Dave Woodhall on Villa’s 4-1 defeat to Leicester, and happier memories.
It was never going to be an ordinary match. The news of Ron Saunders’ death made sure of that – and has been said elsewhere, there could be no more fitting time for such an old-school football man to pass away than at three o’clock on Saturday afternoon.
I still hold that a minute’s silence would have been more appropriate than the applause, although all the tributes paid were hearfelt and poignant. We shouldn’t mourn the death of such a man, but rather, celebrate his life and his achievements.
Dean Smith’s early years were spent watching his greatest predecessor, Jack Grealish was brought up on tales of his successes, and both must have been desperate to put on a display that would have even had Ron cracking a smile.
That was the idea, but anyone hoping for a fitting send-off was quickly disillusioned. Villa started off brightly but were soon found out and spent the remainder of the match chasing shadows.
The great man would appreciate this Leicester side. They don’t have many big names and their success is built on selling well and buying better. They’re hard-working, do the simple things right and punish mistakes with ruthless efficiency.
Villa, being Villa, made enough mistakes for the game to be over before half-time. Tyrone Mings was clearly struggling for Leicester’s opener and their second was caused in part by Villa’s midfield being unable to get to grips with their counterparts throughout.
Jack Grealish, a player Saunders would probably have fallen out with often enough to get the best from him every week, gave hope for the second half with a goal seconds before the break, although Leicester still came out the stronger side and restored their two goal lead soon after.
Their fourth could have been the signal for a rout but instead they seemed content to conserve their efforts for harder battles ahead.
Keeping Douglas Luiz and Ahmed Elmohamady in the starting line-up showed that Smith knew Villa would be coming up against a team full of confidence and in top form. He couldn’t have anticipated just how easy Villa made their club record eighth victory.
This was the first time Villa seem to have given up all season and it’s going to take a massive change in attitude to be able to make the most of the supposedly easier run of games between now and the New Year.
And as for Ron Saunders, many tributes have been paid and all are richly deserved. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to a few of his former players and they all gave variations on the same theme – Saunders was a complex character who knew how to get the best out of his charges.
He had an absolutely single-minded determination to be the best and nothing was going to get in his way. He was ruthless, yet he was also capable of tremendous kindness and as one of them said, “He would always have been there if he was needed”.
The facet of his personality I found most fascinating was confirmed by several players – that he didn’t seem to particuarly enjoy football. He would never attend other games, he rarely watched the Villa reserves and was never to be seen in the company of other football people.
When Ron Saunders was building the best team in Europe there were some big name managers in Midlands football; media-friendly personalities such as Ron Atkinson and John Bond were regulars on TV and courted the press, grabbing the headlines along the way yet Saunders wanted none of it. As he once said, he went to work, did his job, then went home. And what a job he did.
The rest of the season is going to be difficult, no doubt about that. It was always going to be. Do you want to bet against us?