David Freezer: An enthralling Canaries career which I’d heard so little about
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
The passing of Ron Saunders had me searching through our archives this week, to find out more about a Norwich City personality who played a major role in the club’s history, masterminding the Canaries’ first promotion to the top flight.
Similarly to the recent passing of legendary captain Duncan Forbes, the news that Saunders had passed away at the age of 87 left me feeling slightly out of the loop, having not written much about either during my time covering the Canaries.
Yet as the players lined the centre circle with black armbands and the Carrow Road faithful applauded the memory of another prominent figure, it left me wanting to know more about Saunders - and as a 33-year-old, I'm sure there are many readers of a similar age and younger who thought the same.
There was no avoiding the tales about 'Big Dunc', even as someone born in 1986 I'd heard about the Scottish granite upon which that famous promotion of 1972 was built, the lionheart leader who was such a hero to my dad's generation, the man who starred in that iconic image on Mousehold Heath.
Whereas I'd heard little about Saunders, a man who would go on to lead Aston Villa to the First Division title and lay the groundwork for European Cup glory, the tough trainer who had used Mousehold to push his players to the limit during pre-season.
Having previously lived close to Mousehold, I've jogged up and down those steep slopes and I certainly don't think I could manage to hop up them on one leg!
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So it was down to our library to find out more about the former Portsmouth striker's time in charge at Carrow Road - where I always enjoy rifling through old copies of the EDP and Evening News, where you can walk past copies of newspapers from as far back as the late 19th century.
As I turned to April 1972 and that momentous first promotion to the top tier there was an immediate sign of the tough taskmaster's work, with the headline 'back to earth with a bump' with a picture of City's players being put through a gruelling training session to run off the promotion celebrations.
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Forbes - after missing six months of the season through injury - had scored the crucial goal to earn a 1-0 win over Swindon on the Saturday, sparking a pitch invasion as promotion was all but sealed, before Graham Paddon and Ken Foggo sealed the deal with the goals in a 2-1 win at Orient two days later.
That evening saw Saunders emerge with a bottle of Champagne and his players to take the acclaim of the many Canaries supporters in the crowd of 15,530 at Brisbane Road, who had again taken to the pitch to celebrate, as Norwich secured their first season at English football's top table.
During 17 seasons in the Second Division, the closest a City team had previously come to promotion was fourth in 1961 under Archie Macaulay, yet it seems there were few comments from Saunders about the achievement.
Yet Ron, his wife Breeda and their four children did agree to an interview at home in light of the success, with Mrs Saunders looking forward to a rare opportunity to travel to an away game at Watford on the Saturday - where the title would be sealed as Dave Stringer's goal earned a 1-1 draw - admitting there had been times when she "could throttle him" when he let the pressures of football show at home.
Her husband, just 39 years old at the time, was not getting carried away though, saying: "In the First Division you are in the ultimate. If you finish second or third there you haven't lost as much." Asked how he was feeling, Saunders concluded: "Worn out and shattered - but today there is a feeling of elation too."
He would go on to lead City to survival in their first season, by just two points, with a testing campaign which included two lengthy winless streaks of nine and 10 games - something the current Canaries can bear in mind as they try to keep their nerve in their fight for Premier League survival.
That season's first win was a 2-1 derby success at Ipswich and also included the club's first trip to Wembley, losing 1-0 to Spurs in the League Cup final, with Saunders able to proudly lead his team out at the home of football. It would turn sour however, resigning after a 3-1 home defeat to Everton in November 1973 after a boardroom argument with chairman Arthur South, amid rumours that Manchester City were interested in his services.
That post-match drama was wonderfully described by EDP reporter Keith Skipper at the time, writing: "Knots of reporters paced the corridors like sentinels of doom. It was an eerie atmosphere, accentuated by Ron Saunders' appearance with a plate of cakes.
"He smiled and asked if anyone was waiting to see him, supporting claims that his men had scored all of Everton's goals. "Duncan Forbes got two and Dave Stringer the other," he said, with the dull acceptance of a man ticking off names on an extra-long Christmas shopping list. He moved on to his office - with his cakes."
The article goes on to detail how relations between chairman and manager had become strained by disagreements over transfer strategy and finances, while Saunders had also taken exception to South's pledge of a pursuit of "attacking football" when he had succeeded Geoffrey Watling as chairman.
Skipper's enthralling report concludes: "As someone who went through countless briar patches in a bid to build a good relationship with 'hard man' Saunders since 1969, I can vouch for his showdown qualities. However, they couldn't blind me to his considerable managerial qualities, based on an unshakable belief that piles of graft could compensate for limitations in skill.
"He banked on sweat and dedication to plug those gaps instead of the cheque book. In three years he transformed a club with a Second Division complex. He took them to Wembley for the first time, and kept them in Division One. Pressures were enormous, but he saw results of total vindications of his methods."
A total of 206 games between 1969 and 1973 at Norwich was quickly followed by those rumours of Manchester City's interest becoming a reality and while that spell was short lived and mostly unsuccessful, his title triumph and two League Cup wins during almost 400 games made him a legend at Villa, falling out with the board about contract negotiations with a European Cup quarter-final place already secured - and leaving before that 1982 triumph was sealed.
It's clear Saunders was an enthralling character who made his mark at Carrow Road, to earn his place in the club's Hall of Fame.