Last week I attempted to draw a few comparisons between Alex Neil and a previous Canaries’ manager, one who, like Neil, was appointed largely on the basis of what he might yet turn out to be as much as what he had already achieved.
In other words, a raw young talent who was going to be thrown in at the deep end.
The man in question was of course, Ron Saunders who after just four months and twelve games in charge of fellow Second Division side Oxford United was headhunted by chairman Geoffrey Watling to succeed Lol Morgan as Canaries’ manager.
He won promotion with us in the 1971/72 season and, despite a win-less run of 19 games running up to the end of the following season, kept us in the top flight as well as taking us to Wembley for the first time in the club’s history.
A notable double. But, in true Star Wars fashion, how about the prequel as well as the sequel to his reign at Carrow Road?
We’ll look at the time leading up to his departure from the club next week. But who was he and how did the Canaries go about recruiting him in the first place?
Watling’s single-minded approach in getting Saunders as his new manager in the summer of 1969 was as relentless and driven as any that has been taken by a certain chief executive of the club in more recent times.
The U’s had similar ambitions and aspirations to the Canaries; they were, in football terms, a relatively young club, having only been admitted into the Football League in 1962, yet had achieved two promotions in two years and were set on bigger things with, as far as they were concerned, Saunders in it for the long term.
Saunders certainly had a tough act to follow. His predecessor, Arthur Turner was a progressive coach who was as aware of the importance of a club to market its image off the pitch as it was on it. One of the first things he did was persuade his directors to change the name of the club from Headington United to Oxford United; arguing that the association with what was, after all, a world famous city would be much more beneficial to the club.
Turner also adopted a policy of signing young professionals from top clubs, eschewing in the process the non-league tradition of packing the squad with ageing relics from the lower divisions. His team were fit, fast, progressive and, with a 20-year-old Ron Atkinson in the team, won two consecutive Southern League titles before taking the place of Accrington Stanley in the Fourth Division.
Two more promotions followed and, when Turner opted to move ‘upstairs’ at the club towards the end of the 1968/69 season, Saunders, a man as ambitious as the club and board that had tempted him away from Yeovil, seemed a natural fit to succeed him.
In truth, Oxford had been struggling in their first season in the Second Division. Prior to Turner’s internal move and the subsequent appointment of Saunders, they had been on a woeful run that had seen them lose eight of their previous ten games, and, in the process, tumble to the bottom of the division.
For a club that had been used to success over the past few years, this sudden and unexpected struggle was something which needed to be turned around fast if their rapid progress was to continue. Luckily for them, Saunders was exactly the man to do just that. The U’s drew their first game with Saunders at the helm 1-1 at Bolton Wanderers, before going on a late season run that saw them lose just three out of their final eleven fixtures; form that saw them edge their way to safety in 20th place.
The scene was now set, at least as far as everyone at Oxford United was concerned, for Saunders to build on Turner’s achievements and strike out for the promised land of the First Division.
And maybe he would have done just that if it hadn’t been for Watling.
Lol Morgan’s departure from Norwich had resulted in a very tried and tired list of candidates being linked to the Carrow Road managerial position. Playing stalwart Terry Allcock, who’d been increasingly working alongside the club’s younger players in a coaching role and who would eventually go on to be the club’s first-team coach under Saunders, was never seriously considered as a contender for the manager role.
Those that may well have been included Ken Furphy at Watford, Danny Williams at Swindon Town, Alec Stock at Luton and, at Doncaster Rovers, another up and coming youngster by the name of Lawrie McMenemy.
Known names whose candidature would almost certainly have been discussed around the Canaries boardroom.
But Watling had eyes on one man and one man only. Ron Saunders. And he was going to get him, no matter what the cost.
As things turned out, Saunders took some convincing. He would have been aware that, in a time of relative managerial stability at clubs, the Canaries had already worked their way through five different managers during that decade. If he was to be the sixth, would the club give him time to build a club and team good enough to deliver Watling’s long held dream of promotion to the First Division?
Watling asserted that yes, he would.
Saunders then asked if money would be available to bring in new players?
