Thoughts and issues regarding the past and present of a great football club by "The Chronicler".

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Chronicler's Chronicle - Part 5

Part 5: The End of The Fight (I hope)

The return to the Employment Tribunal on 28th March produced a reasonably satisfactory financial award (and, after costs, just enough to cover the costs of treatment for my wife's severe arthritis), and I wish to sincerely thank the panel of the Tribunal for their enormous dedication in assessing the merits of the case, and to my solicitor (David Cooper) who was the epitome of wisdom and calmness in the whole matter.

However, what I am so very sad about is that the matter did not have to go to the Tribunal to start with. In the process of formally appealing against dismissal there is firstly the appeal to the employer itself, and then via ACAS and also by individual (non-formal) methods. All methods were used by me in attempting to stop it getting as far as it did.

What is particularly very sad is that it was acknowledged that my work at Aston Villa was very much appreciated and yet the club chose to throw me out over a matter that was a complete one-off and which I had got involved in purely in self-defence as an independent author, not as an employee of the club.

There were some things I stated on the H & V thread which (reflecting upon it in the cold light of day) were probably not best said (and I admitted as such at the Tribunal), but, even so, we're all Villa supporters and it's part of the whole issue of being such that we upset one another from time to time. We all get emotional about things we care about and, indeed, the whole matter occurred after going through a long period of personal stress.

Certainly, no harm was meant to individuals nor to the club on my part. It was a "storm in a teacup" as so many people have described it.

Elsewhere (a month ago), I have appealed to the club to work in partnership on historical matters and for this matter to be left behind us. And I stand by that. The award at the Tribunal on Monday (and its settlement) should be the end of it all.

I (of course) wish the club well. It has the best history, and my family have followed its fortunes for 120 years.

Up the Villa!!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Chronicler's Chronicle - Part 4

Part 4: My Time as Club Historian

Everyone said that I had been handed a ‘Dream Job’. Well, there are two main kinds of dreams, and, unfortunately, this one somehow became something approaching a nightmare. After the progress made in 2007, it all turned (unnecessarily) sour.

Despite the not miniscule health hiccoughs encountered in the previous few months, my entry to the job was bouyed by enthusiasm to get finished the job that had been left over from the previous December, and also to promote the history of one of the greatest clubs in the country.

My enthusiasm was also due to the fact that I had been led to believe that the club was very happy to take me on board and not least (I had been told) to get my involvement in the development of the anticipated museum.

It was something of a surprise on first arriving, therefore, when Lee Preece (to whom I was reporting as my line manager), having given me a friendly “welcome”, said to me in deep seriousness: “I trust you will not cross me in your time here?” This utterance immediately seemed to draw a line between my previous state of consultant and my new position as employee.

I did not ask him what he meant by that, but simply reassured him his fears were not grounded; I was there to do a job and was not there for one-upmanship. But it did seem to infer that perhaps Lee had put his head on the block by arguing the case for recruiting me. That the senior management did not seem interested in my arrival (yet “heritage” is a brand value) further surprised me a little – even some colleagues thought that Randy Lerner should have seen me with regard to discussing his plans for the heritage.

Indeed, the very singular experience I had of meeting Randy Lerner was but an accidental and passing situation. A few weeks after my arrival, I happened to bump into Paul Faulkner and Randy as they were coming out of the lift in the North Stand. Paul muttered something into Randy’s ear, there was a brief handshake, and they were off. Even though they did not seem to be in a particular hurry, hardly a word had been spoken and there was no follow up to ‘the meeting’.

From these simple scenarios, it might be seen that matters were not as perhaps as ‘good’ as they should have been, despite pretences that had indicated otherwise. Further, there were a number of significant issues which had not been made clear when I joined the club and which led to misunderstandings and disagreement and, indeed, to my enforced and ill-conceived exit.

What constituted those issues I had intended to go into in detail in further chapters, but it would not have been elevating reading. And, following the occurrence of the huge tragedy in Japan, I am thinking that in the total scheme of things, “what’s the point?”; I hope that it does not become necessary to go into all that. Some, as it is, would accuse me of trying to win cheap brownie points on this matter, but that has been far from my real purpose.

