WITH Birmingham City in the offing, we alight upon a story featuring Ron Saunders. None can question the success that he enjoyed at Villa Park in particular in the late 1970s and early 1980s but once he left their employ, it was all downhill for him. Or was it? Conspiracy theorists will argue that even after he left Witton, he remained in the employ of his former bosses and, given the way things went for him at Birmingham City and then in God’s country, it’s a theory that has legs.
Let’s be honest about this, by the time Saunders arrived at The Hawthorns, Albion was a club in steep decline. From the glory days of the 1978/79 magicians, we had hit the skids and we were hurtling towards Division Two – that’s the Championship kids – and the prospect of anybody saving us was slim. There were costs to cut, wage bills to trim and a club to rebuild.
On the face of it, the board’s appointment of Saunders made a degree of sense. His Villa pedigree was unquestionable and as a no-nonsense organiser, there were few to compare with him. And Albion were a team that needed organising, for while we had talent – Derek Statham, Garth Crooks, Mickey Thomas, Steve Mackenzie, Jimmy Nicholl to name but a few – we were slumped at the bottom of the table like a wino who’d been given the keys to the meths factory. We might not have been quite dead, but there was a plot in the graveyard with our name on it.
Given his granite faced demeanour and his somewhat cadaverous look, the sardonic Saunders might not be the first person you’d think of when looking for someone to administer the kiss of life. Exhumations, yes. Resurrections? Perhaps not.
Playing devil’s advocate, Saunders had a massive job to do and absolutely no time to do it in. As he made clear, he wasn’t there to be the people’s friend. He was there to do a job and knock the football club into shape.
Whether his approach was the right one is a moot point. Certainly the post-Saunders years saw Albion spiral further and further down, slipping into lower and lower circles of hell that not even Dante had imagined. Not that it was much fun for some players while he was here, not least those that didn’t live within five minutes’ reach of The Hawthorns.
That covered pretty well all the experienced pros, the ones who might have dug us out of trouble but who found themselves ostracised, banned from the main dressing room, and generally treated as pariahs. Right or wrong, one thing we can say with certainty. It didn’t get us the results we needed, nor did it ever threaten to.
One nugget from that first 1985/86 season says pretty much everything about the relationship Saunders had with his senior players and the sense of mistrust bordering upon loathing that existed between them.
Out on the training field, the Throstles of the day were indulging in a practice match as a rare treat from running up and down the outsides of blocks of flats as per the demands of the regime. Back from injury was Gary Owen, cultured midfielder, neat and tidy passer of the football, the possessor of feet of such silken softness that they would have had Tony Mowbray in raptures. As was his wont, Gary was making himself available for the ball and then passing it short, keeping things moving.
Tippy was not the style that Mr Saunders wanted to embrace, never mind tappy. Sights of mummy and daddy were there none. A shrill blast on the whistle brought proceedings to a sudden halt.
“Bottom of the table. You know why we’re bottom of the table? Because that’s how you play your football. Next time you get the ball facing our goal, I want you to hook it out over there, 60 yards forward and out wide so that we can chase it down and get nearer their goal. Get it out by the corner flag.”
Another blast on the whistle and the game resumes. After a few moments, the ball reaches Gary Owen in the centre circle, back to goal. For those of you too young to recall him, he was some player was Gary Owen, a purveyor of raking passes from one side of the field to the other.
So, he took the ball down on his chest and without a look, clipped the ball over his shoulder, passing it fully 60 yards. Second bounce, it hit the corner flag. A bit like finding half a needle in a field of haystacks. Then threading a camel through it.
A source of the time says that all was still for a brief second as everyone looked across to the manager. Same source swears that he could see the manager making internal calculations. Was that an accident? Was Owen really that good? Did he do that deliberately?
When in doubt, revert to Sergeant Major type. Let’s just say that Gary Owen’s Albion career did not last long thereafter.