Sir Doug Ellis obituary

Former Aston Villa chairman known for his turbulent relations with the club’s managers

Sir Doug Ellis, who has died aged 94, made millions by selling package holidays and a national reputation with two spells as chairman of Aston Villa football club, where he was a defiantly controversial figure who acquired the nickname “Deadly Doug”. His first period at the Midlands club lasted from 1968 until 1975 – four years later, he also resigned from the board. Once he left, Villa enjoyed one of its greatest periods of success, winning the First Division championship in 1981 and the European Cup in 1982.

Whether by coincidence or not, when Ellis returned as chairman shortly afterwards, the club swiftly fell back from its great heights, to the point where the team was relegated to the Second Division in 1986-87. After a stock market flotation that made Ellis millions of pounds, he eventually sold up in 2006 to Randy Lerner, an American billionaire, but remained at the club as a life president.

Ellis divided opinion among the fans, who were wont to blame him over the years for failing to invest more in new players. His relations with the club’s managers were also famously embroiled, most of all with Ron Saunders, who was at Villa from 1974 until 1982. He sacked several managers in his time (although Saunders was not one of them) and others resigned after disagreements.

From the start, Ellis’s relationship with the club and its fans had been based on an element of suspicion, as he had arrived there directly from Villa’s closest rival, Birmingham City, where he was a director. When challenged by Villa fans about his affinities, his clever reply was that his spell at Birmingham had been a perfect introduction to the game, showing him how a club ought not to be run.

Doug was born and grew up in Hooton, Cheshire, and experienced hardship from an early age. When he was three his father, Herbert, died, leaving his young widow, Jane, to bring up Doug and his eight-week-old sister, Doreen. As a boy, Doug delivered milk to local customers by bike before setting off for school in Chester, and later also worked as a railway clerk.

During second world war service with the Fleet Air Arm, he was based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he conceived the idea that eventually made him rich. Revelling in his tropical surroundings, Ellis began to wonder how young working men such as himself, who had never been away from home, could be provided with the chance to enjoy the delights of exotic places.

Doug Ellis looks on as Pat Matthews, the club president, pours champagne to celebrate Aston Villa’s victory over Manchester United in the League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg at Villa Park, 1970.
Doug Ellis looks on as Pat Matthews, the club president, pours champagne to celebrate Aston Villa’s victory over Manchester United in the League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg at Villa Park, 1970. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

This led to his notion of founding a travel agency and, after learning the business with Frames Tours in Preston, he set up his own agency in Birmingham in 1948, and then one of the first package tour businesses, Ellis Travel Agency. Costs were cut to the bone; sandwiches for the passengers were made by Ellis’s mother. The business prospered, Ellis became a millionaire, and then he set his sights on becoming a football club director.

In the 1960s, Ellis had season tickets for Aston Villa and Birmingham City, but Villa, a historically great club, rebuffed his interest in them. He was granted a meeting with the Villa directors, but they kept him waiting in a dim corridor, where he amused himself by writing his name on the grubby windows. When he finally got his audience, he was told that he had been refused. The word was that they considered him too brash an individual to accept.

Undeterred, Ellis pursued his second choice and became instead a director of Birmingham City, biding his time until at last, in 1968, he was allowed in at Villa.That year marked the beginning of a revolution at Villa Park, in which the senatorial board was swept away by a bunch of younger men, most of them, like Ellis, in their 40s. At the time the club was struggling deep in the Second Division and in financial difficulties.

Under Ellis’s aegis, the flamboyant Scot Tommy Docherty was made manager and attendances soared. Although the club was relegated to Division Three in 1969-70, it quickly gained promotion and in 1975 not only returned at last to the First Division but won the League Cup – one of four times the club won that competition under Ellis. In fact the League Cup would be the only significant honour that Villa achieved during his two terms, although they were runners-up in the top flight in 1989-90 and then in 1992-93.

Doug Ellis, who made his millions in package holidays, parks his Rolls-Royce outside Villa Park, Aston Villa’s ground, in Birmingham, in 1969.
Doug Ellis, who made his millions in package holidays, parks his Rolls-Royce outside Villa Park, Aston Villa’s ground, in Birmingham, in 1969. Photograph: Getty Images

Among the big-name managers Ellis appointed and then saw off were Graham Taylor (twice), David O’Leary, Ron Atkinson and John Gregory. Gregory reported that his boss “controls the football club from top to bottom and has the final say on everything”. His great strength, Gregory said, “is looking after the pennies, [which] takes up a large proportion of his working day”.

In spite of the parsimony, Ellis often felt able to spend large sums of money in other directions. He became the first football director to give himself a salary once Football Association rules were relaxed to allow such payments. As the majority shareholder, he also received huge sums in dividends over the years, and even more from the flotation of the club on the stock market in 1997.

In 2004, at the age of 80 and suffering from prostate cancer, Ellis agreed to relinquish some of his control of the club. He had a heart bypass operation the following year and, in 2006, he announced that he had agreed to sell the club to Lerner for around £63m. Ellis stood aside when the takeover was completed, but stayed in touch as president emeritus.

He was appointed OBE in 2005 and knighted in 2012 for his charitable work.

Ellis’s first marriage, in 1946, to Audrey Slater, a nurse who cared for him when he contracted malaria in Sri Lanka, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Heidi (nee Kroeger), whom he married in 1963, and their two sons, Oliver and Simon. A son, Peter, from his first marriage, predeceased him.

• Herbert Douglas Ellis, businessman and football executive, born 3 January 1924; died 11 October 2018