Aston Villa’s Marmite Manager

Ron Saunders – Marmite Manager –

The book THE ODD MAN OUT by Graham Denton, reviewed by Trevor Fisher

Pitoh – Pitch Publishing 2017

Published in Heroes and Villains Magazine May 2017

Ron Saunders was Villa’s most successful manager in living memory. The only man to win the League after the First World War, he built the team which won the League and European Cup, and his achievements make him a major figure and a man loved or hated. Or indeed both, since he both got us success and arguably wrecked it by walking out when on the verge of the European Cup success. Graham Denton takes us further than anyone before has done to understand the enigma.

Saunder’s roller coaster of a career is one of highs and lows and divided opinions. He

*Won Norwich their first ever promotion to the old First Division and to their first Wembley final.

* Is the only manager to have taken three different sides to three successive League cup finals.

* was the first manager to win Manager of the Year award twice, only one to do so while managing same club (Villa) in two different divisions.

* was the last man to win the old league title under 2 points for a win system- only 14 players being used. Yet he was enormously controversial and almost courted unpopularity.

As author Graham Denton says, “At every club Saunders polarised opinion like no other manager of the period”. He is the only manager to run all three local clubs and Blues goalie Jeff Wealands is quoted saying “Saunders is the only man I’ve ever hated”, but Seaman, later England goalkeeper – said he was the first goalkeeping coach he had ever had taught him drills later used by the England Number 1 throughout his career”. His talent was abundant, but his faults massive. At the end of the book we know a lot more about both.

Saunders was a true eccentric and the title takes a quote he himself provided that “I’m the odd man out, the one who as a youngster had no burning ambitions about being a professional footballer….by the time I was 24 or 25 I had become obsessed with the idea of managing a football club and making my mark on that side of the game”.

This obsession – and it is the right word – is perhaps due to his failure as a player after a promising start. Capped as a schoolboy for England, he left school at 16 and joned Everton in Second division but did not make it and left for part time Tonbridge. He then spent his early married life in the lower professional divisions, and perhaps looking after his family was his driving force. He wanted security and became Norwich manager in July 1969. He achieved promotion, but then an incident occurred which would become a precedent. At the start of the 1973-74 season the chair of the board resigned, the new chair clashed with Saunders and Saunders wrote a resignation letter in the board room and left on 17th November 1973. He was not out of work long. Man City made him manager 5 days later 22nd Nov 1973 . Aged 41 Saunders was a coming man but he could not handle big stars and fell out with Denis Law (‘the Old Man’), Summerbee, Francis Lee (‘fatty’), After trying to sell Scottish international Law, on Good Friday 1974 Saunders was sacked.

He was duly appointed Villa manager though Doug Ellis was always anti Saunders according to the author. Saunders got Villa to the League Cup final, Villa winning 1-0, but more importantly Villa were promoted back to the old Division 1. Saunder’s methods were a mixture of physical fitness and mind games. Keith Leonard is quoted saying “We could wear teams down, and no longer how long it took, we simply knew we were going to score”. However those players who were outside the First Team were left without proper training tops or balls. Brian Little is quoted as saying players had their first team tops taken off in front of the others. ‘I know he used to destroy quite a few of the established first team players at that time’ Sammy Morgan was told “You’re over there with the shit”.

Saunders built a brilliant team in the first division signing young players like John ‘Budgie’ Burridge, Andy Gray and Denis Mortimer, and promoting from the youth team the best young players from Vic Crowe’s time – John Gidman, Brian Little, Gordon Cowans and John ‘Dixie’ Deehan and others. The blend of talent inside and from outside the club would be a Saunders hallmark, as was the removal of players with good histories at the club notably Charlie Aitken, legendary full back.

The first team at peak was now capable of beating anyone, as the 5-1 beating of Champion’s Liverpool on December 15th 1976 showed. Going into 1977 Villa made the League Cup Final where as Denton notes, in a 0-0 draw Villa fans sang- “Pass the ball back” from Villa fans to tune of Clementine. He does not explain that Everton passed the ball to the goalkeeper every 90 seconds. But Saunders refused to let Andy Gray pick up his award from the PFA of Player and Young Player of the Year. Denton quotes Gray thinking Saunders liked younger players naïve who he could control and there are several other players who could claim to be badly treated notably John Burridge.

The limits of the mind games were seen on March 1st 1978, when Barcelona visited in the UEFA cup. Saunders technique was to read the opposition team sheet, throw it away and in this case say “Cruyff, he can’t play”. I watched Johan Cruyff give a master class and when he was subbed with 8 minutes to go was one of those from all parts the ground who gave him a standing ovation. Nevertheless, against less outstanding talent Saunders was making progress, but Denton states ‘a tipping point with certain individuals had been reached’ Little, Gray and Gidman were annoyed with Saunders. Denton deals in detail with with the unsavoury battle which led Gidman and Gray to leave, Little retiring injured. Boardroom battles ensued, Ellis launches a bid to become chair, but failed, as the board backed Saunders. But not uncritically.