The overriding matter is that the facts relating to my dismissal were heard by the Employment Tribunal and they came to an unequivocal conclusion in my favour. Not only that, but their findings were detailed and clear - there was no mere 'technical issue'. On Ian Robathan’s blog site I made a statement about the case and invited Villa to work in partnership relating to future historical projects. Instead, the club simply stated in the Birmingham Mail (in complete denial of the Tribunal’s decision and also my suggestion), "We stand by our decision to dismiss Mr Lerwill."

It could be that the club’s senior management may have had second thoughts and asked themselves what history has to do with roping in enough cash to pay the club’s bills. Perhaps also my vocal enthusiasm became a bit much for those not motivated by 60 years of support sometimes warmed only by a cup of Bovril. Perhaps there are other factions that have put their oar in.

The dismissal matter still has to go back to the tribunal for a financial award in my favour, and this will take place on the 28th. However, this has been a costly process for me and it remains to be seen how much nett benefit will come my way. In any case, the trauma to my wife and to myself as a result of this happening cannot be replaced by money.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Chronicler's Chronicle - Part 3

The Chronicler's Chronicle (c) 2011 by John Lerwill

Part 3 : The Interregnum

2007 had been a hectic but very happy year; not only had a major portion of the Villa archives reorganisation been achieved, but I had also acquired virtually all I needed to complete the writing of the book I had started research on two years before. Two magical years had slipped by in which I had been deeply absorbed into Aston Villa’s ancient past.

Doesn’t time go by quickly when you’re enjoying yourself?!

Although opportunities suddenly appeared for a return to the I.T. world as a technical writer in other parts of the country, it seemed to me that the Aston Villa route would be the most satisfying to pursue.

The interest and appreciation of the Villa management in what I had done emboldened me into considering putting forward proposals for what might next take place. The idea began to form that perhaps there would be an opportunity to move to Birmingham, but the idea was partly shelved when we learnt that my wife was in need of being hospitalised to have a dangerous operation. That was to take place later in the summer.

But, nevertheless, I put forward my proposals to Villa which included a two-stage approach four months from April, 2008 on the same commute basis from London as in 2007, to be followed by a contract on an employee basis for 30 months (which would necessitate us moving to Birmingham). I provided a detailed job description for the Club Historian and a plan of work and left Lee Preece to do what he could.

There was a pregnant pause while I was waiting for the result of my proposals, but it did not prevent Lee Preece announcing to the SCG that the Villa were trying to secure the services of John Lerwill to help in providing the basis for the setting up of a museum. Lee also told me that when General Krulak stated to him that a museum was a confirmed intention of Randy Lerner, Lee responded to the General that if that was to occur then an expert would be needed to help that dream come to fruition. His prompt had some affect by February, my proposals were accepted.

April came and the first part of my plan was due to start, but what transpired at that point was perhaps a warning of other negative things to come. It is a truism that when the snowball has started rolling down the hill it becomes difficult to pull it back.

I turned up at Villa Park but to be told that the payroll department had only just determined that I could not be paid as in 2007 as it brought up tax problems the role was going to become a permanent one in a few months and as that job was too similar Inland Revenue were likely to ask too many questions (in their opinion).

My response was that this situation had not been planned for and I would not be able to continue work until moving to Birmingham towards the end of the summer and on taking up the employee contract.

What happened then was (literally) a heart stopper. Events seemed to catch up with me at that point and I was not feeling too good. I had decided to stay in Birmingham for the rest of the week to further my research, but within a couple of days I was getting quite dizzy.

When walking up Bull Street one morning on my way to Villa Park, I was feeling very light headed and my eyesight was not so good. I must have looked a bit strange as I do remember a pleasant young lady coming up to me and asking me if I was alright.

That, at least, was a very bright moment in my day!!

I don’t know how but I slowed myself down and continued. I somehow got back to London the following day. To cut a long story short, the following week I was taken into hospital as an emergency with my heartbeat running at a dangerously low level. This was 2002 all over again, but worse.

Looking back on it now, it seems quite incredible that within a week I was home and virtually back to my old miserable self. The experts had decided I needed a pacemaker and so that is what they did. With the shake of a surgeons knife I had become roboticised!

