REVIEW BY PAUL McPARLAN – @paulmcparlan
For all his achievements, Ron Saunders appears to have become one of football’s forgotten men. He is one of only five English born managers to have won the League title in the last thirty-six years when he was in charge at Aston Villa in 1981. He is the only person to have taken three different teams to successive League Cup finals when he led Norwich City, Manchester City and Aston Villa to Wembley in 1973, 1974 and 1975. He achieved promotions with three different sides. Aston Villa had not won the league for seventy-one years before Ron Saunders achieved the feat and have not managed it since. Whereas other football clubs honour their legendary managers with lasting memorials such as the Howard Kendall Stand or the Shankly Gates, there is no recognition of Saunders at Aston Villa, and in a grim touch of irony, they have chosen to name one of the stands after ex-chairman Doug Ellis rather than the person who brought them success on the playing field.
Graham Denton has decided it is the time to shed light on Ron Saunders’ career to a wider audience to remind people what an excellent job he did at Aston Villa and how he transformed a side that was languishing in Division Two in 1974 to one that within seven years had won the English First Division.
This is an extremely well researched piece of writing. The author has delved into numerous different resources to try and present as balanced a picture as possible. As you would expect from someone with a journalistic background, Denton has a style of presenting his material in a manner which keeps the reader engaged despite knowing the outcome. It is to his credit that, at times, you feel as though you were there in the boardroom, in the changing room or on the terraces as Saunders started to build the team that would win the League.
The early part of the book deals with the chaos that was Aston Villa in the late sixties and early seventies as they slumped to the old Division Three whilst chronicling the career of Ron Saunders during the same period, which took him from his first managerial post at Yeovil Town in 1967 to managing the glamorous Manchester City side of the early 70s via Oxford United and Norwich City.
Prior to his arrival at Villa Park, Saunders had already displayed characteristics that would eventually come to define his time there. Whilst at Norwich, he fell out with the Chairman, Arthur South, over who was really running the club and promptly resigned. At Manchester City he fell out with many of the experienced players who he tried to move on. This culminated with him trying to sell Denis Law to Bradford City. Confrontation followed him almost everywhere he went.
However, he had gained a reputation as an innovative track suit manager who would swiftly impose discipline at an underperforming club and was not afraid to challenge coasting players. In addition, he demonstrated a detailed understanding of the tactics necessary to win matches and always ensured that his teams would never be outfought or outrun on the pitch. As a result, his services were always in demand at clubs that needed fresh impetus.
In the 1970’s most managers could be roughly divided into two contrasting camps. On the one hand, you had the flamboyant, media friendly types such as Malcolm Allison, Brian Clough and Tommy Docherty, while and on the other you had men like Don Revie and Sir Alf Ramsey who were portrayed by the press as dour individuals who churned out teams prepared to achieve results by any means possible. Ron Saunders was most definitely in the latter camp.
Saunders was appointed simply to get Aston Villa back in the top division at a time when most fans wanted Brian Clough. Sir Alf Ramsey was also approached to take the job but he recommended Saunders to the board. Crucially, Doug Ellis – who was Chairman at the time – did not want him but the majority of board members did.
He immediately set to work reviving the sleeping giant. The first season in charge could not have gone any better. Aston Villa were promoted as runners up to Manchester United and won the League Cup against his former club, Norwich City. More significantly, Ellis lost out in a boardroom struggle and although he remained, he was removed as Chairman. To top it all, Saunders was voted Manager of the Year, unheard of for anyone in charge of a Division Two club.
Despite the success, that ruthless – some might say nasty – streak persisted. In a pattern that would often be repeated, Saunders ended the Villa career of someone he viewed as a threat. Charlie Aitken, veteran of over 600 appearances for the club, was told he was being given a free transfer less than an hour before the transfer deadline.
Although Aston Villa won the League Cup again in 1977, progress was steady rather than spectacular. Andy Gray, who had been a record signing the previous season, won both the Young Player of the Year and the PFA Player of the Year awards but his manager refused to let him attend the ceremony. Gray would never forgive him.
Over the next four seasons, Aston Villa consolidated their place in the top division, never finishing lower than eighth. The components of the title winning side were slowly being put into place. Defender Ken McNaught was bought from Everton to join midfielder Dennis Mortimer, who signed the previous season. Goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was purchased from Arsenal, wingers Kenny Swain and Tony Morley from Chelsea and Burnley respectively, and defender Allan Evans from Dunfermline Athletic. In addition, youngsters such as Gordon Cowans and Gary Shaw were coming through.