By the end of 79-80 the team had potential, but lacked a number 9. Saunders had wanted Mick \Ferguson, Harry Kartz vetoed and resigned over the row allowing Ron Bendall to become chair of the board. But the 1980-81 season started with Peter With e being signed, who Denton thinks was the last piece of the jigsaw. By 8th November 1980 a team line up which became legendary first played together: this was the team of Rotterdam and disposed of Liverpool’s challenge on10th January 1981 Villa V Liverpool. The Champions again were put to the sword, With e scoring then on 82 minutes Bremner, Swain, Shaw, and Denis Mortimer combined to score. Denton say the moment was one “all those villa fans in the 47,960 crowd would never forget”. I was there and he is right.

The book describes well how Villa overtook Ipswich under Bobbie Robson to win the League. In March Ipswich were only one point ahead of Villa but when they beat us at Villa Park the press assumed Ipswich had done the job, leading to Saunders’ famous question to the press “Would anyone like to bet against us winning the title?” Villa lost the final game at Arsenal but in the end Middlesborough beat Ipswich and Denton says

Never has a set of football fans been so ecstatic in defeat”. Saunders got the Manager of the Year award.

But then the wheels fell off. 1981-82 form was poor and despite the European cup run, on Friday 5th Feb Saunders was told his roll over contract was ended, he was now on a three year deal, On Tuesday 9th Feb at the

training session, Saunders ws taken home with flu. That evening resigned. Denton probes what really happened, quoting Denis Mortimer, club captain who says he was phoned by Saunders about a “Big fight going on between himself and the Bendalls” but he would not leave the job. The following morning he was gone. Denton cannot work out what had happened, but the result was that Saunders left for Birmingham City – then Albion – and never again had the success he had at Villa.

Tony Barton took over as manager for the European Cup success, but the starting eleven in Rotterdam was

Rimmer, Swain, Williams, Evans, McNaught, Mortimer, Bremner, Shaw, With e, Cowans and Morley – which first came together on 8th November 1980. They never played together again after the Euro Final May 28th 1982. They were Saunders’s team. The book makes clear that Saunders was a genius and for a short time produced the best football from Villa in living memory. Graham Denton has written a book which is essential reading for Villa fans.

Ron Saunders – Marmite Manager –

The book THE ODD MAN OUT by Graham Denton, reviewed by Trevor Fisher

Pitoh – Pitch Publishing 2017

Published in Heroes and Villains Magazine May 2017

Ron Saunders was Villa’s most successful manager in living memory. The only man to win the League after the First World War, he built the team which won the League and European Cup, and his achievements make him a major figure and a man loved or hated. Or indeed both, since he both got us success and arguably wrecked it by walking out when on the verge of the European Cup success. Graham Denton takes us further than anyone before has done to understand the enigma.

Saunder’s roller coaster of a career is one of highs and lows and divided opinions. He

*Won Norwich their first ever promotion to the old First Division and to their first Wembley final.

* Is the only manager to have taken three different sides to three successive League cup finals.

* was the first manager to win Manager of the Year award twice, only one to do so while managing same club (Villa) in two different divisions.

* was the last man to win the old league title under 2 points for a win system- only 14 players being used. Yet he was enormously controversial and almost courted unpopularity.

As author Graham Denton says, “At every club Saunders polarised opinion like no other manager of the period”. He is the only manager to run all three local clubs and Blues goalie Jeff Wealands is quoted saying “Saunders is the only man I’ve ever hated”, but Seaman, later England goalkeeper – said he was the first goalkeeping coach he had ever had taught him drills later used by the England Number 1 throughout his career”. His talent was abundant, but his faults massive. At the end of the book we know a lot more about both.

Saunders was a true eccentric and the title takes a quote he himself provided that “I’m the odd man out, the one who as a youngster had no burning ambitions about being a professional footballer….by the time I was 24 or 25 I had become obsessed with the idea of managing a football club and making my mark on that side of the game”.

This obsession – and it is the right word – is perhaps due to his failure as a player after a promising start. Capped as a schoolboy for England, he left school at 16 and joned Everton in Second division but did not make it and left for part time Tonbridge. He then spent his early married life in the lower professional divisions, and perhaps looking after his family was his driving force. He wanted security and became Norwich manager in July 1969. He achieved promotion, but then an incident occurred which would become a precedent. At the start of the 1973-74 season the chair of the board resigned, the new chair clashed with Saunders and Saunders wrote a resignation letter in the board room and left on 17th November 1973. He was not out of work long. Man City made him manager 5 days later 22nd Nov 1973 . Aged 41 Saunders was a coming man but he could not handle big stars and fell out with Denis Law (‘the Old Man’), Summerbee, Francis Lee (‘fatty’), After trying to sell Scottish international Law, on Good Friday 1974 Saunders was sacked.

