Ron Saunders shocked Aston Villa fans when he resigned as manager on 9 February 1982 – less than a year after guiding them to the title. Nine days later, he had another surprise in store for them.
It is comforting to know that throughout the history of the sport, football at the highest level has always had room for the odd surprise or two. Most of us addicts who have been immersed in the game for too many years to mention may feel like we’ve seen it all. But football has a habit of keeping us on our toes.
Take the example of Ron Saunders. Having led Aston Villa to their first Division One title in 71 years, the future looked bright. Secure in his job with a rolling three-year contract, Saunders would oversee Villa’s first foray into the European Cup during the 1981/82 season. Yet come February, he had gone.
There had been rumours circulating that Saunders was about to resign; a contract dispute and disagreements with chairman Ron Bendall reasons for Villa fans to be fearful. Even so, his departure was big news – and his next managerial role would cause more ripples across the second city.
Using only 14 players during the title-winning campaign, Saunders may well have been justified in feeling that his squad would be strengthened. But the club had reportedly spent £1m on wages during the past year and, with an £800,000 overdraft, only Andy Blair was added to the playing staff.
These developments opened up the first cracks in the Saunders-Bendall relationship. But it would be alterations to Saunders’ contract that proved to be the breaking point. Previously, Saunders’ contract expired three years from the current day, thus entitling him to three years compensation if he was dismissed. When it was announced on 5 February that the Villa board were changing Saunders’ contract to the more conventional three-year deal (expiring three years from now), grey clouds gathered above Villa Park.
“Ron is a very good manager who has done well here,” Bendall announced. “At the end of three years, all things being equal, we will be willing to negotiate with him again. As a businessman. I don’t like ‘roll over’ contracts which go on forever. With football in its present recession, we have to know what our liabilities are.”
Saunders couldn’t hide his fury: “I have always maintained that I want to spend the rest of my managerial career with Aston Villa. But the situation means the club have less confidence in me. The odds now appear against me staying at Villa.”
A 4-1 defeat at Manchester United the day after the news broke left Villa in 15th in the league, and although the club had reached the last eight of the European Cup, injuries and too many draws had resulted in a poor title defence. Three days later, Saunders ended his eight-year spell at the club.
Taken ill at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground, he returned home before a telephone conversation with Bendall developed into a row. Saunders handed in his resignation, and over the next few days, both men would be quoted heavily as the press sharks circled.
“I’m paid to manage,” Saunders stated, “not to be an office boy who has to ask about everything he does.” Bendall hinted that Saunders wanted complete control over club affairs, a claim that Saunders strongly refuted. Villa’s chairman also was less than happy that Saunders had leaked information to the press about the financial struggles at the club, and the need to sell players.
There was little doubt where the blame sat in the eyes of the supporters. Hosting Southampton in caretaker manager Tony Barton’s first match in charge, Saunders’ name was sung repeatedly; Graham Denton in his excellent book Odd Man Out describes one such song to the tune of the Red Flag: “We won the won the league, we won the cup, now Ronnie Bendall has fucked it up!”
A protest group was established, and a petition started, as Villa fans tried desperately to get their league-winning manager reinstated. However, another event in Birmingham on 15 February changed the landscape completely. As a result of this, the next time Villa fans sung about Ron Saunders, the lyrics would have a distinctly different feel.
The sacking of Jim Smith at Birmingham City opened up the very real possibility that Saunders could cross the divide and end up in the St Andrew’s hot seat. Birmingham chairman Keith Coombs was certainly open to the idea: “His record speaks for itself and a manager of his calibre must be in the reckoning if he is available.”
To Saunders, the move made perfect sense. Offering the three-year rolling contract that Villa had taken away, another bonus was that Saunders didn’t have to uproot his family from their Solihull home. On 18 February, just nine days after leaving Villa, Saunders was back in management at the bitter rivals of his former employer. “The Villa supporters and players understand my reasons for leaving,” Saunders stated on the day of his appointment, the switch obviously creating a stir. Describing Birmingham as a sleeping giant, Saunders had a job on his hands to initially steer City away from the threat of relegation.
Fate decreed that the first match after Saunder’s move would be Birmingham vs Aston Villa on 20 February. Saunders wouldn’t officially be in charge for the fixture, as it was decided that perhaps the second city derby was not the best way to start the new regime.
Saunders would be present at St Andrew’s, though, and he was given a clear indication by Villa’s fans that his decision to switch allegiance had not gone down too well. “Saunders, you must be fucking mad” and “Saunders, we don’t need you anymore” were just two of the chants aimed at their former manager. When Peter Withe netted the only goal of the game, “Saunders, Saunders, what’s the score?” echoed around the away end.
Perhaps a small part of Saunders saw the City job as an opportunity to get one over the Villa board. If so, it didn’t really work out like that. Keeping Birmingham up was all well and good, but his time at St Andrew’s saw the club yo-yo between the top two divisions. If Saunders had been fuelled by revenge, his mood might not have improved when his team went on to win the European Cup in 1982.
Ultimately, the fortunes of Saunders and Villa declined after that season. In January 1986, he moved to West Brom, but come the end of the season, both Birmingham and his new club were relegated. Any satisfaction Villa fans may have felt would have only lasted a year; in 1987, Villa also fell through the trapdoor.
Alex McLeish and Steve Bruce have experienced what it has been like to manage both Birmingham clubs. Neither could have matched the controversy surrounding Ron Saunders’ switch, though. To win the title at one club and resign during the next campaign was shocking enough; to turn up on the doorstep of your city rivals was simply sensational.
By Steve Pye @1980sSportsBlog