made answer: Doug Ellis. Ellis was one of the few English football club owners to survive what was a near-extinction level event for others of his generation, the formation of the Premier League and the subsequent influx of foreign capital into the top division of the game, and when he left the club in 2006, it was on his own terms and with a very healthy pay-off. Ellis was, however, considered by many of the clubs supporters to be one of the key reasons why Aston Villa took so long to recover their poise throughout the 1970s and failed to build on their surprise double of a Football League Championship and European Cup win at the beginning of the following decade.

His thiriftiness when it came to paying to bring players into the club, they would argue, was only matched by ease with which he would bring the axe down on managerial careers – with good reason was he one of the few football club chairmen to earn an instantly recognisable nickname, “Deadly Doug”, a title given to him by Jimmy Greaves – and the haste with which he ensured that he was paid for his work at the club. It was reported that when FA finally allowed the directors of football clubs to take a salary for their work, Ellis was the first do so, and he cashed in again twice, when the club floated itself in the largely disastrous rush towards establishing themselves as PLCs in the warm of after glow of Euro 96 and again when he finally sold his controlling stake in the club to Randy Lerner in 2006. Although now eighty-eight years of age, he is still occasionally called upon to offer his opinion on goings-on at Villa Park.

The multi-million pound future of Aston Villa FC couldn’t have felt much further away than it did in 1968, though,when he first arrived at the club. Villa had been relegated from the First Division for the first time since 1936 a year earlier and had struggled to adapt to life at a lower level. Ellis was already a wealthy man, having made his first million pounds by the age of forty selling package holidays to Spain. During his first spell at the club, however, Villa failed to flourish and in 1970 they were relegated again, to the Third Division, and spent two years there before getting promoted back again. The club returned to the top division for the first time in eight years in 1975, but Ellis was replaced as chairman and finally removed from the board of directors of the club in 1979. He promised at that time that he would be back and did return to the club three years later, but a lot had changed by then.

The Aston Villa Chairman from 1975 until 1982 was Sir William Dugdale, a Conservative councillor and, by chance, an uncle to our current Prime Minister, David Cameron. It was he who persuaded Ellis that Ron Saunders was the ideal choice as the clubs new manager. Villa were promoted at the end of the following season, but Saunders and Ellis never saw eye to eye. However, Saunders rapidly became a favourite with the supporters. At the end of his first season in charge of the club he got them back to the First Division for the first time in eight years and won the League Cup. Two years later came a second League Cup and, with Ellis having left the club in 1979, then followed one of the more remarkable achievements of any First Division season when Saunders led the club to the First Division championship in 1981, beating off the challenge of Ipswich Town with only fourteen players used all season. Saunders left the club in January of the following year following a disagreement with the board over his contract.

With Saunders’ replacement Tony Barton in charge, greater success was still to come for Villa when they beat Bayern Munich in Rotterdam to become the champions of Europe in 1982, but this was also in a sense the end of an era at Villa Park. Ellis came good on promise and returned to the club shortly after that night in Rotterdam and this time Dugdale was out and Ellis was back, this time not only as chairman but also as majority share-holder. Five years after lifting the famous jug-cared trophy in Rotterdam, however, Aston Villa were relegated. Some feel that the teams of 1981 and 1982 were broken up and sold off without adequate replacements being brought in to replace them, whilst others feel that poor managerial choices – Barton won the European Cup with what wad effectively Saunders’ team and was sacked early in 1984 – may have been part of the reason for this sudden and sharp decline.

Others, however, could point to the sharp decline in attendance figures – average home crowds at Villa Park dropped from 34,117 during the 1980/81 season to just 15,237 during the 1985/86 season – and a need to keep the books level at the club during a very difficult time for both Aston Villa FC and football in England in a more general sense. Ground improvements carried out in 1976 – while Ellis was not at the club – had a whiff of corruption about it. A report carried out into the rebuilding of the North Stand found that £700,000 worth of work said to have been carried out couldn’t be accounted for and the construction of this stand was so badly managed that it prompted a police investigation, led to the departure from the club of two directors and the liquidation of the company overseeing it – a company called Sports Ground Consultants – and left the club heavily in debt at possibly the worst time in the history of English football for a club to find itself heavily in debt.

