The combative nature of Ron Saunders, who has died aged 87, brought him much success in football management, but it also deprived him of what would have been his greatest achievement. Having taken Aston Villa to the First Division title in 1980-81, Saunders led his team to the quarter-finals of the European Cup the next season, only to resign abruptly after a major fall-out with his chairman.
Villa continued their run in the competition under his assistant Tony Barton, and four months later won Europe’s most prestigious trophy without Saunders, defeating Bayern Munich 1-0 in Rotterdam. Notwithstanding Barton’s contribution, few doubted that the victory had been based on the house that Ron had built. Yet it was a triumph he could never claim as his own.
That European Cup win of 1982 would have been an appropriate reward for the eight years that Saunders spent in charge of Villa, during which time he had brought the club up from the Second Division to win two League Cups and their first league Cchampionship since 1909-10. But volcanic arguments with chairmen – in this case Ron Bendall – were a recurrent theme throughout his managerial career.
Saunders showed no regret at leaving Villa before the club’s finest hour, even if he must have felt it. Although he went on to manage two other top-flight Midlands clubs – Birmingham City and then West Bromwich Albion – he was unable to replicate the success he had achieved at Villa Park.
Saunders was born in Birkenhead on Merseyside, and joined First Division Everton in 1951 as a determined centre-forward. But he made only three league appearances in four years at the club, and before long his playing career appeared to be in freefall. For two years he played for non-league Tonbridge in Kent, but then in 1957 he came to the attention of Gillingham, in the Third Division South, who signed him up. After scoring 20 league goals in the 1957-58 season, he was transferred to Portsmouth, who were playing in the First Division, for £10,000. “They knew they weren’t getting a world beater,” he said later, “just a bloke who was prepared to go in and play where it hurts in the penalty area.”
Saunders was a success at Portsmouth, scoring 145 goals in 235 league appearances over six years. But when he was dropped by the manager, George Smith, from an August pre-season friendly with Arsenal in 1964, he demanded a transfer, moving first to Watford (1964-65) and then Charlton (1965-67). He ended his playing career at Charlton having scored 207 league goals in 392 appearances for his various clubs.
As a manager of many teams, he began humbly enough in 1967 outside the league with Yeovil Town, famous for their FA Cup exploits and a sloping pitch. After two years he briefly, though productively, took over at Second Division Oxford United before Norwich City, also in the second tier, appointed him in 1969. There he showed his qualities by taking Norwich to the Second Division championship in the 1971-72 season, ushering them in to the First Division for the first time in their history.
He got on well with the players, and in 1973 Norwich made it all the way to the League Cup final, which they lost 1-0 to Tottenham. But it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later he would fall out with the dominating chairman, Arthur South, and he resigned in the same year.
Manchester City speedily appointed him, but again he was to fall out with the chairman, Peter Swales. Saunders went in 1974 following a 2-1 defeat by Wolves in the League Cup final and after just five months in office. “I’m shocked, flabbergasted and humiliated,” he proclaimed. “I did not deserve the sack.”
City’s loss was emphatically Villa’s gain. They were in the Second Division when he took the reins in 1974, and he not only raised Villa to the First Division in his first season, he also guided them to victory in the 1975 League Cup, winning the final 1-0 against his old club Norwich. After a season of consolidation in the top flight, Villa then had four consecutive top 10 finishes, winning another League Cup final in 1977 as they beat Everton 3-2 in a second replay.
The 1980-81 season, which ended Villa’s 71-year wait for a seventh league championship trophy, was the culmination of some careful team building by Saunders. He used only 14 players throughout the campaign, with seven of them – Des Bremner, Gordon Cowans, Ken McNaught, Dennis Mortimer, Tony Morley, Jimmy Rimmer and Kenny Swain – ever present. Putting the emphasis on stability, he made sure each player got to know the play of his team-mates inside out, and there developed a remarkable cohesion and spirit in the side, which he resisted tinkering with.
As Liverpool proved unable to continue their previous league dominance, the title challenge became a close fought race with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, who were outdone only in the last throes of the season.
Smooth progress in the European Cup during the following campaign appeared to be lining Saunders up for a claim to be one of the most successful of all English managers. But then came the row with Bendall. Villa had dropped to 15th position in the First Division by then, and Bendall insisted on changing Saunders’ contract from a “roll on” three-yearly one to a fixed three-year deal. There were bitter exchanges between the two and Saunders walked out. “I had always thought I’d spend the rest of my career with Villa,” he said afterwards.
Saunders straightaway joined First Division Birmingham City, where he experienced his first real failure as a manager when the team were relegated in his second season there. He took them straight back up in 1984-85, only then to clash with the chairman, Keith Coombs, over an unfulfilled promise of £250,000 to buy new players. As the club sank £2m into debt, Ken Wheldon, a scrap metal millionaire, took over as chairman, and Saunders’ days were numbered. He left in 1986 after “four years banging my head against a brick wall”.
Briefly he contemplated retirement, but soon joined First Division West Bromwich Albion, who were also in a parlous state. Saunders could not prevent them from being relegated, nor could he bring them back up again, and so after 18 months he was sacked, complaining that “they treated me like a peasant”.
It was to be his last managerial post even though he was only 54. He entered a self-imposed retirement in Solihull, to where he had moved when he first joined Villa. Although he later accepted invitations to Villa for commemorative occasions, in general he preferred to stay out of the limelight. “The moment I left West Brom I put football behind me,” he said. “I don’t pay much attention to it any more.” Instead he concentrated on enjoying his family life and on trying to get his golf handicap down.
In later years he suffered from dementia, and since last year had been living in a care home.
With his wife, Brenda, Saunders had four children, Ronnie, Karen and twins, David and Marian.
• Ronald Saunders, football player and manager, born 6 November 1932; died 7 December 2019