Ron Saunders meant so much to so many fans – including our historic features writer.
Words: Alan Wilson | @VILLAlan54
Just before my sixth birthday, after seeing a few reserve games, my father took me to my very first ‘proper’ Aston Villa match.
You never forget your very first time at Villa Park – with the stunningly perfect green pitch, the roar of the crowd and the beautiful claret and blue shirts.
I was also struck that day, in the bright sunshine, by the pure, dazzling white shirts of the opposition – Portsmouth.
Studying the match programme, and in particular the team sheet page over and over, there was a name that caught the eye – even if his time on the pitch necessarily didn’t. The centre-forward for Pompey that day was one “Ron Saunders”.
After a decent, but unremarkable playing career, Saunders cut his managerial teeth at Norwich and Manchester City before rocking up at Villa Park just in time for the 1974-75 season. There has been year upon year of festering decay that had put woodworm into the timber of Aston Villa’s proud history.
Apart from a win in the inaugural final of the League Cup in 1961, no major trophy had glittered in the sunshine at Villa Park since the 2-1 FA Cup final victory over Manchester United’s Busby Babes in 1957. For people of a similar age, it was hard to remember anything other than hard times for the Villa.
When Ron Saunders arrived in town, the whole footballing landscape changed at Villa Park. In his very first season, promotion back to the First Division alongside a League Cup win at Wembley – a 1-0 win against Norwich City.
I don’t recall how, but I bagged two tickets to attend Aston Villa’s End of Season awards and presentation evening at Penn’s Hall Hotel in Sutton Coldfield.
I have vivid memories of that evening – the Villa captain was a tall and likeable centre-half called Chris Nicholl – and as well as holding the League Cup aloft and leading the team to promotion, Nicholl had also won the coveted ‘Terrace Trophy’ after being voted as the fan’s favourite player that season. After filling the League Cup with the obligatory champagne and sharing it around his fellow team-mates, staff and the player’s wives, he then refilled it with several pints of lager.
I was in heaven as the three-handled Football League cup was handed to me and I took a huge gulp from the glittering trophy. The mood was buoyant and as everybody was getting progressively more festive, I spotted Ron Saunders – sitting alone – and watching everybody enjoy themselves. My wife tried to stop me, but I could not be detained – I was determined to speak to the dour-faced man who had put a smile back on the face of Aston Villa.
I will never forget the brief, but poignant conversation I had with Aston Villa’s ‘king in waiting’.
“Mr Saunders, I just want to thank you for the best season of my Villa life.”
He looked me directly in my eyes, and replied, “How long have you been an Aston Villa supporter, son?”
“All my life, since my Dad first took me when I was five,” I retorted.
He accepted my hand, and without a glimmer of humility said:
“You might have enjoyed this season, but hold tight, this is just the very beginning for us all – the biggest and best is yet to come.”
The rest, of course is history.
Another League Cup victory in 1977 after an epic three-match final. Losing Brian Little to injury and selling Andy Gray to Wolves. Saunders then put together the team that would fulfill that promise on the balmy night at Penn’s Hall.
Aston Villa and it’s adoring fans had been waiting some 71 years since their previous Championship win in 1910. In the 80-81 season, after finishing four points clear of an impressive Ipswich Town side managed by the brilliant Bobby Robson, Saunders and his fast-flowing Villa team lifted the Football League Championship.
Just five months later, Saunders stunned the football world by walking out of Villa Park under a huge cloud after a row with then owner Ron Bendall. Unbelievably, on the May 26th 1982, under the stewardship of Tony Barton – Aston Villa became Champions of Europe by beating the mighty Bayern Munich on an unforgettable night in Rotterdam.
Make no mistake though – although he was absent on that balmy night in the De Kuyp Stadium, it was Saunders’ team, tactics and unshakeable spirit that won the European Cup that night.
The sad passing of Ron Saunders will stir up hundreds of memories for thousands of Aston Villa supporters across the world.
Personally, I will never forget the firm handshake, steely-eyed glare and total assurance that ‘the best was yet to come’.
Rest in peace, Ron, you will never be forgotten.