'I can give you 20 minutes before my meal': A rare and final interview with Portsmouth and Aston Villa great Ron Saunders

Ron Saunder, the third-highest goalscorer in Pompey's history, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87Ron Saunder, the third-highest goalscorer in Pompey's history, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87
Ron Saunder, the third-highest goalscorer in Pompey's history, passed away on Saturday at the age of 87 | JPIMedia
The introduction was purposely brief, certainly not an occasion for bumbling through awkward small talk.

‘I can give you 20 minutes before my meal,’ responded Ron Saunders.

On a December evening in 2014, the Pompey goalscoring great and Aston Villa managerial legend had been cold called by a journalist.

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The telephone intrusion was speculative, Saunders’ prickly reticence to deal with the media since walking away from football a quarter of a century earlier was renowned.

Done with football and desiring to absolve himself from any semblance of limelight, a mystique developed around one of two living English managers to have captured the top-flight title, the other being Howard Wilkinson.

Perhaps interest was stirred upon the mention of Pompey, the club which provided his finest playing memories and the justification for the phone call.

Regardless, it is believed to be the reclusive Saunders’ final interview.

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For 31 minutes, the then-82 year-old was a captive subject, cooperative, good humoured and relaxed, a joy to converse with.

The desire to include Saunders in my maiden book Played Up Pompey prompted the unsolicited approach, no warning text or WhatsApp message so convenient in these journalistic times.

As a powerfully-built centre-forward, he plundered 162 goals in 261 appearances after negotiating the step up from Division Four side Gillingham to challenge himself in the top flight.

He remains the third-highest scorer in Pompey history and a figure still revered on the south coast, undoubted vindication for his inclusion among a book featuring interviews with Pompey greats.

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When inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2013, Saunders was touched by such recognition, but declined attending.

The man nicknamed ‘Popeye’ by team-mates didn’t wish to be seen in his present guise, also rejecting the organisers’ offer to deliver the award in person to his home near Solihull.

Impacted by dementia towards the end of his life, there were moments during our telephone interview when he apologised for a fading memory.

Saunders could recall the precise address of his Bedhampton home – 27 Fortunes Way – but unable to recollect his favourite Pompey goal or match.

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On occasions, his wife would aid his reminiscing from the background, referred to good-humouredly by the ex-Norwich and Manchester City manager.

Eventually, the conversation had to end, the food was on the table and it was getting late.

‘Anyway young man, you are running out of time,’ Saunders gently reminded with no hint of bristling impatience.

At that point, in parting words, I enlightened him of my Villa affiliation, a third-generation supporter hailing from Nuneaton, Warwickshire.

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His voice unmistakably lifted and chuckled at the revelation – before chatting for another five minutes about the club he led to the 1980-81 Division One title.

Suddenly, Saunders broke free of nostalgia, delving into a more reflective mood.

‘You have to come to terms with the fact that whatever it is your are carrying on your shoulders, it is going to happen. When it does, you get on with it – then you become a happy person,’ he added.

Publicly, so much was never said by Ron Saunders after walking away from football in 1987 – yet for 31 minutes in December 2014 he delivered those treasured final words.

RIP Ron Saunders (November 6, 1932 – December 7, 2019)

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