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Slow Lerner needs PR lesson.

Byline: PAT MURPHY

I see the publicity-shy Randy Lerner has broken his silence again, talking about his gift of pounds 5 million to the National Portrait Gallery.

One of the papers the Aston Villa chairman talked to last week was The Post, the other was an up-market national newspaper.

Both organs should be commended for their joint scoop and The Post's Arts Editor, Terry Grimley, also teased out some interesting observations from Lerner about his bedding-in period around Birmingham.

I was intrigued by his confirmation that Martin O'Neill has the final say on transfers at Villa Park. "It really is run out of the manager's office," he said. "We talk constantly but the simple truth is that Martin runs that part of the business."

How endearingly modest of Mr Lerner. How unlike the regime of Doug Ellis, who surveyed Villa's transfer activity with the gimlet eye of Arkwright in the classic TV series Open All Hours.

Television! I've mentioned the elephant in Randy Lerner's room. Mr Lerner eyes television with the same wariness with which Dracula views garlic.

Local television colleagues would have loved to feature Mr Lerner's commendably altruistic gesture to the arts last week. But, as usual, he was off-limits to them.

Radio, as well. Mr Lerner views all the TV and radio outlets with the prissiness of Victorian spinsters at the sight of an exposed piano leg.

He simply doesn't want to know about us. Even the club's in-house station, Villa News, awaits its first interview with the Greta Garbo of Villa. And the matchday programme is a Lerner-free zone. Compare the Ellis era . . .

And yet, I hear he's very good value when the press sit down with him, as he did twice last year. On his own terms, without anyone dragooning him towards the reporters.

No-one at Villa forces Mr Lerner to do anything he doesn't want. That is the way with billionaires.

Sorry to mention the grubby subject of moolah, but an unabashed capitalist like Randy Lerner will know that exclusive broadcasting deals with BBC TV, Sky Sports, BBC Radio Five Live and the Beeb's local station, Radio WM, will bring in around pounds 30 million to Aston Villa this season.

That's a minimum informed estimate from various well-placed sources and that sum will rise markedly next season when the new broadcasting deal kicks in. That's pounds 30 million more than the press puts into Villa each season.

Mr Lerner justified his stance to the club's press office by saying he's "not comfortable with microphones". Did he lead such a sheltered life, reading law at Cambridge University, practising law in New York - that demure, humdrum city - running the huge credit firm MBNA and owning the National Football League's Cleveland Browns, as well as Villa? Is the presence of a few microphones guaranteed to faze someone brought up in a land where the media is part of the social fabric?

I understand the truth about Mr Lerner's attitude is more to do with his dismay at a local radio station's methods in reporting a road accident involving one of his family. It appears his family were inexcusably treated and he turned against TV and radio after that.

But that was in Cleveland and nothing at all to do with our trade over here. And does Mr Lerner believe that the sole media group he talks to has never turned over a public figure?

I would have thought that someone of his stature in the business and sporting world has done remarkably well to get to his mid-forties and be let down only once by the media.

But there's a broader point to this than curled lips from the TV and radio wallahs and yawns of indifference from many Villa fans. The newly-minted club under Randy Lerner makes much of its aim to broaden its' worldwide appeal, to cement its' brand image, getting replica kits worn from San Francisco to Mumbai to Tokyo.

Well, one way to do that is getting the club's boss to use the electronic media. Interviews with Sky Sports News, BBC World and BBC Radio's World Service would be more effective in that respect than with local papers. I would happily furnish Mr Lerner with the audience figures for those worldwide outlets on the Beeb.

And surely some Villa fans would like to hear from their chairman now and then as the team aims for Europe next season, even those once fed up of the Ellis ego?

It shouldn't all revolve around the undoubted eloquence of the manager in flying the flag worldwide for Villa.

Many will be delighted that the TV and radio bods are hacked off with Mr Lerner's intransigence. We can be self-important and precious while the press corps won't be rallying to our banner. It's not in their interests to do so, even though I managed to get the Midland Soccer Writers' Committee to send observations to the club. The response was like farting against thunder . . .

The club says that our exclusive contracts do not commit the chairman to engage with the supporters via our cameras and microphones. The contracts extend only to matchday coverage. But surely there's some sort of moral obligation on the leader to step into our tent for an undemanding exchange on the same biannual basis as the journos?

It's true that General Charles C Krulak, a non-executive director at Villa with a hotline to the chairman, has regular online dialogue with the fans. But his observations are idiosyncratic and - especially in his remarks over Birmingham City's ticket policy for the Second City derby at St Andrew's - he does sound a shade intemperate. And he's not Randy Lerner.

So it rumbles on, fully 16 months since Villa fans ought to have heard from their new chairman, heralding a new dawn at the departure of Doug Ellis.

Elsewhere in the Premier League, the reputation of American owners plummets while Randy Lerner continues to spurn the chance to demonstrate to a wider audience that he's as regular a guy as his associates say and as several initiatives - like the restoration of the Holte Hotel outside Villa Park - suggest.

He may be able to read a balance sheet but he needs a refresher in public relations.

www.birminghampost.net/murphy

CAPTION(S):

Picture, CHRIS ISON/PRESS; C hairman Randy Lerner (left), the Greta Garbo of Villa Park, has 'some sort of moral obligation' to talk to television and radio reporters, while (above) Sir Alex Ferguson demonstrates his mastery of sign language
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 29, 2008
Words:1083
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