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3 July 2012

Richard Day looks back at the career of the forward

Ron, who was born in Birkenhead, began his playing career as an amateur with Everton and signed professional forms at Goodison Park in February 1951.

Following his release by the Toffees in the summer of 1956, having made three appearances, he was signed by Doug Hunt, the manager of Southern League Tonbridge. Ron certainly got himself noticed with a club equalling record of 39 goals in the 1956-57 season which included a then club record of four hat-tricks in one season. This feat was only recently beaten by Jon Main who managed seven!

Gillingham boss Archie Clark paid £800 to sign Saunders in May 1957 and he made his debut in a 1 - 0 home defeat by Brighton on the opening day of the 1957/58 season. His first goal for the Gills came the following week at Southampton.

His greatest moment for the club came on the 16th of November when the Gills met Eastern Counties League Gorleston in an F.A Cup 1st Round tie. Saunders scored five times (and missed a penalty) as the club recorded a record 10 - 1 victory.

He netted another hat-trick against Brentford in February on the way to being the leading scorer with 24 league and cup goals in his first season, not bad in a struggling team.

The striker had scored 26 goals in just 53 league and cup games when Portsmouth paid £8,000 for his services in September 1958. Saunders was leading goalscorer for six consecutive seasons while at Fratton Park and his goals helped Pompey win the Third Division title in 1962.

In his time at Fratton Park he scored 156 goals in 259 games and remains their third highest goalscorer to this day. Spells at Watford and Charlton followed before he retired from playing in 1967.

He cut his managerial teeth in spells at Yeovil Town (as player-manager) and then manager at Oxford United before he first tasted success at Norwich City. Saunders guided the Canaries into the top flight for the first time in their history in 1972, by winning the Second Division title and saw his side lose the League Cup Final to Spurs.

In fact he went on to become the first manager to reach three successive League Cup Finals. In his short spell at Manchester City they lost out to Wolves at Wembley before he eventually tasted success with Aston Villa. Ron had succeeded Vic Crowe as boss at Villa Park in June 1974 and he was to lay the foundations for the most successful period in the club's modern history.

He managed Villa to the Second Division runners-up spot, behind Manchester United, and won the League Cup in 1975 beating Norwich City 1 - 0 at Wembley, Ray Graydon scoring the only goal of the game. They won the competition again in 1977, beating Everton 3 - 2 after extra-time at Old Trafford in a second replay.

The 1980-81 season saw Saunders complete the clubs revival, ending a 71-year wait for the league championship trophy, just pipping Ipswich Town to the title. He used just 14 players throughout the 42-match campaign.

Despite having guided Villa to the European Cup Quarter-Final stages he resigned in February 1982 due to a disagreement with the board over his contract. Tony Barton took over and guided them to 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the European Cup final in Rotterdam, the club's greatest achievement.

Spells followed as manager of both Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion and his job at the Hawthorns proved to be his last managerial role.

On 23 December 2006, the 74-year-old Saunders was new chairman Randy Lerner's guest of honour at Villa Park for the match between Aston Villa and Manchester United. This was the first time he had returned to the club since his resignation in 1982.

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