Aston Villas time in the Second Division was this time short-lived and by middle of the 1990s the club was well established in the Premier League and won the League Cup twice again, in 1994 and 1996. It was against this background that the club floated on the stock market in 1997. The stock market flotations of the late 1990s were arguably the Premier Leagues first significant step into the world of pure, free market capitalism. The clubs prospectus gushed on the subject of “High quality revenue streams and tightly controlled cost bases”, and the club was valued at a scarcely credible £126m, with each share costing £11. Ellis himself sold a number of his shares – which he had paid £500,000 in the early 1980s – for £4m, but retained one-third of the total shares and chairmanship of the club. By August of 2004, those shares were trading at £2.96 – just 27% of their value seven years earlier. Football, it turned out, was not quite the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for investors that some had predicted in the warm afterglow of Euro 96. As Michael Stirling of the London based law firm would later state:

With a lot of the club listings it was only the supporters who initially bought the shares, in order to feel they were backing their team – but it hasn’t made fortunes for any of them.

At least, some might consider, the flotation gave the club the opportunity to further renovate Villa Park. Ellis had been involved in improvements to the ground in 1969, when it had been in a state of disrepair, but there had been controversy in 1994 when the Witton Lane Stand was knocked down and replaced with a new stand called… The Doug Ellis Stand. Furthermore, Ellis, who ordinarily ran every aspect of the club with an iron fist, claimed that the other directors of the club had decided this and sprung it upon him at a gala dinner to celebrate his seventieth birthday without his knowledge. It was a story that many of the clubs supporters simply didn’t believe. Post-flotation, however, the stand that needed rebuilding was a special one – The Trinity Road Stand.

In his 1985 edition of The Football Grounds of Great Britain, stadium guru Simon Inglis stated that “The Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park has more pomp and style than any other ground.” Built under the supervision of Archibald Leitch in 1922, with its vast red-brick entrance and distinctive gable, there were many of the opinion that this stand should have received listed building status, but this never happened. Surely, though, Aston Villa – a club that was a founder member of the Football League, a club that is as steeped as any in the history of English football – would treat it with sensitivity, wouldn’t they? The result was this demolition and this replacement. Inglis stated that “the landscape of English football will never be the same.” Red brick was replaced by glass and steel. The old replaced with the new. And while few would argue that the new Trinity Road Stand wasn’t more spacious and didn’t offer better views, there was a sense of loss with the demolition of the old Trinity Road Stand that was keenly felt by many.

Ellis, meanwhile, was no longer a young man. In 2004 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and the following year he had to undergo a heart bypass operation. In August 2006, he finally left Villa Park for good, having sold his remaining shares in the club to Randy Lerner. One of the last of English footballs genuine old guard had left for good. Yet Deadly Doug can still inspire the occasional headline or two. His knighthood at the end of 2011 was ostensibly for his charity work, but some wondered whether this decision may have had anything to do with the £90,000 that he had donated to the Conservative party over the previous two years, and as recently as April of this year he was back in the spotlight, stating publicly that it would be “foolish” for the club to get rid of the deeply unpopular Alex McLeish. It’s difficult to look a such a statement without wondering whether he made it with the deliberate intention of winding up those that repeatedly called for his head.

He kept his club on the straight and narrow, but made a considerable amount of money from himself. He was one of the last of the old-school football club owners, but managed to hang on longer than anybody of his contemporaries. He was often accused of a lack of ambition, but he rebuilt Villa Park into a modern stadium and was there at the time that it voted to cast aside the league of which it had been an original member in 1888 in favour of the Premier Leagues whole new ball game.  He drove a Rolls Royce but, it is said, once said to former Villa manager John Gregory that “all hotel rooms look the same when you’re asleep in them.” Like so many of his generation of football clubs, Herbert Douglas Ellis was a mass of contradictions, a man with thick enough skin to endure many years of “Ellis Out” campaigns and who finally walked away on his own terms, when the time was right for him. Aston Villa supporters that have endured a couple of years of stagnation under Lerners ownership may find themselves pining for the days of Ellis, and even now opinions amongst supporters on the subject of his time at Villa Park seem sharply divided. You can’t help but feel that old Deadly Doug might rather like that. 

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