Three key figures will determine whether Aston Villa is to have a new owner - and it could all be done and dusted during the next six weeks.

The major player is, of course, Doug Ellis. In wishing him well as he recovers from heart surgery, I trust no one will doubt my sincerity. Whatever his more acerbic critics may say, he deserves respect for keeping Villa on a sound financial keel and for his undoubted passion for the club.

But football is big business and the wheels must keep turning, no matter how long the chairman takes to recover from such a serious operation at the age of 81. And my information is that he and his closest advisers are no longer fundamentally opposed to selling out to a consortium headed by the former Birmingham City fullback, Ray Ranson.

An offer of #30 million was rejected summarily by Ellis just over a year ago but Ranson is preparing a #45 million bid that will be taken seriously.

The approach will not be hostile to the interests of Ellis. If the deal goes through, he will be warmly welcomed at Villa Park at any time, with a privileged seat, access to the directors? box and all the other trimmings that would show respect for a man who has cared so deeply for the club.

Some ex-chairmen wouldn?t give a fig for such fripperies but Ellis would. It would be important that his contribution to Villa should be recognised by any new regime. Who can blame him?

The second key figure is Jack Petchey. Now in his seventies and looking to broaden his charity work, Petchey owns about 20 per cent of Villa?s shares. Holding just over two-and-a-quarter million shares, he has seen his investment double from #5 million to #10 million. I understand that he doesn?t see the Villa shares going any higher - and they?ve risen from 270 pence to #4 a share in just over a year since the first bid by Ranson - and that Petchey is definitely interested in selling up.

With Ellis owning 33 per cent of Villa?s shares and speaking for about another six per cent, he and Petchey account for almost 60 per cent. A change of heart from those two about the bid would accelerate the process markedly. My understanding is that after rejecting last year?s bid as opportunist, with the chairman refusing to listen unless Ranson started talking at #60 million, the lines of communication have been re-opened.

The third player is Tony Hales. He is the senior non-executive director at Villa, helping at the moment to fill the vacuum at executive level caused by the chairman?s operation and the departure in May of the chief executive Bruce Langham.

Hales is a former chief executive of Allied Domecq, a FTSE 100 company. He is a hard-headed, sensible character unlikely to be swayed by emotions and protestations of claret-and-blue blood running through selected veins of people at Villa Park.

He will deal with financial matters on their own merits and if he believes Ranson?s bid is in the best interests of the club, he will tell Ellis exactly that. There haven?t been many executives at Villa Park who have done that consistently and lived to tell the tale but Tony Hales has a key role to play over the next few weeks.

By the end of this week, Ranson will have decided on a fully-funded approach to Villa, once he has all his financial backers in place. I?m told those who are putting up the money are not remotely interested in running the club and that Ranson would be in charge. As a football man, Ranson knows how much investment is needed to update Villa?s training ground and free up some substantial sums for entering the transfer market.

If the outline offer is made, then the Villa board would have to decide whether to consider it. If that happens, Ranson?s accountants would then seek to establish due diligence - that there were no financial black holes. That would take about a fortnight. Once that process is satisfactorily concluded, a formal offer would be put to the Villa board and an announcement would be made on the Stock Exchange.

Within a couple of weeks of that, the Villa shareholders would receive a formal offer for their shares and they?d have a minimum of three weeks to respond.

With the transfer window closing at the end of August, time is of the essence for Ranson. He would want to show David O?Leary his commitment to rejuvenating the club by pushing the boat out, and it would also be an obvious way for the new broom to curry favour with all those Villa fans disenchanted with a perceived lack of ambition in landing top players.

Ranson is serious about this. He has turned down the chance of assisting his old club, Manchester City, because the debts are so massive. City don?t even own their impressive new stadium and one of the directors is owed #22 million. Ranson sees no business sense at all in getting involved with Manchester City while Aston Villa - soundly-run, with a splendid stadium and other property assets nearby - is a very attractive proposition.

It is due to Ellis that Villa is a worthwhile challenge to any entrepreneur. This might be the time when he demonstrates, impressively, his love for the club by taking Ranson?s bid seriously. The summer of 2005 may be one of the most significant in Villa?s history.

ECB's attack on Hayden is shameful

The battle for the Ashes is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and exciting for many a year. A shame, though, that the build-up is being overshadowed by sharp practice from some of our press, aided by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

The Australian tour management are demanding an apology from the ECB for their part in the damaging headlines last Wednesday following an alleged incident involving their opening batsman, Matt Hayden during the one-day international at Edgbaston.

