Wednesday 22 November 2017

Lerner's choice of successor may be his legacy

The bad times at Villa Park may not be over just yet. Photo: PA
The bad times at Villa Park may not be over just yet. Photo: PA

Sam Wallace

It was with a final message on Aston Villa's website that Randy Lerner's ownership of the club ended this week, a quirky farewell which read, it should be said, like a valedictory email from a colourful colleague leaving under a cloud, cc'd to all at an unusually late hour.

"In being sadly more than tone deaf," Lerner wrote, "I'll not weakly risk trying to sound any positive notes." And commendable though it is that the Holte Pub has been restored on his watch as a club banqueting suite, him listing it among his achievements only conspired to make the legacy sound that bit more risible.

The fact that fans can choose from a range of beers in a relaxing environment while marvelling at the Holte's three stylish function suites might soften the blow for some, but on the whole one suspects their preoccupation will be this: Aston Villa are in the Championship.

Yet every owner, no matter how ­unpopular, has one final task before they do what the banners and the phone-ins demand - that is to ensure their ­successor is not likely to make an even worse job of it. One wonders, for instance how often each day David Moores reflects on selling Liverpool in 2007 to Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Although the track record of those two is far removed from their ­compatriot Stan Kroenke, the former Arsenal shareholder Nina Bracewell-Smith has expressed regrets at selling to the American. Likewise, what to make of Terry Brown's sale of West Ham to the Icelandics who almost bankrupted the club?

Lerner has selected the Chinese ­businessman Dr Tony Xia, described by the American as "hugely successful" as well as "passionate about architecture, site design and planning". Indeed, there was considerably more in Lerner's ­farewell about the new owner ­redeveloping Villa Park than there was about him redeveloping the team's defence, midfield and attack.

Yet, the latest disclosure that the Premier League and Football League both have serious doubts about Xia's suitability suggest that whatever mistakes Lerner has made at Villa up until now, he cannot afford for his last one to be his greatest.

The first Chinese takeover of a significant British football club has been long-anticipated, and regarded as a potential game-changer even in these days of fossil-fuel billionaire owners. Xia might yet turn out to be a shrewd and resourceful owner of Villa in the mould of Leicester City's Thai Srivaddhanaprabha family, but at first glance he is not nearly so wealthy.

It's understood that the biggest company in Xia's Recon Group empire appears to be Shanghai-based Lotus Health Group, which made a net loss in of 508.5 million yuan [¤69million] on revenues of 1.7 billion yuan [¤233m] last year. That is compared with a net profit of 23.9 million yuan [¤3.3m] the previous year.

Xia bought the company in March last year, and in December there was surprise in the Chinese business community when it emerged the cousin of President Xi Jinping had been elected to its board of governors. The decision to elect Xi Yinping was reversed a day later.

The new Villa owner also has further investment aside from Lotus, a food additive company. His Recon Group also has interests in small loans, IT and urban design. He studied design and landscape architecture at Harvard.

Historically he has claimed on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter equivalent, that he is a Villa fan - one stunt Lerner conspicuously avoided when he arrived 10 years ago.

Yet in the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes rich list - the Hurun List - Xia is nowhere to be seen. In a country where plenty claim to be billionaires, and there is even less transparency about personal wealth, that is nevertheless confusing given the bold promises made this week that Xia will turn Villa into one of the world's best known clubs in less than 10 years.

My colleague Connor did ask Xia's alma mater Harvard for the new Villa owner's academic record but he has appears to have opted to block all public access to it. Either way, the evidence suggests Xia is not currently at the level where he has limitless funds capable of solving any problem.

If Xia cannot change Villa by sheer virtue of his wealth, and that would be hard to do overnight given the Football League's financial fair play rules, then it will be intriguing to see his strategy. Traditionally the major Chinese investors have not sought to buy European clubs, on the basis that making profit from the game is so difficult with wages spiraling ever upwards.

At the behest of President Xi, who has made football a part of state policy, major business figures have got involved. Jack Ma, billionaire founder of the internet Alibaba Group, has pumped money into the Chinese Super League club Guangzhou Evergrande, current holders of the Asian Champions League, but he has resisted making a big investment in Europe.

Wang Jianlin, one of the country's richest men, bought 20pc of Atletico Madrid for ¤44m last season, which would have barely caused a ripple on the surface of his resources. The CMC Chinese consortium that bought a 13pc stake for £342m in the City Football Group who own Manchester City, were brought in primarily by Sheikh Mansour's executives to give City a way into the Chinese media market.

In all instances investment has been regarded in China as fulfilling the wishes of President Xi and forging bonds with clubs who will allow top Chinese players a chance to develop in an elite environment and eventually benefit the woefully underachieving national team. As for Xia, he is not nearly as wealthy as the aforementioned, but the first to put himself directly in the firing line.

The bad old days of the last five years at Villa will eventually fade, but if Lerner sells to the wrong man, he may find himself in the unhappy position of being caught unwittingly in a whole fresh era of pain.

© Telegraph

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