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Football: RETURN OF THE HERO; Villa salute to 'greatest boss' long overdue He was the catalyst of Aston Villa's greatest successes but Ron Saunders became the forgotten man. Hyder Jawad reports.

Byline: Hyder Jawad

You would have to spend a long time looking around Villa Park to find any evidence that a man called Ron Saunders once worked there. To some, it might look as though he has been erased from Aston Villa's history.

The record books tell a different story.

They portray Saunders as the finest manager in Aston Villa's history, the man who led the club to the 1981 League Championship and who created, but did not manage, the team that won the European Cup a year later.

You will not find many photographs of Saunders on the walls inside Villa Park and there is not yet a tangible tribute to his achievements or his skills as a manager.

If Villa could once be described as a club who lived in the past, how ironic that they should never fully appreciate their own past. But, with the arrival as chairman of Randy Lerner, that perception has changed. Villa now live in the present and are prepared to embrace their past.

When Villa play Manchester United at Villa Park today, Saunders will be in attendance as a guest. It will be his first visit to the stadium since 1994 and only his second since 1984.

Saunders now lives a life of near-anonymity, refusing all requests for an interview, and avoiding the game that gave him so much happiness. It has turned him from a great manager into a mysterious icon.

The novelty of his arrival today might ensure that Villa supporters spend more time looking at him in the directors' box than the players on the pitch.

Saunders will note that the Witton Road Stand is now known, officially if not in actuality, as the Doug Ellis Stand. He will note the all-seat stadium, the splendid refurbishments, and the pace of the modern game.

Had he attended the match at home to Bolton Wanderers last Saturday, he would have noticed the 15,000 empty seats.

Although Saunders was brought to Villa in 1974 by Doug Ellis, the same Doug Ellis steadfastly refused to give the Champions team and European Cup-winning team the attention they deserved.

Significantly, Ellis was the Villa chairman from 1968-79 and then from 1982-2006. During his time in exile, Villa were at their most successful, and that bothers him.

That is why it is hard to find appropriate references at Villa Park to Saunders, to 1981, to Dennis Mortimer, to 1982, to Peter Withe, to Tony Morley et al. Randy Lerner is planning to change that, which is why Saunders will be at Villa Park today. It is the start of the healing process.

"Quite right, too," says Mortimer, who was Villa's captain during those heady days. "It is about time Ron Saunders was given the credit for what he did here. It is about time the club was given the chance to fully appreciate him. This will be a very special day indeed."

Whether Saunders accepts an invitation to go on to the pitch at half-time is another matter. Morley, who was Villa's dynamic winger under Saunders, is not sure. "I would be surprised if he does agree to that because he is such a private man," Morley says. "But he certainly deserves the applause."

Mortimer, one of the few football people who still keeps in touch with Saunders, has one worry about the half-time presentation. "A lot of people will have left their seats, for food or a toilet break, and might not be there to applaud Ron," Mortimer says. "On this occasion, I hope everyone stays in their seats."

Saunders was the disciplinarian who built two great Villa teams. The 1975-77 team, that won the League Cup and thrashed Liverpool 5-1, and the 1980-82 team, that won the League Championship and European Cup.

He had left by the time Villa became European champions - a contractual dispute forced him to resign in February 1982, leaving Tony Barton in charge of the team - but everybody knows that Saunders was the architect.

Principles were important to Saunders, which is why he was able to turn down the prospect of European success with Villa rather than compromise his personal code.

"I am looking forward to meeting Ron again," Morley says. "It seems so long since we last came into contact. He will probably be the same as he was then, telling me I was crap and all that kind of stuff. It was his way. He must have liked me, though, because he signed me for three different clubs."

Saunders, who had previously managed Oxford United, Norwich City and Manchester City, took over at Villa Park when reports were suggesting that Sir Alf Ramsey was going to be Villa's choice.

It was arguably Ellis's finest decision. Saunders led Villa out of the Second Division and into the top flight in 1975 and won the League Cup at Wembley in the same season.

He led Villa into Europe for the first time, signed players like Andy Gray and Mortimer in 1975, Alex Cro-pley in 1976, Allan Evans, Ken McNaught and Jimmy Rimmer in 1977, Kenny Swain in 1978, and Morley and Des Bremner in 1979.

Cropley, a Scot who arrived from Arsenal, says that Saunders had the rare ability of signing the right players at the right time.

"In some ways he was lucky," Cropley says. "In 1976-77, he had this great group of players and it all just clicked into place. I think it was only a fixture pile-up that stopped us from winning more trophies that season.

"But you have to credit the manager for signing all of those players. There was a lot of rebuilding going on but it all just seemed to fit into place."

When Cropley uses the word "lucky", he means it in much the same way as Napoleon who, when asked whether he preferred courageous generals or brilliant generals, he said: "Neither. I prefer lucky generals."

But Saunders was also courageous and brilliant. He needed courage to work with Ellis and, latterly, Ron Ben-dall. And he needed brilliance to turn a Second Division team into the European champions in just eight years.

"It was all about vindication," Mortimer says. "We had our critics. They would say that we were not good enough to be champions of England the year before. So, by winning the European Cup, we proved them wrong.

"It was Villa's triumph, sure, and it was Tony Barton's triumph, too. But never forget that Ron Saunders built that team. He has not been to Villa Park since the Tony Barton tribute night, and that was quite a while ago. Ron's return is long overdue."

Nobody will forget, even if it is hard find proof of these triumphs on the Villa Park walls. Saunders might not even notice. He was never an attention-seeker. That is why it will be such a novelty to see him absorb the applause of the masses.

When Saunders left in 1982, he turned up as manager of Birmingham City, then took over as manager of West Bromwich Albion in 1986. He left the game, for good, in September 1987.

He is said to be deeply religious and an advocate of family life. He does not miss the game and no longer watches matches on television.

But his influence is felt at Villa Park even today. Supporters still wear 1982 replica shirts. Mortimer wants Villa to take a step further. He wants the Witton Road Stand, now the Doug Ellis Stand, to be renamed the Ron Saunders Stand.

"I can think of no more appropriate tribute to such a man," Mortimer says.


The man and his team - Above, Aston Villa's squad present Ron Saunders with a sports personality award while, below, the biggest prize came with winning the title in 1981. Below, Dennis Mortimer his captain, and the boss enjoy the Champagne' "It is about time Ron Saunders was given the credit for what he did at Villa. It is about time the club was given the chance to fully appreciate him" Dennis Mortimer' Ron Saunders proudly display the Championship trophy in front of a packed Victoria Square after Aston Villa's 1981 First Divbision triumph
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 23, 2006
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