Ron Saunders – ‘Mr. Goals’
The number 9 shirt. Perhaps it doesn’t have the magic these days when goalscorers line up with 14, 17, 24 etc, on their backs, but back then it conjured up legends like Nat Lofthouse, Jackie Milburn, Tommy Lawton, Roy Of The Rovers – and Ron Saunders. For one season, 1957/58, Ron was the most charismatic Gills player I had ever seen. He was approachable too. He lived in a club house opposite the newsagents in Sturdee Avenue, and you could often chat to him on a Sunday morning when he went across to get his paper (although it did mean hanging about for up to an hour after morning service at Gillingham Parish Church).
Gills were lucky to sign Ron Saunders. He had been on Everton’s books, and due to some mix-up over his registration he had been released and was playing for Tonbridge. In one of his last acts as Gillingham manager, Archie Clark had paid £800 to bring Ron to Priestfield, and what a capture he was. Ron had everything. Well-built and just under six foot in height, he was quick and well-balanced, had a powerful shot in both feet, and was strong in the air. Whenever he had the ball, he looked dangerous, and scored 20 goals in only 49 appearances. He had a good foil in Jimmy Fletcher at inside forward, who set up a lot of his goals and added another 10 himself.
Ron’s great individual goal-scoring feat was in the first round of the FA Cup in November 1957. Gills drew Gorleston at home, a little club on the Norfolk coast, and hammered them 10-1. Ron scored five, and missed a penalty for a double hat-trick. In the second round we drew 1-1 at the Den, and then schoolkids all over the town had to sit in class doing awful things like latin declentions while listening to the roars from Priestfield drifting through the window as Gills put six past Millwall in the Wednesday afternoon replay. A 2-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest in the Third Round then put paid to our hopes that year.
Ron’s goals couldn’t lift Gills into the top half of the Third Division South table at the end of the season, and we joined the bottom half of the Third Division North in the new Fourth Division. There was no way that a player as talented as Ron was going to play at that level for long, and in September 1958 he was sold to First Division Portsmouth for £8,000. The directors tried to dress it up – biggest fee we’ve ever received for a player, first transfer from the Fourth Division to the First etc – but it didn’t wash with a group of twelve year olds. They’d sold our cult hero AGAIN!
Ron went on to be a goal-scoring idol with Pompey, and then had a successful managerial career with Norwich, Aston Villa and Birmingham – the first of a number of former Gills players to become high-profile managers.