Many of the tabloids screamed that Hayden had allegedly sworn at a youngster who was in the group waving flags in a line as the Aussies took the field for England?s innings. Now the Aussies have made it clear they don?t see why they should run through flags that plug the sponsors and also feature the St George and the Dragon, with no sign anywhere of the Australian flag. For what it?s worth, I don?t blame them. The sponsors get enough plugs at the ground and on TV as it is.

After the tourists took the field at Edgbaston, word spread to the press box on the other side of the ground that Hayden had told one of the boys to go forth and multiply and take his flag with him. The tipoff came from an ECB official.

Another moved around the press box, making sure that some of the more excitable press representatives had got the story. Having talked to several journalists who were there, it?s clear that this ECB official was proactive in getting the message across. Nothing was wrung unwillingly out of him.

So some of the journos hared over to the pavilion area, trying to stand up the story. No-one could corroborate it. After the match, Hayden denied that he had ever sworn at anyone and repeated that the following morning at a press conference. But that didn?t stop the hysteria engulfing the Australian in Wednesday?s tabloids. He had earlier been involved in a spat on the field with Simon Jones, where he over-reacted to the ball being thrown back at him, hitting him on the chest first bounce - so he was now Public Enemy No 1.

Such is the sophistication of the spin machine these days in international sport that I believe that ECB official was trying to blacken Hayden?s reputation even further by spinning the line about him swearing at an innocent lad. The aim was to destabilise the Australian cricketers in my opinion and that?s why I advised the producers at Five Live not to touch the story with a barge pole. I?m glad to say they followed my advice. I couldn?t stand up the story so wouldn?t go on it.

On Friday, the Aussies? tour manager, Steve Bernard - a thoroughly likeable character and an Anglophile - was still so incensed that he marched into the ECB?s offices at Lord?s and demanded an apology for the spinning that had been observed at Edgbaston by a few Australian journalists. He is still waiting for an apology and I doubt if he?ll get it.

When I tackled the relevant ECB official about his part in all this on Saturday at Lord?s, he told me that any dealings with the Australian tour management would remain private. So would any conversations with Warwickshire CCC about the truth of the Hayden incident. He denied briefing the journos. Interesting that he had clammed up, yet was so free with the steer to the press several days earlier. And I wonder would he ever tip off the press if an England player had been guilty of a similar transgression?

I talked to Warwickshire CCC yesterday and they told me there had not been one complaint about Hayden. Not from a member, a steward, a child or a parent. The club remain mystified at the story emanating from the other side of the ground.

In case you think this is all a case of navel-contemplating among the media, consider this. Why was every one of the Australian players heartily booed as he went out to bat at Edgbaston, with the dose repeated at Lord?s for half their team? Some sections of the popular press over here are whipping up a ridiculous hate campaign against the Aussies, playing the partisan card for all their worth. It?s puerile and seriously misguided.

Players like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath are on their last tour of England. They have been among the greatest in the game?s history, yet mindless morons will boo them throughout the Ashes series. They deserve more than that.

It is no defence to say that England players cop some flak in Australia, because two wrongs don?t make a right and we should be above all that bile anyway. And I can assure you that the Australian press climb into their players with great gusto when necessary and they don?t need a team spin doctor to feed them with titbits that cannot be proven.

Lions in the fire blaming media

"I don?t regret anything I?ve done.You think you?re pretty experienced, but I have learnt a lot about the media on this trip, to be frank.?

That?s Sir Clive Woodward, not being frank.

His comments came after the Lions? record defeat by the All Blacks by 48-18 in Wellington. Which just proves that you never actually beat a Woodward team, you just score more points than them.

It?s only proper that the media should get the flak for the drubbings. After all, it was a media expert who was recommended to Woodward by two rugby writers to run the public relations side of things on this tour. So it?s the fault of two members of the press that Alastair Campbell was allowed to write about his experiences on the tour for a national newspaper and then asked by Woodward to give a team talk to the players.

It?s hard to disagree with the All Blacks? coach Graham Henry when asked to comment on Campbell?s presence on the tour - ?a person who doesn?t know the game and doesn?t have any passion for the game?.

I?m sure all fair-minded folk will join me in wishing Campbell a prolonged stint of obscurity after this disastrous tour.

He?ll be back eventually, blaming the media for everything from the common cold to footballers missing penalties. But we?ll somehow get by without him.