The former Villa chairman, who served the club for over three decades, passed away last week at the age of 94. It is fair to say that ‘Deadly Doug’ has left behind a legacy in B6 that no-one before him or after him will match again.
Leading up to the steps of the Holte End…
Herbert Douglas Ellis was born on January 3, 1924, in Hooton, Cheshire by a widowed mother. During his early years, the brash youngster would work as a Railway Clerk and then, later on, serve in World War II for the Royal Navy. It was during that period that Sir Doug began thinking of business ideas; an idea that would transcend his life and result in him becoming a titan in Aston Villa’s rich history. By the age of 40, his package holiday business had turned him into a millionaire – the road to Villa Park had begun. The-now confident entrepreneur ended up serving two spells at Villa – starting in 1968-75, & then his most prominent reign, 1982-2006.
Ellis’ first tenure saw him make the short journey from the boardrooms of Small Heath to the gates of the Holte End. At that time, Villa were struggling financially and sitting in England’s Second Division. His first appointment, Tommy Docherty, would join a list of 13 men that would face the tenacious and fierce nature of the soon-to-be-named ‘Deadly Doug’.
Despite the drama-filled nature of his two spells, it is perhaps what transpired during his absence that will live long in the dreams of Villa supporters and forever in Sir Doug’s nightmares. The Midlands outfit won the league title in 1981, under the charismatic and invigorating Ron Saunders – who Ellis appointed prior to his ejection. The season after, they lifted the European Cup, and later on the Super Cup, under the stewardship of Tony Barton. Months before the final in Rotterdam, Saunders had resigned from his position and opted to take the controversial road to St Andrew’s. Years later, Sir Doug had admitted that it had pained him not to be a part of a period that is still talked about at Villa Park today. Although proud of Villa’s greatest ever achievement, the hurt of not being at the helm is something Sir Doug has, sadly, taken to his grave.
Marching up the steps in his own way
There is a small whisper that Brian Clough once expressed his aspirations to manage Aston Villa, only for Sir Doug to implicitly inform the two-time European Cup winner that ‘there is only one man in charge’ at Villa Park. That egotistical attitude from the club’s chairman is what rubbed people up the wrong way. Five years after that famous night against German giants Bayern Munich, Villa suffered relegation to the second tier of English football. The painful dismantling of that great side and Ellis’ short fuse is something which many hardcore supporters will never forgive him for. Villa have never reached those heights again and many express their anger and frustration towards ‘the only man in charge’.
Two runners-up medals and two League Cup’s awaited Villa upon their return to the top-flight. But, as always, managers from Graham Turner to his longest-serving manager in John Gregory, came and went in typical ‘Deadly Doug’ style. The former sacked in his back garden in 1986. You can now see why England great Jimmy Greaves gave him his ‘deadly’ nickname. As the fast-growing money machine era of the Premier League began in 1992, Sir Doug ensured the Villa Park ship would remain as steady as ever. There were many occasions when the club missed out on major signings from Andy Cole to Alan Shearer. This resulted in Gregory once stating that ‘Deadly Doug’s’ greatest strength is ‘looking after the pennies’. However, he did break the club’s transfer record on two occasions, including the capture of soon-to-be fan favourite Juan Pablo Angel. The Columbian forward moved to the Midlands in 2001 from River Plate for a fee of £9.5 million. Gregory left soon after and you could argue that Ellis’ road to departure had also just begun.
Being a visionary on top of the steps
There were a lot of firsts under the tough stewardship of Sir Doug, some controversial, others game-changing and historic. Villa were the first club in 1990/91 to appoint a non-British or Irish manager in England’s top-flight. The man to enter the record books was Jozef Venglos. Then part of the now-separated Czechoslovakian state. Little did people know that decades later the soon-to-be overhyped Premier League would result in British or Irish coaches hardly being recognised in England’s top-flight. Send your thanks and appreciation to the holders of the multi-billion bank account, Sky!
Nonetheless, a few years after the Premier League’s introduction, Sir Doug decided to name a stand in Villa Park after himself. A stubborn and arrogant move that has seen some Villa fans refuse to step foot into that stand again.
But it was during the early noughties and the signing of Angel that changed the face of English football as we know it today. The Columbian signed on the dotted line when Gregory was in charge of the club before the re-introduction of the late Graham Taylor in 2002, changed everything. The former England manager, who was the only man to be hired twice by ‘Deadly Doug’, queried about the welfare of foreign players. Taylor recommended that the club appoints a player liaison officer to help overseas players who are struggling to settle into a new culture. The newly-created role was filed by Lorna McClelland. She went onto to serve the club for 14 years, but Taylor, Sir Doug, and Lorna paved the way for what is now the norm in English football.
Life after Sir Doug
In 2006, after serving decades of his life to Aston Villa, Sir Doug reluctantly handed over the keys of Villa Park to American Billionaire Randy Lerner. That change of ownership would prove to be catastrophic of epic magnitudes. At first, everything was rosy in the garden under the management of Northern Irishman Martin O’Neill. Lerner backed the counter-attacking coach, who delivered three consecutive top-six finishes for the Midlands outfit.
However, soon after MON’s departure in 2010, Villa spiralled out of control and to depths they have still struggled to swim out of today. Lerner failed to show even an ounce of love or dedication that Sir Doug would express in a heartbeat. There were times when the American hardly turned up to Villa Park while his predecessor didn’t miss a game despite his frail state. You could question Sir Doug’s actions, but his love and dedication to Villa matched only those in the stands. Only a few months ago, the former European Champions suffered near financial capitulation. The Championship side were weeks away from entering administration. If Sir Doug was in charge, they would never have been in that position. Saying that, there is a tinge of emotion in Villa’s recent appointment of Dean Smith. The boyhood Villa fan was named as the club’s new manager 24 hours before they announced the passing of Sir Doug. Out of all the men to have stepped foot in the dugout since Sir Doug handed over the reins, Smith is without a doubt the one he would have approved of the most.
If truth be told, Villa need a figure like the late Sir Doug today. No nonsense, straight-talking, and someone who would show dedication from the boardroom that the fans would approve of. RIP.