Saturday 7th December 2019 marked a sad day for football as the death of Ron Saunders was announced to the world. This is our obituary to him.
In the eight seasons between 1976-1984 Liverpool won six titles. Only two managers were able to get the better of them. Brian Clough and Ron Saunders. Clough has gone down in history as a legend of the game. For many around the Midlands, Saunders should be held in similar reverence. He remains the only man to have taken charge of Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom.
Other than the titles Liverpool won in the seventies and eighties, from 1977 to 1987 just three English managers won the League Championship. Saunders, Clough and Howard Kendall. When Saunders’ Aston Villa side won the league in 1981 they achieved the feat just six years after winning the Second Division in 1975.
Villa’s title win was all the more remarkable for having used just 14 players during a 42-game season. They also failed to beat many of the sides around them, but the quality of their play and sheer dogged determination brought the club their seventh title, a mere 71 years after their last.
Their promotion season of 1974-75 also saw them lift the League Cup when they beat Norwich City 1-0 at Wembley.
For Saunders, this was his first success at Wembley in his third attempt. His third successive appearance in the Final, leading out three different clubs.
Born in Birkenhead in November 1932, Saunders playing career began at Everton and saw him turn out for four other clubs, Gillingham, Portsmouth, Watford and Charlton Athletic. A striker, his best performances were with Portsmouth where he scored 145 goals in 236 appearances. After retiring in 1967 he moved in management at Yeovil and then Oxford United.
In 1972 he led Norwich City to the Second Division title and earned them a place at English football’s top table for the first time in their history. A year later they reached a Wembley final as they took on Tottenham Hotspur in the League Cup, losing 0-1.
By the following November, he had resigned after a spat with the board. Something which would become a feature of his career.
He wasn’t out of a job long as Manchester City appointed him. Despite some sketchy performances in the league, he managed to guide City to the League Cup Final where he was again on the losing side, this time to Wolves. Saunders didn’t last the season as the club flirted with relegation.
Still in demand, he joined Aston Villa a month after leaving Maine Road. Villa, a club with a rich history, were in the Second Division. They’d been as low at Division Three in the early seventies. Saunders led them to the Second Division title in his first season and they were back in the big time after an absence of eight years.
That 1975 season was memorable for Villa as they also reached the League Cup Final. Saunders led his third different team out for a third successive time, and this time he was finally able to celebrate success. He was up against one of his former employers, as Ray Graydon scored the only goal of the game to beat Norwich City.
Two years later he was back at Wembley. Villa eventually beat Everton after a second replay. Saunders had now appeared at four League Cup Finals in five years, winning twice.
They finished fourth in 1976-77 in Division One, but mid-table finishes in the next three years masked what was to come.
Saunders was making changes to his team, bringing in some exciting young talent. Out went Andy Gray, Brian Little, Ray Graydon and John Deehan, all of whom had been the club’s top scorers in the previous five years. Responsibility for the goals now rested with young local boy, Gary Shaw. Saunders dipped into the transfer market and picked up Peter Withe. Withe was in Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest Championship-winning side in 1978, before moving to Newcastle.
English football was seduced by the combination of a big man and little man up front. Toshack and Keegan at Liverpool had set the tone and so Saunders wanted to replicate this at Villa Park.
What Saunders also had was one of the most artistic and creative midfielders in the country, Gordon Cowans. He also had an exciting winger in Tony Morley. The side was lead by Dennis Mortimer, another tough professional. In goal Saunders bought Jimmy Rimmer from Arsenal. Rimmer had begun his career as understudy to Alex Stepney at Manchester United before moving to Highbury. When Pat Jennings arrived from Spurs, Rimmer knew his days were numbered. Still a reliable keeper, Saunders pounced and added some more experience to his youthful squad. He looked to Scotland for his central defensive pairing as Ken McNaught and Allan Evans formed a formidable partnership.
The season became a two-horse race between Villa and the more attractive Ipswich Town, managed by Bobby Robson. Villa lost both games to Ipswich and also suffered defeat at Anfield. But by the time they beat Liverpool in January, they were top of the league.
By the beginning of March Ipswich’s form was such they were now top, but suddenly suffered a dip in form with three defeats in four. In mid-April Ipswich arrived at Villa Park three points behind with a game in hand. Goals from Alan Brazil and Eric Gates gave the visitors a vital win.
It looked as if Bobby Robson’s men now held the upper hand. Saunders went into the dressing room and told his players they’d still win the title. When Barry Davies interviewed him after the game and questioned whether they’d blown it, he replied confidently
“Do you want to bet against us?”
It was typical of the man. Determined, resolute and oozing self-belief. By the start of May Villa were four points clear.
Villa’s final game of the season was away to third-placed Arsenal. On the same day, Ipswich were at Middlesbrough. Mariner gave Ipswich a first-half lead. Villa only needed a draw, or Ipswich to avoid victory to lift the title.
In the second half, Willie Young put Arsenal in front and Villa were now getting nervous. Middlesbrough then equalised before Arsenal went further ahead through Brian McDermott. Middlesbrough’s Yugoslav striker, Bosco Jankovic then scored his second of the game to lead Ipswich. Villa were losing but suddenly Highbury was filled with the noise of Villa fans celebrating.
Both Villa and Ipswich lost, so Villa lifted the title. It was one of the greatest days in their history.
The following season they were flying the flag for England in the European Cup, their first-ever appearance in the competition. By the time they reached the Quarter-Finals against Dinamo Kiev, Saunders had left.
He clashed with new chairman, Doug Ellis and once again a spat with the board saw him move on. Villa and the rest of the country were shocked. The board had tried to change the terms of his contract and he wasn’t having it. But such was the talent Saunders had developed at Villa Park they lifted the European Cup thanks to Peter Withe’s goal against Bayern Munich. His assistant, Tony Barton, was put in charge and he collected the plaudits, but this was really Saunders team. Five years later they were relegated.
Again Saunders was not out of a job long and he made the short journey to Birmingham City. City were relegated in 1984 but Saunders was kept on to guide them back up a year later. In January 1986 he walked out on the club to move to local rivals, West Brom.
The Baggies themselves were struggling and Saunders couldn’t stop them dropping to the Second Division as they finished the 1985-86 season with just four wins. They were joined by the club he’d just left, Birmingham City, and also the club who pushed Villa close to the title, Ipswich Town. A year later Aston Villa also succumbed to relegation.
September 1987 saw him sacked by West Brom and thus ended his managerial career.
He later returned to Villa Park in 1994 for a friendly fixture for the recently deceased Tony Barton. In 2006 he set foot in the stadium for only the second time since 1984 when he was guest of honour in a league match against Manchester United.
By this time Villa had a new Chairman, Randy Lerner. The American had changed the mood and feel of the club. Saunders fall out with Doug Ellis had resulted in very few references around Villa Park that the man had even been there, let alone lead them to a title. Lerner changed all that.
By then Saunders was living in near anonymity, refusing requests for interviews and seemingly turning his back on the game which revered him.
Ellis appointed Saunders when he was chairman between 1968-79. He returned as chairman in 1982, yet his absence was when they were at their most successful. That must’ve hurt.
Saunders had a reputation for being a dour, stubborn man. Tony Morley has often spoken of never knowing whether he was really liked by the man. But the fact he was signed for three different clubs by him would suggest he wasn’t considered too bad.
For this weekend’s fixture against Leicester City, Villa players will wear armbands in honour of their greatest ever manager.