What was a bit sad was that in the same week, the old jazzman and raconteur Humphrey Lyttleton was taken into the same hospital. He did not come out alive. What with him and Elizabeth Taylor (in 1959) and me having been patients at that hospital, they must have become a little tired with having to provide star treatment!!

The rest of the summer seemed to be spent in hospitals! A month after the event above described, I was packing for the impending house move and did something to my back. That required extensive treatment over some time. Then, in early August, my wife had to enter the London Heart Hospital, not for treatment on her heart but for another fairly major procedure. Because of my wife’s medical history the surgeon wanted to perform the procedure with the best heart equipment available just in case.

Three weeks after my wife’s exit from hospital we were looking for accommodation in Birmingham. At the very last throw of the dice we found the house we were happy with and moved up during September. My wife was still far from recovered from her ordeal and, indeed, took another seven months to recover. Our sons and her family were left behind in London (to my wife’s chagrin).

That is how we came to make the move to Birmingham, and, after experiencing all the above and responding (if you will permit me to say so) to Aston Villa’s call, I experienced the clubs instant ejection only 15 months later.

On the flimsiest of issues we were again thrown into penury. Who - in these adversely changing economic times - would take on an ex-football club historian at the age of 65 who had been dismissed?

To Come (t.b.a.): Part 4: My Time as Club Historian

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Chronicler’s Chronicle – Part 2

Part 2 : To Villa Park

A letter to Aston Villa in January, 2007 (describing myself and requesting access to the club’s archives for the purposes of further research for the ‘book’) elicited a reply from Lee Preece, the club’s Football Operations/Projects Manager. A meeting was arranged.

My visit to see Lee was extraordinarily short considering the journey I had taken from London. We sat talking for less than half-an-hour and then came the question to me: “Would you like to see the archives?” Of course, ‘no’ was scarcely going to be my answer, and so I was scooted off to look at the mother of all archives.

It was in a mess! In fact, so much was it in a mess that, in truth, I was scarcely able to evaluate anything of what it contained in the short time available. And, within a few minutes, the conversation somehow turned round to whether I might be in a position to sort it all out!

All within the space of an hour, the matter had proceeded from my request to access the archives to the honour of taking on this organisational task while being able to draw income (at least to cover my commuting costs) while researching in my own time.

I subsequently sent in a written proposal (which was soon accepted) and I commenced this activity in April/May 2007 while I was still based in London. I commuted to the club on a weekly basis.

All this had quickly taken place in a little over 6 months since Randy Lerner had taken over, and it was quite clear that there was some urgency in wanting to know what the archives contained. There was no existing catalogue that could be relied upon.

Did I have qualifications to do the job? Well, I had been an amateur genealogist for over 30 years and such work had (before the days of the Internet) caused me to get to know the archival and some of the conservation systems in places of research around the country, including the National Archives at Kew, the British Library and the Birmingham Central Library.

On top of that, I had spent 40 years in systems analysis and developing computer software applications. I was expert in how to set up a database, which I had proposed for the archives’ catalogue. I had also been a project manager in my own business lasting twenty years and – possibly above all – as a Villa man equipped with those skills and a being stickler for detail, I was able to fully understand what was in the archives and make appropriate recommendations.

Without any forethought, it happily turned out that I had precisely the skills required to engineer a good result.

When I turned up to begin my assignment on site (in May), Lee Preece introduced me to Keith Morris, who was to act as my helper for this project and to do the logging of objects on display around the stadium. Keith and I were both from ‘the black and white days’ (as Keith liked to call it!) – both men of the old terraces and who had witnessed the baggy shorts of yore.

Keith and I disagreed on a major issue – the merits of Norman Lockhart (!) – but apart from that we became happy working buddies for what turned out to be nearly three years. Keith was (and is) a great Villa ambassador and a valuable colleague, and what was more intriguing was the fact that his birthday is April 16th, mine is April 18th, and the birth date (the first match) at Villa Park was April 17th.

The project went on until the following December, and, as had been my experience during research at the British Library, much of the experience had been magical – particularly the research element into the club’s old minutes and other old papers.

Though I had produced detailed reports of what had been found in the archives, created links with the Birmingham Central Library (including a pathway to completing the availability of the Villa News and Record on DVD) and had created a database catalogue, there was still much work to be done when I had to call a halt to what had become a troublesome commute from London.

