Football will forever remember legacy of Pompey great Ron Saunders

Pompey Hall-of-Famer Ron Saunders
Pompey Hall-of-Famer Ron Saunders

Ron Saunders can no longer recollect the achievements forever embedded within English’s football’s consciousness.

An indelible presence assured through the capture of the old Division One title with Aston Villa, one of two living English managers to have secured the top-flight crown.

Pompey players, including Ron Saunders, bottom right, celebrate Jimmy Dickinsons 500th appearance in February 1959 following a 4-4 draw at Spurs. Saunders scored a hat-trick in the draw

Pompey players, including Ron Saunders, bottom right, celebrate Jimmy Dickinsons 500th appearance in February 1959 following a 4-4 draw at Spurs. Saunders scored a hat-trick in the draw

Playing accomplishments are chiseled into Pompey’s Hall of Fame, the third-highest scorer in club history following a prolific association initiated 60 years ago next month.

Since May, Saunders has resided in a care home located near Solihull, devoted wife Breeda no longer able to tend to the 85-year-old diagnosed with dementia.

The correlation between his condition and centre-forward service is achingly obvious.

There remains recognition within his eyes, instinct briefly acknowledging the identity of visitors, yet conversation flounders and words hang.

Ron Saunders' son, Ronnie

Ron Saunders' son, Ronnie

Saunders is unable to recall the old days, but football remembers him. It always will.

Son Ronnie told The News: ‘I know him, if he had known this was going to happen to him it would be “You put a pillow over my head.”.

‘I saw it starting 20-odd years ago, there were certain things dad did which made us realise.

‘We knew his brain was quite damaged. We feel quite lucky he has lasted this long because we never thought he would.

‘Mum couldn’t cope with him any more, his brain has gone. Unfortunately he’s like a lot of other pros - in a nursing home for their last days.

‘He knows who we are, I can phone him up and they’ll put the phone to him and he’ll say “Hello Ronald, how you doing?”. If he sees me, he knows exactly who I am, but that’s it. Then the conversation is completely dead.

‘It crept up very slowly, now he struggles with every aspect of his life, everything he does.

‘They have given it one of their dementia names, his brain has gone. His brain has been damaged - and I think heading balls has contributed.

‘I know Jeff Astle’s daughter, Dawn, and she told me a survey showed that most ill centre-forwards and centre-halves have some form of brain problem.

‘There hasn't been a quality of life for dad over the last four or five years. No quality of life at all.’

It was September 6, 1958, when Saunders arrived at Fratton from Gillingham in a £10,000 deal.

Storms had devastated rail and road links on the day of his proposed signing and debut, forcing the nervous flier to catch a plane from Croydon to Portsmouth airport. He arrived 40 minutes before kick-off against Chelsea.

Still, the first player in Football League history to be elevated from Division Four into Division One proceeded to register 162 goals in 261 games, scoring at least 20 times in four of his six full campaigns.

Saunders junior added: ‘My dad loved Pompey, it was hard not to love Pompey, it was a beautiful place to live. The family regretted leaving.

‘He treated the game as a trade, he saw it as a job. I remember Villa’s Ken McNaught saying “Your dad was the first to ever tell me this is my trade, it’s not for enjoyment”.

‘He pushed himself and enjoyed it, like a boxer who doesn’t mind getting hit. In a funny way, he relished the physical pain of pushing himself, especially in pre-season training, and took that into management. His sides were very fit - he made them that way.

‘Dad was a very, very good boxer. I would take him on at most things - but not boxing. It was like hitting a piece of iron, he was as hard as nails. His team-mates called him Popeye.

‘Whenever sparing with him, I ended up bruising my arms more than anything else! He was a horrible person to fight.

‘Dad took football so seriously, though, it was a job. I wouldn’t say he enjoyed it, he enjoyed playing golf - but then got so competitive at that. You were his enemy for 18 holes, even his son.

‘I remember chipping one in on the 17th in Marbella, he was so angry. It was a fluke, I had given up by then, but he was ultra, ultra, competitive.

‘As a family, he wouldn’t speak to us an hour before the game. That was the rule, “If you see me, no-one speak to me”. If I did he wouldn’t have heard me, unless it was business talk.

‘His focus was unbelievable, as a player and a manager.’

After representing Pompey in three divisions, Saunders’ exit arrived in August 1964, with a £15,000 move to Watford.

A bitter fall-out with manager George Smith culminated with the striker challenging him to a boxing match. The offer was declined.

Ronnie Saunders said: ‘I was a Pompey supporter with my blue and white rattle, then dad went to Watford and I had to paint it yellow and black!

‘At Pompey we never had to take a holiday because every summer dad would work at Warner Holiday Camp in Hayling Island as a fitness instructor. I could also go there when I wanted.

‘The comedian Don Maclean was employed there, but at the time was a long-distance runner who joined in with dad’s keep-fit lessons because he wanted to further his career in that direction.

‘Maclean did a few turns on stage and that’s how his comedy started. They still exchange Christmas cards.

‘We never had a holiday anywhere until dad moved to Watford and next Charlton - and even then we used to come back to Hayling Island!

‘He had other jobs to supplement his footballing income. When he bought a club house in 27 Fortunes Way, Bedhampton, he didn't have so much money so sold things from home.

‘There was a company called Cyril Lord carpets, which he sold for in the evenings, while there was also work selling Letraset printable letters, which you traced.

‘Dad would never, ever buy knocked-off goods. When stuff was available he would often ask if it was knocked off and - if so - wasn’t interested. He always wanted to tell the truth, he was extremely old-fashioned.

‘In later years he stayed out of the limelight, but didn’t want to, he would have liked to have done television work.

‘But he told me “I can only tell the truth and quite often on TV you can’t always tell the truth”.’

Ronnie Saunders was aged eight when the family left the south-coast for Watford, ending his attendance at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in Bedhampton.

The family of six also consisted of sister, Karen, born in Portsmouth, and twins David and Maria.

Now aged 62, Ronnie lives in Wickford, Essex, and visits his dad weekly at the nursing home situated not far from the family house in Hampton-in-Arden, West Midlands.

And while footballing recollections from one of Pompey’s greats lie buried, the eldest Saunders son revels in his father’s memories.

He said: ‘In those days, there weren’t many places to play football and the groundsman wouldn’t let me use the Fratton Park nets.

‘Yet down the Eastern Road was a pitch with nets. I kept telling my dad I needed to play there.

‘One day he dropped me off at this pitch on his way to Fratton Park. I started to kick my ball around and lads came over from the estate - more and more started to appear.

‘Now my dad always gave me good practice balls, proper leather, and the lads were asking where I’d got mine. “My dad,” I replied, “He plays for Pompey”.

‘They laughed at me and I’m thinking “What’s wrong with them, he does”.

‘It was now a 15-a-side match and after a while a car horn sounded. It’s my dad in his Austin A40 - time to get the ball back and leave. But the lads wanted to know why I was going.

‘When I pointed out my dad was there to collect me, they said: “No he’s not, that’s Ron Saunders!”.

‘They ran over, crowding around, asking all the silly questions kids do and getting his autograph.

‘That’s the way it was, I didn’t know any better, did I? You got used to it.

‘After games he insisted on signing as many autographs as possible, it took an age getting to the car, while we’d go shopping in Cosham and people always wanted to talk to him.

‘That’s my dad.’