Ron Saunders: the unsmiling genius

ron saunders

Nobody could ever have accused Ron Saunders of being a ‘yes’ man or of cultivating a public persona. He was very much the epitome of ‘Old School’ when it came to management and, indeed, conducting himself, and nobody got in his way twice. He could be an intimidating figure on and off the training field, but the players who played for him during a twenty-year managerial career were, in the main, highly appreciative of the man and his methods.

Saunders was best known for guiding Aston Villa to an unlikely league championship in 1981 and then laying the groundwork for their successful assault on the European Cup a year later. As is perhaps also commonly known, though, Saunders would walk out on Villa three months before this foreign success, due to a falling out with the Aston Villa board.

A solid if unspectacular playing career was spent in the lower divisions, with his six years at Portsmouth being the highlight. An old-fashioned centre forward, Saunders was the top goalscorer for Pompey for six consecutive seasons, and remains the club’s third-highest goalscorer to this date.

Moving into management with non-league Yeovil in 1967, Saunders got his first real break with Second Division Norwich City two years later. In 1972, promotion to the First Division was achieved, and the League Cup Final was reached a year later when the Canaries were defeated 1-0 by Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.

The following season started poorly and on November 17 the side met Everton at Carrow Road. A poor performance in from of their home support resulted in a 3-1 defeat that left City just a point above the relegation zone and led to angry scenes in the boardroom, where a row broke out between Saunders and some of the directors. In a scenario that would be famously repeated some eight years or so down the line, Saunders promptly quit on the spot.

Next up was a one-season spell at Manchester City. Again, the League Cup Final was reached and lost, this time to Wolverhampton Wanderers, and again it would all end in tears, this time with Saunders getting the sack after an unconvincing league season.

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Aware of Saunders’ successes at Norwich and Manchester City, Villa moved quickly to secure his services at the end of the 1973-74 season. The club was still in the Second Division at the time, and had actually fallen as far as the Third at one point, but had designs on regaining its top-flight status, so expectations were high.

Saunders had an immediate positive effect on the side, as promotion was achieved at the first time of asking when runners-up to Manchester United was secured with 58 points. Saunders also pulled off a unique treble this season when his Villa side reached the League Cup Final. So for the third successive season, he walked a different team out for the trophy’s ultimate match at Wembley.

Unlike the previous two seasons, this time Saunders was to be on the winning side as Villa defeated Norwich courtesy of a late Ray Graydon goal, and so as well as winning promotion, entry into Europe via the UEFA Cup was secured.

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It was a great start for Saunders and two years later further League Cup success followed, this time after two replays against an Everton side managed by Gordon Lee. The same season Villa finished fourth in the table, just six points behind eventual champions, Liverpool. Two eighth-place finishes came next followed by an improvement of a solitary position a year later.

Though progress was fairly steady and solid, there were no real indicators of what was about to follow in the 1980-81 season when, against all the odds, Saunders was to lead the Villans to their seventh league title, the first for seventy years. The events of this season are best outlined in an article of their own, but suffice to say, it was a historic one that will never be forgotten by those of a Villa persuasion.

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Throughout his spell in charge at Villa, Saunders was characterised as being an unsmiling, dour manager who would brook no discussion with regards to methods and tactics, and woe betides anybody who crossed him. For example, in September 1979, relations with star striker and champion of women’s equality, Andy Gray, had broken down and so, despite Gray being a firm fan favourite, he was promptly despatched to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a British record transfer fee.

However, Saunder’s decision to leave Villa in February 1982 was a shock of seismic proportions. Villa had won the league just nine months previously, pipping Ipswich Town at the post, and were expected to build upon this success and challenge for some time to come. Although the defence of the title hadn’t gone exactly swimmingly, the quarter-finals of the European Cup had been reached with a two-legged tie with Dynamo Kyiv just a matter of weeks away.

It was at this point that Saunders had a falling out with the Villa board and promptly walk out. It was largely understood at the time that the disagreement was concerning the personal terms of Saunders’ contract which the Villa board was in the middle of renegotiating.

