With it being the off-season, we are short on things to discuss in terms of Aston Villa. Yes, we could look back on our remarkable promotion to the Premier League two weeks ago, or we could discuss the numerous transfer rumours that are swirling around social media or even talk about the confirmed signings of Jota and Anwar El-Ghazi. However, I wanted to share a story with you all. It’s quite a personal story but a nice story at that and discusses my growing up around Aston Villa Football Club and how football can make a young kid so happy.
I’ll take you back to the summer of 2006. Doug Ellis’ reign was coming to an end at Villa Park. There was no money being made available throughout the club and David O’Leary departed the club following an internal investigation surrounding his behaviour towards the end of his reign as Villa manager. Ellis’ 32 year association as owner of Villa ended that summer as American, Randy Lerner took over, much to the delight of Villa fans and brought with him Martin O’Neill as manager. The dream team as they were dubbed by Villa fans. The club had been re-energised. Development to Villa Park took place, the world-class training facility of Bodymoor Heath was built and vast amounts of money was spent on the playing squad by Martin O’Neill as we chased the holy grail of the Champions League.
This was around the time I started to discover the wider Aston Villa community online. I joined a well known Villa fans forum and became a regular poster on there, a forum I still visit nowadays. I was just a 15 year old kid with this love for Aston Villa and who wanted to ignore his GCSE’s and talk about Aston Villa all day every day. Over the years, i developed some brilliant friends from that website, people whom I still call friends to this day. Meeting people like that on the internet back then would have seemed strange whilst nowadays we all interact on social media and it is now the social norm to become friends with other people from the internet. Shortly after Lerner’s takeover at Villa, there was a chap called ‘General Charles C Krulak’who signed up to a handful of Villa forums at that time and had his own Q & A thread where he discussed various issues at the club. Krulak was a retired US Marine General who had served in the Vietnam war and someone who was very close with Randy Lerner and his family. He was appointed ‘Non Executive Director’ at Aston Villa in 2006 and remained the only board member to have lasted all the way through until Lerner sold the club to Dr.Tony Xia in 2016. Krulak‘ s presence on the forum was a welcome change for Villa fans and gave us that link between owner and supporters, unprecedented at that time. Krulak was also one to do a walk around at Villa Park on match day and go and visit supporters in their seats in The Holte End prior to the game and at half-time. It was a nice touch at the time and made the club feel closer than ever to its supporters.
‘The General’ as he was affectionately known got quite friendly with myself and I was just a star struck teenager who couldn’t believe that I was there communicating with an actual director of Aston Villa, let alone a retired US Marine General. In the summer of 2007, I entered a competition through the Premier League and the News of the World newspaper. It was called ‘Your Shot’ and it was aimed at giving something back to one lucky supporter of each club in the Premier League. I had to write in 1000 words why I was the ‘ultimate’ supporter of Aston Villa. Time elapsed and I’d forgot I’d even entered the competition. Then one afternoon when I came home from school, the house phone rang and it was the community officer from Aston Villa telling me I’d won the ‘Your Shot’ competition. I couldn’t believe it. My prize was a day behind the scenes at Aston Villa as they took on Everton in the Premier League in front of the Sky Sports cameras. I later found out that a representative from each Premier League club chose their club’s winner and I found out that it was actually General Krulak who picked me as the ultimate Villa supporter.
So my prize was a day behind the scenes including 2 extra tickets for the game for my family and a place to park in the players car park. I had an incredible day where I was at Villa Park for 10am in the morning, provided with breakfast, walked around and met head of departments at the club including merchandising, ticketing, security, AVTV and meeting the groundsman team. They was discussing with me and showing me what has to happen on a matchday in order for a home game to go ahead, something you don’t think about when you attend a game. Following this, I had my lunch with Tony Morley and AVTV commentator, Jack Woodward. We went off to interview Doug Ellis for a feature which was to air on AVTV the following week. I then took my seat in the Press area with Woodward and Tony Morley as I co-commentated on the game against Everton. Villa ran out 2-0 winners after goals from John Carew and Gabby Agbonlahor (from a Scott Carson assist if I remember correctly). After the game I was led down to the tunnel area at Villa Park and met the likes of Martin O’Neill, Gareth Barry, Gabby Agbonlahor and Martin Laursen. To finish the day off I gave an interview to AVTV to sum up my experiences of the day, an interview I never actually ended up seeing.
The one downside to the day was that I was meant to spend the day with General Krulak, meet the owner, Randy Lerner and his Chief Executive at the time, Richard FitzGerald. None of them were around that day, Lerner and Krulak had ties in America and FitzGerald was already well on the way out of the Villa Park CEO role at this point. I was given a signed shirt which had been passed on from General Krulak and was told he would make it up to me for not being present that day. Something I didn’t really expect to be honest. However, a few months later I was invited to Villa Park for a FA Youth Cup Quarter Final game vs Crewe Alexandra. Me and my Dad went down, had a slap up dinner in the Directors Suite and sat by General Krulak and some of the other directors for the game in the Directors box. I also was able to walk out into the centre circle before the game. Walking out onto the pitch under a floodlit Villa Park, such an amazing experience for a 16 year old who is totally obsessed with everything Aston Villa.
I still hadn’t met Lerner, and never expected to at this point until Villa played Sunderland the following season at Villa Park. Villa were trailing to Roy Keane’s side at half time, 1-0 to a Michael Chopra goal. General Krulak made his way to my seat 5 minutes prior to the half-time whistle and asked me to go with him. He led me through the suites and corridor at Villa Park until we got up to the directors suite and into Randy Lerner’s office where Krulak explained to Lerner who I was. I had a good chat with Randy during half-time and eventually went back to watch the 2nd half with another bag full of claret and blue merchandise. It was a really nice touch at the time from the hierarchy at the football club and meant so much to a 16 year old kid like myself at the time. I was full of it for weeks and months on end. I remember how it made me feel at the time and how much faith I had in the Lerner regime.
I think its such a shame looking back that the Lerner era ended the way it did. Randy deeply cared for Aston Villa, he lost a lot of money trying to break that top four and was badly let down by certain people over time. He also put a lot of faith in various people whom he shouldn’t have and at times was stubborn in that he didn’t want to listen to others people’s advice. In the end, Randy made some very poor decisions which ultimately define his spell as custodian of Aston Villa. However, I have no doubt he is a good man, who had our club in his heart. Him and his regime, especially General Krulak helped a 15/16 year old kid live his dream and just extended that love for the club even further, which still exists today. For that, I’ll always remain grateful to them for what they did. Certainly a story I won’t forget in a hurry!