OPINION: I tried to bond with ex-Norwich boss Ron Saunders over a very strong cup of tea
PUBLISHED: 18:14 13 December 2019 | UPDATED: 18:14 13 December 2019
Keith Skipper recalls his time with the late former manager Ron Saunders as a Norwich City reporter in the 1970s
A rare moment of tenderness in our difficult relationship unfolded in Ron Saunders' small office at Carrow Road on a bitterly cold morning in the early 1970s.
I stood shivering and streaming with cold over a small electric fire in the corner. A shirt-sleeved manager renowned for abhorring signs of weakness wandered over and gently tapped me on the shoulder.
"Here you are, you snivelling wretch - a cup of tea with something stronger in it. Probably see you off before Saturday unless you can man up and get back in training!"
Just the pep-talk I needed. I sipped slowly, choked a few times and looked him straight in the eye. Then, in a fit of bravado hopefully masked by a broad Norfolk grin, I looked him straight in the eye …
"I'll be around here long after you've gone, ole partner!" It had all the makings of a scaffold speech or, at least, a desperate request for a free transfer. I couldn't believe a scrawny lad from Beeston had spoken thus to the notorious hard man from Birkenhead.
To my utter amazement and relief, one of the most successful bosses in Norwich City history curled his lip into half a smile, took a drained cup from my shaking hand and requested we make the interview as short as possible in view of obvious health risks.
That was as close as I got to finding out if Mr Saunders had a sense of humour - or even a compassionate streak - during tetchy seasons on parade as a Canary scribe trying to make sense of all those briar patches before finding First Division and Wembley rose gardens.
His recent death at 87 sent me scurrying to a dug-out of memories, some of them bound to reinforce reasons behind my deep disenchantment with professional football setting in well before end of the 20th century.
A sergeant-major style suited Ron's campaign to transform limited troops into top-flight believers with piles of graft compensating for limitations in skill. Sweat and dedication had to plug obvious gaps instead of the cheque book some of his predecessors banked on for survival as much as star-gazing.
I declined several kind invitations to join in pre-season torture on the slopes of Mousehold. It was tough enough watching as he made players proud of not being sick on first day back after a spot of good summer living. He referred constantly for need to go through the pain barrier.
His admiration of Leeds - "best thing that has happened to English football for years" - gave an early clue that disciplinarian Ron was fully prepared to take a path lacking popular appeal.
Getting out of the Second Division and establishing themselves as a power in the First was often a painful process for the Yorkshire club before Don Revie milked the applause and became England manager.
On too many occasions, the Canaries' brand of stifling football drew justifiable criticism from supporters, home and away, as well as the press, myself included. I feel no pangs of regret over my insistence on reflecting public opinion rather than trying to sway it.
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That was my role as an unbiased reporter, not a passionate supporter, a distinction Ron could never consider let lone accept. I survived with my principles and some of my sanity intact. But it took an iron will and innate belief in real freedom of the press to keep going.
Efforts to remain objective and fair were seriously hindered by being thrown off the team bus, banned from the boardroom and denied any useful information from the club for weeks at a time.
A spectacular fall-out with club chairman Sir Arthur South, leading to Ron's departure to Manchester City in 1973, proved he did not confine his ire to reporters mustering the temerity to object to his manner and methods.
His achievements on meagre resources stand out proudly in Carrow Road history. He did it his way and firmly believed the ends justified the means. He expected respect and success. He didn't really give a tinker's cuss whether he was liked or not.
Perhaps my glorious Norfolk naivety and comparative youth fed hopes he might go on to complete a stirring hat-trick and take me down the pub for a pint and heart-to-heart mardle.
Still, a cup of tea with something stronger in it and gentle pat on the shoulder were not afforded to many visitors.
RON WAS NEVER A FAN OF ON THE BALL CITY
There are countless stories about Ron Saunders and his own distinctive brand of true grit fashioned on the slopes of Mousehold overlooking the city. Some may even be true!
The best reference I collected starred a young Canary made to feel so inadequate after a gruelling stint that he dug a hole in which to hide. Then the poor creature did extra training because he took too long to dig it! Ron certainly brought to Carrow Road a code of conduct the like of which hadn't been nailed up before. He also plotted a deliberate course towards some kind of ogre figure he considered a necessity to persuade the weak-hearted to try harder.
He wouldn't accept the "hard man" label but did admit to being "bit of a swine". Such a distinction had to rest somewhere in that old proverb about making silk purses out of sows' ears.
Sweeping changes did not end at putting players through a training mangle that wrung out enough sweat to sink the River End. He dared to tamper with sacred Canary ideology on the terraces in the name of progress.
"On The Ball, City!", the anthem that struck fear into opponents with such remarkable force during the 1958-59 FA Cup run, was a bit of a dirge to him. He never heard it sweep across the ground with that brand of fervour. He insisted, however, it represented past glories when emphasis should have been on a promising present and a vibrant future.
He arrived in the summer of 1969, the club's 10th manager since the war, after saving Southern League Yeovil from relegation and then spelling out the working man's creed at Oxford United. He scored over 200 goals as an uncompromising centre-forward with Gillingham Portsmouth, Watford and Charlton.
A final salute … a Carrow Road stalwart suggested if Ron Saunders had been a Redcoat at Butlins, bingo would have been played on stilts in the camp swimming pool … with lead weights instead of numbers.