London - Aston Villa have been sold to a Chinese group owned by Dr Tony Jiantong Xia, the Championship club announced on Wednesday, in a deal worth a reported US$87 million (S$120 million).
Villa crashed out of the Premier League after a miserable season that saw the Midlands team win just three of their 38 matches, but that hasn't stopped Dr Xia making his move.
US-based owner Randy Lerner had been trying to sell Villa for two years and has finally found a buyer after significantly lowering his asking price to a reported £60 million ($86 million, 76 million euros).
"Aston Villa Football Club is pleased to announce that an agreement has been signed today for the sale of 100 per cent ownership by Randy Lerner to Recon Group owned by Dr Tony Jiantong Xia subject to the approval of the Premier League and the Football League," a Villa statement read.
"Once those approvals have been granted and the new board members approved under the fit and proper rules of both leagues, Dr Xia will become Chairman of Aston Villa."
Lerner, who bought Villa in 2006 for around £60 million, had hoped to sell the club for £200 million, but the team's dismal form over the last two seasons put off potential investors until his price cut.
Villa chairman Steve Hollis flew to China to complete the deal as soon as their woeful top-flight campaign was completed last weekend.
Villa are currently managerless after sacking Remi Garde in March, but former Leicester boss Nigel Pearson and ex-Chelsea chief Roberto Di Matteo are reportedly the leading candidates to step in now a takeover has been agreed.
Dr Xia and the new manager will take charge with Villa condemned to second tier action for the first time since 1987-88 and with morale among supporters at an all-time low after months of protests against Lerner and the underperforming players.
"The Club will announce the appointment of a new manager shortly," the Villa statement continued.
"Randy Lerner has sought the right new owner for Aston Villa who would take great care of the Club and restore its fortunes. He believes that Tony Xia is an excellent choice.
"Recon Group is Dr Xia's privately owned holding company that owns the controlling interest in five publicly listed companies on the Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges and many other private companies employing 35,000 people in 75 countries."
According to Villa's website, Dr Xia decided to buy "an iconic football Club in England as the cornerstone of his Sports, Leisure and Tourism Division".
The statement says he became "a fan of Aston Villa many years ago" and "played football as a striker until he finished at college".
Dr Xia's move for Villa comes after a glorious season for Thailand's Srivaddhanaprabha family, who bought Leicester in 2010 and transformed the club into unlikely Premier League champions with the considerable help of manager Claudio Ranieri, in the process making them a huge hit in Asia.
Now Dr Xia has set his sights of taking Villa back into the Premier League's top six and attracting the backing of Chinese sports fans.
"Dr Xia's immediate objective is to return Aston Villa to the Premier League and then to have the Club finish in the top six, bringing European football back to Villa Park," the Villa statement read.
"He plans to make Aston Villa the most famous football Club in China with a huge fan base."
Lerner, in a long farewell message, said Dr Xia has the enthusiasm and experience needed to redevelop Villa Park in a bid to provide improved revenue streams.
"As we visited together, and had some unrushed time to discuss his plans, Tony's excitement to develop Villa Park shone through," Lerner said.
"I remain convinced that this is a crucial part of the Club's future as it provides a critical, long-term second source of revenue and therefore sustainability for the Club from which squad-funding can potentially come."
Aston Villa crashed out of Premier League after winning only three matches this season.
Questions over Xia
The new Chinese owner of English football club Aston Villa appears to be a highly educated, politically well-connected businessman - but questions have been raised over Tony Xia's academic credentials and background.
Xia, whose Chinese name is Xia Jiantong, and his private conglomerate Recon Group were largely unknown to the outside world before buying the newly relegated Birmingham club for a reported $87 million on Wednesday.
A native of Zhejiang, known as the cradle of private companies in China, Xia's biography shows him to rule a vast corporate empire with interests ranging from health and new energy to financial services and tourism. Recon has assets of more than 100 billion yuan (US$15 billion), according to its website.
Wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs have poured money into football, with President Xi Jinping hoping that the Asian giant will one day host and win the World Cup.
Recon says it has played host to Xi and other top officials. A picture on the company website is captioned as showing Xi, then the Communist Party chief of the eastern province of Zhejiang, visiting the company in 2005.
Another image is labelled as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang touring a subsidiary, and a third is said to show another top Chinese Communist, Zhang Dejiang, visiting the company and praising its "digital cities" efforts.
Xia is not identified in any of the pictures, despite being the company chairman, chief executive and owner.
Searches by AFP did not find Chinese news reports of any of the three visits.
Announcing the sale, Aston Villa said that Recon "owns the controlling interest in five publicly listed companies on the Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges".
The Recon website says the same, but only names one of the subsidiaries, Lotus Health Group.
It claims to be the world's second largest producer of food additive monosodium glutamate but lost $78 million last year, according to a statement to the Shanghai stock exchange, where it is listed.
"Life is a marathon and building a company is an endurance race as well," Xia (above) said in a posting on his microblog last year.
Xia's love of football is said to stem from playing striker as a student, with one online post identifying his alma mater as Beijing Forestry University, where he studied landscape architecture.
He later studied at Harvard, MIT and Oxford University, according to a biography published by Aston Villa. He is a published author, with a book on urban planning selling on the Chinese website of Amazon, whose single customer reviewer gives it five stars.
But doubts have been raised about Xia's credentials.
Fang Zhouzi, a prominent Chinese sceptic who operates a platform dedicated to exposing academic fraud such as plagiarism, questioned multiple Chinese reports that quoted Xia as claiming to be the youngest ever professor at Harvard.
In response, Xia said the media had exaggerated and he was only a professor's assistant.
There is also confusion over his age. His verified Weibo microblog gives a birthday that would make him 39, but a listed unit's annual report issued in April gave his age as 41.
Xia is the latest Chinese tycoon to heed Xi's call to develop football in the world's most populous country.
The Wanda Group of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin - who openly acknowledges that his footballing investments have political motivations - bought a 20 per cent stake in Spain's Atletico Madrid last year, and in March it signed a sponsorship deal with FIFA, football's troubled world body.
State-linked China Media Capital led a consortium to buy a stake of just over a 13 per cent in Premier League club Manchester City for $400 million in December. Xi himself included the club on a state visit to Britain before the deal, and posed for a memorable selfie with player Sergio Aguero.
Aston Villa crashed out of the Premier League in April after a miserable season that saw the team win just three of 38 matches. Xia's dream is to return the club to the top flight and have them finish in the first six, according to a statement.
In an online posting discussing losing out on a business deal to a competitor, he said: "Do not lose courage after defeat, stage a comeback!"