Dean Saunders was good enough for Wales, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Galatasaray. But 35 years ago this week, the striker who eventually scored 255 club career goals was dumped by Cardiff City after just four matches. Terry Phillips counts the cost of a missed opportunity.
Dean Saunders failed to impress with Cardiff City under Alan Durban and left the Bluebirds after only four appearances.
The Swansea-born hit-man was on his way out at his home town club at the age of just 20. It was 1985 and Cardiff manager Durban could have had signed the striker for a very small fee.
Durban decided Saunders wasn’t worth it.
When Saunders was released by former Manchester City manager John Bond, who was in charge at the Swans at the time, it was Brighton who moved in to sign him on a free.
He spent two seasons on the south coast, scoring 26 goals in 79 appearances at a time when Cardiff were struggling and suffered back-to-back relegations.
Saunders went on to play for Liverpool, Aston Villa, Galatasaray and others during a career which brought him over 250 first team goals at club level.
”I thought I was doing alright for Swansea until Bond took over and released all the young players to bring in some older heads,” said Saunders.
“After playing a handful of games on loan at Cardiff, I was given a free transfer – which could have been a worry, but I knew Brighton were interested.
“Chris Cattlin rang the day I was released and Brighton were doing well then so I just went along.
“I scored 23 goals in my first season and within six months of leaving Swansea I was playing for Wales.
“Brighton had financial problems though, so when Maurice Evans offered £70,000 to take me to Oxford, they didn’t hesitate.”
Saunders says he almost signed for Everton six times, but they are not among the 12 clubs he played for.
“I had six different approaches, all of which I was interested in, but there was a snag or a hold up each time,” he says.
On one of those occasions he turned Everton down the Merseyside club had offered a British record £2.9m transfer fee for the striker and his club, Derby County, accepted the offer.
Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough matched that fee and met Saunders at the house of Alan Hill, Clough’s assistant at the City Ground.
Saunders was already there when Clough, dressed in a green sweatshirt, white shorts and white socks, arrived with Archie Gemmill.
Clough wasn’t keen to negotiate with Saunders’ agent, Kevin Mason, and insisted on talking directly to the player.
“Brian didn’t really want to speak to an agent and we were told it would be difficult anyway because a deal had already been agreed with Everton,” said Hill.
“Brian said, ‘It won’t be difficult, we’ll just offer you more money than they have.’
“Saunders said Everton had offered him £8,000. ‘A month?’ asked Hill. ‘No, a week.’ Crikey. I told Brian and his reaction was: ‘Bloody hell, that’s more than me, our Nigel (Clough) and Pearcey (Stuart Pearce) get together.’
“After half an hour Saunders said he would talk it through with his wife and went home. Then at 9pm he rang to say Liverpool had matched our offer and he would rather go there because his father used to play for them.”
Saunders confirmed he joined Liverpool to follow in his father’s footsteps, saying: “They were always going to have the edge because it was my dad’s former club.
“Graeme Souness was manager and he had decided to have a clear-out, which was brave. But not only did he do it a little bit quickly, he was hit when Barnes, Rush, Molby and Whelan all picked up Achilles injuries at the same time.
“It meant he had to bring kids like Steve McManaman into the team before they were properly ready. I won the FA Cup with Liverpool, for which I’ll always be grateful, but their expectations were so high you always had the sense that nothing short of winning the title was really good enough.”
Saunders played alongside Ian Rush for Liverpool, but moved on to Aston Villa in a £2.3m transfer after just over a year at Anfield.
“I was impressed with everything at Villa Park,” said Saunders. “We won the League Cup and really should have won the title in the year Manchester United finally cracked it. We finished runners-up after surrendering a strong position and that’s a big regret.”
Saunders was also a key goalscorer for Wales, netting 22 times in 75 appearances for his country. The first of those was the only goal of the game against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin when he was 21-years-old.
His list of goals includes the Welsh winner against Brazil at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991. Saunders’ strike earned manager Terry Yorath’s Wales a 1-0 win in front of 20,000 spectators.
How might Cardiff’s future and Saunders’ career have turned out had he stayed at Cardiff at the end of his loan spell in 1985 instead of joining Brighton on a free?
He could have been the goalscorer needed by Durban’s Bluebirds to avoid one, or both, of those highly damaging relegations when they crashed from Division Two to Division Four in successive seasons.