Watling might have felt a little uncomfortable at that particular notion. After all, the club had sailed very closely indeed to the financial rocks on more than a few occasions in previous years; something which one new signing had immediately picked up upon. Asked, following his arrival from Sheffield Wednesday in the Summer of 1957, what he knew about his new club, Barry Butler gave an answer that was brief and to the point.
“Only that they are bankrupt”.
Not much had changed since then and Saunders would have known it. Perhaps that question was his get out clause. Saunders could have thanked Watling for his time and interest and stated that he would be staying at the Manor Ground.
Whether Watling, an astute and very successful businessman, chose to call Saunders’ bluff at that moment will never be known. His answer suggests however, that he may well have done.
Yes, there would be money to spend. But not only that. If Saunders was to accept the offer, he would ensure that he was the best paid manager in the Second Division.
Quite a promise to make given that, amongst the Canaries rivals in the division for that forthcoming season were clubs like Leicester City, Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa, all of whom would have had greater resources at their disposal than the Canaries.
Frank O’Farrell (Leicester) and Les Allen (QPR) were already well known and established managers at their respective clubs; if Saunders was to even come close to parity with either of them, that would mean he would be earning considerably more than Lol Morgan, indeed, more than any previous Norwich manager – and by some considerable margin.
It came at a risk. Remember, this was for a man who had been with his previous club for just 12 competitive matches, during which time, his sole achievement had been to narrowly avoid relegation to the Third Division with them.
There was no doubt about it. Watling was pushing the Canary boat out to hitherto deep and unchartered waters. And Saunders could not resist the challenge, joining the club that summer and finally signing a four-year contract prior to the club’s AGM that August, having started the season with a run of three wins from the Canaries opening four games – a 2-1 win over Hull City on August 20, briefly putting Norwich top of the table.
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Saunders from the beginning. The Canaries finished his first season in charge in an unremarkable 11th place in the division as well as exiting both cups at the first time of asking. A run of just four wins from an unlucky 13 games from October through to Christmas did much of the damage that campaign as Huddersfield, led by Ian Greaves, won the title by a seven point margin from runners up Blackpool.
The 1970/71 season wasn’t that much better, Norwich finishing in 10th place, 15 points shy of champions Leicester City who, in O’Farrell, had a manager who would eventually catch the eye of Manchester United. The Canaries spent just one week at the top of the table that season following a 1-0 win over Millwall on September 2, before spending the remainder of that campaign in the lower reaches of the top ten.
Two seasons down and not a great deal of improvement then. The pressure would most certainly have been on Saunders from the off at the start of the 1971/72 season. Watling, along with Sir Arthur South had originally targeted promotion to the top flight by the end of the Sixties.
And it hadn’t happened.
It didn’t look as if much was going to change at the beginning of Saunders third season in charge either. Four games, three draws including a tepid 0-0 at home to Orient in front of just over 13,000 spectators.
Hardly illuminating stuff and not what Watling might have expected of his highly paid and, at the time, only choice as manager. Would he have been questioning his choice by then? Would there have been all too familiar rumblings of discontent in the club’s boardroom? Who knows.
A 1-0 win over Carlisle United on September 4, saw the tide begin to turn. That Tuesday night game drew only 10,967 to Carrow Road; relieved, no doubt, that Peter Silvester’s goal had provided at least some light relief on an otherwise very forgettable evening where the only other occasion of note was that the game was Malcolm Darling’s last for the club.
His number 7 shirt was taken over, for the most part, by Doug Livermore for the rest of that season, one that, ultimately, saw just six defeats in total as Norwich, improbably but gloriously, won the Second Division title by one point from Birmingham City.
Smiles all round at Carrow Road then. Except, that is, for Saunders. Because he knew the hard work was only just beginning.
For Geoffrey Watling, however, it was the culmination of a dream he had wanted to realise since he became Chairman in 1957, having tasted an inkling of the good time and the sort of club Norwich City could feasibly look to become following their run to the FA Cup semi-finals two years later.
He’d finally got his man. And that man had finally delivered his aim of seeing the Canaries play in the top flight of English football.