Saunders’ distrust of senior players continued. Chris Nicholl was sold to Southampton, John Gidman to Everton and disapproving of his perceived hedonistic lifestyle, he took the controversial decision to sell Andy Gray to Midland rivals, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Villa fans were outraged at the departure of their idol and there were calls for Saunders to go, but such was his self-belief – or sheer bloody-mindedness – that he was never unduly concerned about such matters.
Despite these fall-outs, Saunders was extremely loyal to players he trusted and they spoke highly of him. Defender John Robson was hugely impressed with the support Saunders offered to him when he had to quit football due to being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When Kenny Swain signed he sensed he was joining a real club with a winning mentality. Following the example of Bill Shankly, Saunders was an expert at using psychology to inspire his team. Famously, before a UEFA Cup game against Barcelona, he kidded his players “Cruyff – he can’t play!”
Saunders was never afraid to show players with big reputations exactly who was in charge. When John Gidman entered his office to negotiate a pay rise he was greeted by Saunders asking “Who are you?” Gordon Cowans, the most creative player in the team was often told that “he couldn’t pass water”. In a similar fashion to Sir Alex Ferguson, Saunders wanted everyone to be quite sure that he ran the club and nobody else.
As the 1980/81 season approached, Saunders had identified that he was missing the final piece of the jigsaw. The Villa fans were expecting a big name signing. Instead they got Peter Withe, who although he had recently helped Nottingham Forest to win then League in 1978, was now languishing in the Second Division with Newcastle United. But he brought experience, the one thing that was in short supply at the club.
Villa started off as 25-1 outsiders for the title. For most of the season they were neck and neck with the media darlings, Ipswich Town. Saunders showed his managerial mettle when dealing with Tony Morley when Villa were due to play away at his boyhood team Everton. He told the winger, days before the match, that he didn’t want him “showboating” in front of his family and friends and said he would be dropped. On match day, Saunders told him he was playing. After just three minutes Morley scored a goal which was voted “Goal of the Season” and Villa went on to grab an important 3-1 win.
That season’s championship came down to a last day decider.
Villa took an incredible 16,000 fans with them to the last game at Arsenal. Many of them clutched transistor radios trying desperately to follow events in Ipswich’s away game at Middlesbrough. At half time with Villa losing 2-0 and Ipswich leading 1-0, the situation looked desperate. Then on 55 minutes, the transistors crackled, Middlesbrough had levelled. Unbelievably, with just five minutes to go, the radios buzzed again, Middlesbrough had scored, the title was Aston Villa’s. The project that was started by Ron Saunders in 1974 had reached its culmination.
Bill Shankly rightly praised Aston Villa as deserved Champions. The model he had constructed at Liverpool was that which Saunders aspired to emulate. The future looked bright in Birmingham.
Except it wasn’t. Aston Villa, perhaps distracted by their progress in the European Cup, performed poorly in the league the next season, slumping to 17th in February. During that month, the Villa board began picking the manager’s contract apart. Saunders resigned. Villa fans were outraged and demanded his reinstatement. But nine days later he was appointed manager at arch rivals Birmingham City and totally lost any support he may have had from the Villa faithful.
His post Aston Villa career was mixed. He was relegated with Birmingham but achieved promotion the following season. He left suddenly in January 1986 and was appointed manager at West Bromwich Albion. After failing to save them from relegation, he was sacked in September 1987. He was never employed in football again. At the age of 54, it was over.
Graham Denton’s book explains how Saunders seemed to polarise opinion at every club he managed but his record of success is unquestioned. From my own point of view, I really enjoyed this book and you don’t have to be an Aston Villa fan to find this a fascinating piece of recent football history. On a point of fact – perhaps more a personal gripe – the author consistently refers to Ron Saunders as being a “Scouser” despite the fact he was born on the ‘wrong’ side of the Mersey in Birkenhead, making him a Merseysider but never a Scouser.
This is a long – perhaps a little too long – and detailed account of Saunders’ career. I would have liked to have read more about his background and family, particularly the brawl that Saunders had with Howard Gayle when he found out the player was seeing his daughter. However, Ron Saunders is a man whose record has almost been wiped from history and he deserves to have his achievements recognised. Graham Denton goes a long way towards putting the record straight.