Saunders had previously enjoyed the security of a three-year rolling contract, which meant that if his services were dispensed with at any point, he would be entitled to a pay-off equivalent to three years’ salary. Now the Villa chairman, Ron Bendall, altered this to a standard three-year contract and Saunders was not amused.

The argument between Bendall and Saunders became heated and public, and when Saunders offered his resignation, it was accepted and his assistant, Tony Barton, was put in temporary charge of team matters.

Although some of his decisions appeared to be a case of ‘cutting off his nose to spite his face’, he was always his own man and would never allow himself to be swayed by convention or expectation of the norm. His departure from Villa would prove to be costly in terms of his career, and one can only imagine his feelings three months later as he sat at home and watched the side he’d assembled lift the European Cup on that never-to-be-forgotten night in Rotterdam, but once the decision had been made there was no looking back.

Perhaps imagining a spell on the sidelines as the football world continued around him, Saunders was possibly more surprised by most when he was offered a way back into football just a matter of days after leaving Villa. The good news for him was that he wouldn’t have to move house, while the bad news was he was swapping a tilt at the European Cup for a relegation battle.

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Aston Villa’s Second City rivals, Birmingham City, had been suffering a poor season with the club on the fringes of the relegation zone under the incumbent manager, Jim Smith, when Saunders suddenly quit Villa. Perhaps the timing was purely a coincidence, but with the manager of the reigning league champions suddenly available, poor old Jim found himself being handed his P45 with Saunders being installed in his place. As shocks go, it was hard to decide which was the bigger: Saunders’ original decision to quit Villa, or his determination to move across the city to St. Andrews.

He officially joined Birmingham City on February 22, 1982, but two days before that date he sat in the stands at St. Andrews and watched his old club and his new one do battle. As the Villa fans regaled their former manager with cries of, ‘You must be mad,’ Saunders saw his soon-to-be charges slump to a single-goal defeat in from of 32,817 supporters.

Saunders was, by and large, welcomed by the Birmingham City faithful who saw Villa’s loss as their gain, but the following few seasons were a constant struggle. At no time did Saunders look anywhere near like repeating his Villa success in the blue half of the city, with final place finishes of sixteenth and seventeenth in the next seasons being the best the Blues could achieve.

In 1983-84, worse was to follow as Birmingham City finished third from bottom in the 22-team division and were promptly relegated to the Second Division. It was a rapid and sad fall from grace for Saunders, but, probably due to his three-year rolling contract, the Birmingham board stood by him and the following season saw an immediate return to the top flight.

The problems hadn’t gone away, however, and another season of struggle ensued. In January 1986, with the club once more in the relegation zone, the chance for some brief respite was offered when the St. Andrews club were drawn at home to non-league Altrincham.

With the game originally postponed due to bad weather, it eventually took place on a cold and blustery Tuesday evening on the 14 January and it was an unmitigated disaster for Saunders and Birmingham. In front of a sparse home crowd, Birmingham were up against a strong-running Altrincham side that took the game to their so-called more illustrious hosts.

Although the first half remained goalless, it came as a shock when the home side took the lead in the second half through forward, Robert Hopkins. Altrincham hit back with a Kevin Ellis goal, and then a comical own goal by Hopkins sealed both Birmingham and Saunders’ fates.

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After the match, Saunders spoke out about the need to strengthen the team, stating, “I hope this result shakes things up and I can get some money from the board.” Well, he did, but not in the way he anticipated as, together with a payoff, he left the club with immediate effect.

Not quite finished with the nation’s second city and its football teams yet, Saunders still had enough energy left to give it a go at nearby West Bromwich Albion. In echos of events four years earlier, Saunders took up his new position at the Hawthorns just a matter of days after leaving his post at Birmingham. Unfortunately, it was a case of ‘out of the fire’ and all that, as West Bromwich were in just as dire a situation.

Come the end of the season and both clubs were relegated, therefore giving Saunders the unwanted accolade of having managed two relegated sides in one season. It was cruel for Saunders, but having a hand in the relegation of their two geographically closest rivals presumably only further cemented his legendary status at Villa Park.

Saunders would stay just one more year at the Hawthorns, and when a slow start to the 1987-88 season ensued, he would leave the club never to return to management.

Ron Saunders died on 7 December 2019, aged 87.