Why Cleveland's villain is Villa's hero
"Aloof", "odd" and (my favourite) "cartoonish" were just some of the adjectives fellow scribes had used when I had asked them: "What's Randy Lerner like?"
So it would be safe to say I did not have high expectations as I arrived for the Aston Villa owner's annual sit-down with the British press.
Those expectations did not change much as he shuffled in, took his seat in front of the firing squad and put on his bravest "I'm not hating this" face, fooling absolutely nobody. And then something strange happened.
Randy Lerner (right) has tended to shun the media spotlight. Photo: Getty Images
Lerner started to talk about his plans for Villa, his gratitude for the work done by so many different people at the club - listing all of them by name - and the highs and lows from a dramatic season.
He is no Barack Obama but what came out was considered, heartfelt and sensible. The 48-year-old American sounded like a fan and a businessman, and he charmed the room.
Confession time. I originally intended to publish a blog about Lerner in the build-up to Villa's Carling Cup final against Manchester United.
The idea was to contrast how he is viewed by Villa supporters and fans of the Cleveland Browns, the National Football League team he inherited from his father, Al. Generally speaking, Lerner is as popular at Villa as he is unpopular in Cleveland.
It fascinated me that the same mild-mannered man could attract such contrasting reviews from followers of the two teams he owns (teams with proud traditions from post-industrial cities in the heartlands of their respective countries).
I was going to muse on the fickleness of fate, make a few observations about the differences between British and US sport, and try to say something clever about timing being everything.
I can't remember why I didn't go through with the blog but I am grateful to whatever it was that stopped me - poor time-management skills, probably - because underlying my interest in Lerner was a gut feeling his Brummie honeymoon was coming to an end.
Having spent over £240m on buying the club and funding its rise up the Premier League table, it seemed Lerner's largesse had reached its limit just as manager Martin O'Neill was thinking about his summer shopping list. A split between the two most important figures in Villa's recent renaissance appeared likely and I was wondering who would get the blame.
Perhaps Lerner was thinking the same because it was the first subject he addressed last week: forget the rumours, O'Neill is staying put. The significance of this cannot be overestimated for a number of different reasons.
First, the O'Neill question has come to symbolise something bigger than a staffing issue. The Ulsterman's ambition is of the burning variety and his public statements (and coded messages) about what Villa must do to break into the top four have become a de facto line in the sand: how much do you really want Champions League football, boss?
Second, if a football brain of O'Neill's quality, backed by four years of almost unstinting Lerner generosity, cannot do better than sixth place, who will and where is he working now? Losing the former Celtic manager would threaten Villa's progress at a time when the top-four target has never moved so quickly.
O'Neill became Villa boss in August 2006. Photo: Getty Images
Third, if O'Neill believes he cannot achieve his goals under Lerner, what will that say to the talented team he has assembled? What would James Milner think?
And finally, Lerner knows how important it is to get the key personnel decisions right in England because he has got so many of them wrong in Cleveland. This is not the place (and I'm not the journalist) to list the reasons why the Browns have struggled on Lerner's watch but a failure to find an O'Neill figure is one of them. Until perhaps now, that is.
This, however, brings me back to the point I was going to make about timing.
O'Neill was previous owner Doug Ellis's parting gift, although it is unimaginable that the incoming manager was not aware of the upcoming change in the boardroom.
But there is more to Lerner's timing (and I don't put it down to luck) than O'Neill's arrival. Villa were underperforming on the pitch but fundamentally sound off it. Ellis might have become a pantomime villain by the end of his time in charge but he ran a tight ship while the club's youth set-up was in reasonable shape, too.
Ellis, in fact, did Lerner another favour.
This is not the time to rake over the coals of old controversies but it would be fair to say most Villa fans had tired of Deadly Doug's petty squabbles, endless publicity seeking and perceived profiteering. They were ready for something different.
There is another aspect to Lerner's sweetheart status in the Midlands.
Lerner is not George Gillett, Tom Hicks, any of the Glazers or even Kraft's Irene Rosenfeld. At a time when American owners of British businesses are about as popular as Icelandic volcanoes, Lerner is a shining exception. There are no Norwich City scarves at Villa Park.
This does not mean they are without debt - don't be ridiculous, this is the Premier League we're talking about so Villa are officially £72m in the red - but that debt is to Lerner and, with an inherited fortune of $1.5bn, he does not need to call it in any time soon.
Lerner actually made it clear last week that he does not view the sums Villa "owe" him as debts at all. Since 2006, he has pumped £179m into the club in a fairly even split between loans and equity. But to him it is all just equity or "capital investment".
The net transfer spend, the money for wages, the improvements made to the fabric of Villa Park (with more to come) and the sums lavished on the club's Bodymoor Heath training ground are indications of Lerner's long-term commitment to the club and pointers to his strategy for sustainable growth.
As he put it, football (on either side of the Atlantic) is an "audience-driven" business. You put out the best possible product, in the best possible surroundings, or the customer goes elsewhere.
It is a simple rule that other club owners would do well to remember - they might also take note of the fact Villa's ticket prices are among the cheapest in the Premier League.
Lerner said many things that impressed me but none more so than when he talked about his desire for the club to stand on its own two feet. You could argue that having made good the club's £43m loss last year he would say that, but his plan to expand Villa Park's capacity to 50,000 is concrete proof of his intentions. Cosmetic work starts on the North Stand soon, with the overall project likely to last three to four years.
He also admitted Villa will eventually have to find a shirt sponsor to replace the much-praised link with Acorns, the local hospice trust whose name has adorned the club's shirts for free for two seasons. With Liverpool recently signing a four-year deal with Standard Chartered worth £80m, it is obvious just how charitable Lerner has been.
Expect a different name on the front of Villa's shirts. Photo: Getty Images
Of course, it is Lerner's desire to see Villa balance its books that initiated the O'Neill rumours. How could a spendthrift like "MON" put up with a sugar daddy who told journalists he would never spend £30m on a striker? Or so the web logic went.
I'm not so sure O'Neill is so desperate to give up what has been achieved so far for the sake of a marquee signing and I think he is comfortable with talk of a sell-to-buy strategy. Six squad players are on the market already but Lerner promised "unfunded" transfers would still be sanctioned if O'Neill really, really wanted a player.
Among the many things Lerner is given credit for by Villa fans, one of the less well-known is his backing for an Aston Villa Supporters Trust initiative to erect a statue of William McGregor, the club director who helped start the Football League, at Villa Park last year.
McGregor, who died in 1911 after a 34-year connection with Villa, once said "football is big business" but I would argue that many of football's recent problems have been because it has not been business-like enough.
Aston Villa, however, might just have found the perfect owner for these straitened times: a rich fan who thinks like a big businessman. McGregor would have loved him.