He was duly appointed Villa manager though Doug Ellis was always anti Saunders according to the author. Saunders got Villa to the League Cup final, Villa winning 1-0, but more importantly Villa were promoted back to the old Division 1. Saunder’s methods were a mixture of physical fitness and mind games. Keith Leonard is quoted saying “We could wear teams down, and no longer how long it took, we simply knew we were going to score”. However those players who were outside the First Team were left without proper training tops or balls. Brian Little is quoted as saying players had their first team tops taken off in front of the others. ‘I know he used to destroy quite a few of the established first team players at that time’ Sammy Morgan was told “You’re over there with the shit”.

Saunders built a brilliant team in the first division signing young players like John ‘Budgie’ Burridge, Andy Gray and Denis Mortimer, and promoting from the youth team the best young players from Vic Crowe’s time – John Gidman, Brian Little, Gordon Cowans and John ‘Dixie’ Deehan and others. The blend of talent inside and from outside the club would be a Saunders hallmark, as was the removal of players with good histories at the club notably Charlie Aitken, legendary full back.

The first team at peak was now capable of beating anyone, as the 5-1 beating of Champion’s Liverpool on December 15th 1976 showed. Going into 1977 Villa made the League Cup Final where as Denton notes, in a 0-0 draw Villa fans sang- “Pass the ball back” from Villa fans to tune of Clementine. He does not explain that Everton passed the ball to the goalkeeper every 90 seconds. But Saunders refused to let Andy Gray pick up his award from the PFA of Player and Young Player of the Year. Denton quotes Gray thinking Saunders liked younger players naïve who he could control and there are several other players who could claim to be badly treated notably John Burridge.

The limits of the mind games were seen on March 1st 1978, when Barcelona visited in the UEFA cup. Saunders technique was to read the opposition team sheet, throw it away and in this case say “Cruyff, he can’t play”. I watched Johan Cruyff give a master class and when he was subbed with 8 minutes to go was one of those from all parts the ground who gave him a standing ovation. Nevertheless, against less outstanding talent Saunders was making progress, but Denton states ‘a tipping point with certain individuals had been reached’ Little, Gray and Gidman were annoyed with Saunders. Denton deals in detail with with the unsavoury battle which led Gidman and Gray to leave, Little retiring injured. Boardroom battles ensued, Ellis launches a bid to become chair, but failed, as the board backed Saunders. But not uncritically.

By the end of 79-80 the team had potential, but lacked a number 9. Saunders had wanted Mick \Ferguson, Harry Kartz vetoed and resigned over the row allowing Ron Bendall to become chair of the board. But the 1980-81 season started with Peter With e being signed, who Denton thinks was the last piece of the jigsaw. By 8th November 1980 a team line up which became legendary first played together: this was the team of Rotterdam and disposed of Liverpool’s challenge on10th January 1981 Villa V Liverpool. The Champions again were put to the sword, With e scoring then on 82 minutes Bremner, Swain, Shaw, and Denis Mortimer combined to score. Denton say the moment was one “all those villa fans in the 47,960 crowd would never forget”. I was there and he is right.

The book describes well how Villa overtook Ipswich under Bobbie Robson to win the League. In March Ipswich were only one point ahead of Villa but when they beat us at Villa Park the press assumed Ipswich had done the job, leading to Saunders’ famous question to the press “Would anyone like to bet against us winning the title?” Villa lost the final game at Arsenal but in the end Middlesborough beat Ipswich and Denton says

Never has a set of football fans been so ecstatic in defeat”. Saunders got the Manager of the Year award.

But then the wheels fell off. 1981-82 form was poor and despite the European cup run, on Friday 5th Feb Saunders was told his roll over contract was ended, he was now on a three year deal, On Tuesday 9th Feb at the

training session, Saunders ws taken home with flu. That evening resigned. Denton probes what really happened, quoting Denis Mortimer, club captain who says he was phoned by Saunders about a “Big fight going on between himself and the Bendalls” but he would not leave the job. The following morning he was gone. Denton cannot work out what had happened, but the result was that Saunders left for Birmingham City – then Albion – and never again had the success he had at Villa.

Tony Barton took over as manager for the European Cup success, but the starting eleven in Rotterdam was

Rimmer, Swain, Williams, Evans, McNaught, Mortimer, Bremner, Shaw, With e, Cowans and Morley – which first came together on 8th November 1980. They never played together again after the Euro Final May 28th 1982. They were Saunders’s team. The book makes clear that Saunders was a genius and for a short time produced the best football from Villa in living memory. Graham Denton has written a book which is essential reading for Villa fans.

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