The Villa management were very pleased with what had been achieved and (importantly) were very impressed with the manner by which I (and Keith) had gone about the task. Interestingly, I scored a particular hit in my graphical descriptions of the work that had been done and what remained to be done.

So, the natural question popped up … should it be continued by me, and (if so) on what basis?

Next: Part 3 : The Interregnum

The Chronicler's Chronicle - Part 1

Part 1: From Despair to Hope

Having moved rapidly into the autumn of my life, being literally bankrupted as a result of my own stupidity, the closure of my business accompanied by the deaths of close family members, my own heart failure and the return to my career being blocked off with no money, what do you think I would feel? Yes … absolute panic!

All these events had occurred over a three or four year period to 2002, and, with my much younger wife’s health also declining, we quickly dropped into the penury zone, which meant reliance on the state and the benefits system. Also, and not least I hasten to say, with reliance on my spiritual beliefs.

Towards the end of 2004 and after recently attaining 60 years of age, a brief interlude of financial clarity emerged – a return to my I.T. profession. But, 9 months later, that came to an abrupt closure with redundancy. No other avenue emerged despite trying to find further work, so by December 2005 such redundancy money I had received had dwindled and reliance on the state soon returned. I was nearly 62. What were the options available? Not much!

They say that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and the fact that I had been a Villa supporter for over 50 years, and being a great student and admirer of the club’s history, it suddenly came to me that here I was, living quite close to the British Library’s old newspapers department at Colindale, North London, that perhaps I could research the ancient history of the club and also publish that history.

I set about doing just that, and from the beginning of 2006 and for another 15 months, that is what I did. Three or four days a week I undertook what I called ‘my great adventure’ at Colindale and spent the rest of my time documenting the findings.

It was 15 months of magic, pouring through those ancient newspapers and journals – many of them nearly falling apart – and others already microfilmed. When sitting at the microfilm reader in a somewhat darkened room with the main light coming from the bulb in the reader, it was often as though I was looking into a crystal ball. And the magic of the writer’s description of Archie or Andy Hunter (or whoever else amongst that fraternity it might have been) was gripping and elevating.

Astonishingly, in the summer of that same year the news came that Randy Lerner had bought Aston Villa. And, soon after, it was beginning to be clear that part of his concern was for the heritage of the club. Would my contribution to the record of the club’s heritage be of use, I wondered … ?

Next:   Part 2 : To Villa Park

Friday, 4 March 2011

Villa and the Cup

An old chestnut of mine is the issue of Villa and the FA Cup, a trophy in which Villa reached the semi-final stage three times in the late 1950s (during my mid-teens) and actually won the Cup once in that time. That win was back in 1957 - 54 years ago - and it means that Villa now have only reached two FA Cup finals in EIGHTY-SEVEN years, compared to eight finals in the preceding THIRTY-SEVEN years.

Villa were once known as a great cup team, and though Villa started winning the Football League Cup instead, even that series of successes seems to have dried up. It is now fifteen years since Villa's last win - and Small Heath have just won it for only their second-ever trophy success.

Maintaining an average of 5th or 6th in the Premier League is all very well, but the club now lacks that romance that was once present. At one time you would be thinking, "Oh, another season and perhaps another great cup run" ... but not now.

The matches at Villa Park are now mostly humdrum events with a long stream of disappointing performances against the likes of Man U, Liverpool and Arsenal. When Villa have succeeded against top teams it's usually been because of a tremendous defensive effort and team spirit - fine qualities, but little sign of quality attacking football.

I hate to say it, but Villa is rapidly becoming ordinary; even in the old Third Division days there was more excitement. What a sad thing to say coming up to five years since the current owner took over the club and nearly 30 years since winning the European Cup; the club's pretensions to greatness seem to have disappeared. Villa had the great opportunity to kick ahead after the European Cup win but instead fell behind, and (apart from rare glimpses) have never since really looked like catching up.

The team that Villa put out on Wednesday night really summed up the current situation. It was a declaration of fear. A great club goes out on the pitch with hope, and if defeat with honour is the result, then so be it.

Can I have my old club back please?