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Saunders to return to Villa Park

Former manager Ron Saunders is to be a guest at the Villa v Manchester Utd match on December 23.

ronsaunders

The return of Ron Saunders to Villa Park on December 23, for the first time in 23 years, will be "a triumphant yet uneasy experience" for a man who has turned his back on the game.

That is the view of Tony Morley, the former England winger, who played under Saunders with Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. Morley believes that the time is long overdue to give Saunders, now 74, the credit he deserves for inspiring the club to their finest achievements.

The former Villa manager, who led the team to the League Championship in 1981 and created the team that won the European Cup in his absence a year later, has agreed to be a guest for the match against Manchester United in 17 days' time.

Not since October 1983, when Saunders took his Birmingham team to face Villa in the First Division, has he stepped foot inside Villa Park.

Randy Lerner, the Villa chairman, made the invitation after discovering the extent of the strange relationship that Saunders now has with football.

When Saunders was dismissed by Albion in the autumn of 1987, he vowed never to return to the game. He no longer even watches it on television.

But Morley says that Villa now have the chance to finally pay homage to a man who remains the finest manager in the club's history.

"Ron left Villa under unfortunate circumstances," Morley says. "Had he stayed, I have no doubt that Villa, and not Liverpool, would have been the team of the Eighties."

Saunders, who was appointed by Doug Ellis in 1974, resigned from Villa in February 1982 after discovering that his contract had been modified by Ron Bendall, the then-chairman, who would also leave the club that year.

Since 1983, Villa Park has changed beyond recognition. New stands, the departure of terracing and the increase of commercialisation have combined to transform the place.

"Ron will be amazed and in awe of the place but, maybe, a bit uneasy because I don't think he liked all the money that was flowing into the game, even in the Eighties," Morley says. "But I think he will enjoy himself.

"Ron still has a sharp brain. Nothing has changed there. And I bet, when I meet him, he will say the same things to me that he said when I was a player for him. 'You're crap, Morley'. That was his way. But he did sign me three times.

"To be honest, I am surprised to hear that it has been so long since he was last at Villa Park. I knew he'd been away for quite a time but not that long. We did meet up for a 20th anniversary reunion for the 1981 championship triumph, but he never actually went to the stadium.

"I like Ron. He was ruthless, but always for the right reasons. When I played for him at West Brom, I knew that he was beginning to lose interest in the game.

"I think he'd had enough by 1987, he really had. He'd got fed up of it all but he will find that Villa have not forgotten him.

"Sure, there will be those younger Villa fans who will only know his name and his achievements, but not much else. Well, this is their chance to see, in the flesh, the greatest manager in the club's history.

"Having said that, I don't think Ron would want to go out on the pitch to be introduced to the supporters. That is not his style. He will just enjoy the day and then go back to his life."

But Villa are indeed hoping that Saunders will go on to the pitch at half-time. General Charles Krulak, the club director, is likely to make the presentation in front of what is expected to be a capacity 42,000 attendance.

Morley is interested to know how Saunders will react to meeting Ellis again. Ellis, who left as chairman when Lerner arrived this summer, has an uneasy relationship with some players of the 1980-82 era and he did not always see eye to eye with Saunders.

Ellis was chairman from 1968 to 1979 and from 1982 to 2006 — either side of the club's most successful period.

That rankles with Ellis and visitors to Villa Park will not find too many photographs of the League Championship and European Cup triumphs.

Morley says: "I don't think Ron would be embarrassed about meeting Doug but maybe Doug will be a bit embarrassed about meeting Ron. Who knows?

"But I am really looking forward to that day. I am looking forward to going over old times and meeting a man who did so much for this club."

Saunders himself is relishing the chance to taste Villa, circa 2006.

"I look forward to meeting the new owners and wishing them well," he said. "It has been 20-odd years but when I do go back I am sure there will be a tingle running through me."

 

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