“The best number nine in Europe.” Sir Matt Busby
“On his day Ron was the greatest player that ever lived” Southampton legend Terry Paine
“What a player! I have so many great memories of Ron (on and off the pitch). He was simply unbelievable in the air, there was no one like him. He was a real personality and had a great temperament – the more they kicked him, the more he smiled and walked away” Former Southampton team-mate John Sydenham
The football world has said goodbye to many big names over the past few weeks with greats such as Michael Owen, Paul Scholes and David Beckham, amongst many others across Europe, taking their bow from the world football stage. Of course, there was also the shock announcement from Sir Alex Ferguson that he was also to exit football and enter football management retirement. Fittingly, the football world has had a chance to say goodbye to such illustrious names, but this week also came a sadder loss to football, as a certain club legend sadly passed away at the ago of 70: former Southampton and Wales star Ron Davies. A Southampton and Welsh football icon, but more interestingly for us here, a Lost Boyo, thanks to his spells playing in the NASL in the 1970s (like several other Welsh exports).
Ron Davies is truly a legendary figure on the south coast. His goalscoring stats for the Saints speak for themselves: in his seven-year spell at the club between 1966 and 1977 Davies notched up a staggering 134 league goals in 240 appearances (153 goals in 281 games in all competitions) – that’s more than a goal every other game. Undoubtedly, Davies’ most lethal trait was his ability in the air, with the striker regularly soaring above defenders and powering home with his head; some would claim that he is the greatest header of a ball that this country has seen.
Merely hailing him as a Saints legend is perhaps doing the great man an injustice, as Davies is almost equally revered at Norwich City, the club Southampton were to sign him from. Similarly to his spell at Southampton, Davies tallied up more than a goal every other game at Carrow Road with 66 goals in 126 appearances for the Canaries. Impressive stuff.
Davies was to fall in love with game growing up in his hometown of Holywell, Flintshire – a region of Wales that was to be famed for producing top class Welsh international such as Kevin Ratcliffe and other Lost Boyos Ian Rush and Mike England.
Davies’ first move into professional football would come in 1959, as Davies crossed just over the Welsh/English border to play for Chester City. Davies had been with Chester as a junior throughout the 50s, but such was Chester manager Ron Pearson’s faith in the young striker, he gave the 17-year old Davies his league debut in a 5-0 thumping of Workington. Davies did enough to warrant keeping his place in the side and after scoring in his second appearance for Chester, a game against Doncaster, Davies became a stalwart of the team. It would be the 1960/61 which would see Davies really make a name for himself in the Football League, as the youngster scored 23 goals in 39 appearances, despite the team finishing 92nd in the whole Football League. The following season Davies would still be banging the goals in as Chester remained rooted to the floor of the Football League, yet amazingly the Chester management saw it fit to demote Davies to the Cheshire County League squad, a move which prompted Davies to hand in a transfer request at Sealand Road. However, Davies was soon reinstated and scoring goals again – goals which caught the attention of clubs such as Liverpool. Instead, Davies ignored Liverpool and opted to join Luton Town. Later in his life, Davies would claim that his amazing aerial ability had been coached into him at Chester thanks to the unorthodox training techniques of manager Bill Lambton, who made Davies complete the hurdles in heavy army boots.“When I took those boots off I felt I could jump over the moon” claimed Davies; the training was perhaps to be to his detriment later in his life.
Davies had look destined to move to Port Vale, but the deal was never to be after the Vale board blocked the transfer; this led to Davies joining Luton Town for £12k in 1962. Davies’ spell at Luton Town would be a short-lived one, mainly due to him being such a success in front of goal once again (21 league goals in 32 games), a record that would see him move to Norwich City.
Davies would spend two years at Carrow Road and as mentioned earlier, he put together a stunning goalscoring record. The Flintshire-born striker would go on to be a huge fan favourite amongst the Norwich support, but ultimately, once again, his goalscoring exploits gained him attention from higher up the leagues. It also caught the attention of his country.
Whilst playing for Norwich, Davies would make his international debut for Wales, aged 21, in a 3-2 defeat to Northern Ireland in August 1964. The 1960s were a particularly glum time for the Welsh national side, especially as the generation before had delivered a World Cup campaign and a golden generation consisting of Charles and Allchurch. Between 1964 and 1974, Davies would earn himself 29 caps, usually playing alongside equally powerful strikers, John Toshack and Wyn Davies. Many felt the attacking trio should have produced more playing together, including Davies himself who felt that the three forwards were too similar and there was no supply for them:
“The problem is we had three of us up front and you need the supply. What’s the point of having the three best guns in the West if you don’t have any ammunition?”
Davies ended his Wales career with 9 goals and spoke in glowing terms later in his life of what it meant to play for his country, yet also lamented the uphill task that always seemed to face Wales:
“Playing for your country is the biggest thrill you can get. We were such a small country and it’s very hard for us to qualify, but you need a lot of talent and we don’t have that many players to pick from.”
In 1966, Davies would sign for Ted Bates’ Southampton for a club record £55k with the club hoping that Davies’ goals would fire the club to glory in their inaugural season in the First Division. We now already know that Davies was to go on to be a goalscoring machine for the Saints with him getting the ball rolling almost immediately by scoring 12 goals in 10 consecutive league games at the start of his spell on the South Coast. Davies claimed the top goalscorer spot in the First Division in 1966 and 1968; he would share the prize with George Best in 1968, a player he would share a changing room with later in his career.
It was Best’s manager that would speak most glowingly of Davies. In 1969 Southampton won 4-1 at Old Trafford, a result made all the more impressive when you consider that Manchester United had won the European Cup the year before and still had the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton in their artillery. All 4 Saints goals were scored by an inspired Davies (3 with his head of course) and Sir Matt Busby was to hail him as the greatest striker in Europe, as well as Bill Foulkes, the centre back he tormented all day, a Busby Babe and a European Cup winning defender, approaching him after the game and saying, “You should be playing for us Ron, not Southampton.”
In an interview with the Observer in January 2009, Davies reminisced about that day at Old Trafford:
“We went up there without any expectations. It was just after the start of the season, we had lost our first two games and they were a great team with great players. But I think they went into the game with the attitude, ‘Well, it’s only Southampton – we can beat them any time we like.'”
Underestimating a team containing a free scoring Davies was something you did at your peril, as United found out.
Davies would remain at Southampton until 1973, when many felt that clubs in the top flight had sussed out how to stop him and thus reduced his goal tally. Davies made the short trip across the South Coast to play for local rivals Portsmouth, scoring 18 goals in 59 appearances, before moving on to the place where he had famously scored 4 goals back in 1969: Manchester United.
By 1974, Matt Busby had left Old Trafford and it was Tommy Docherty that was to sign the Welshman for the club. However, Davies’ chances for United were limited and Docherty only deployed him on 10 occasions, all of them as a substitute; although 8 of those appearances would come in the club’s promotion winning campaign from the Second Division. The limited opportunities at Old Trafford would lead to Davies moving on what appeared to be one last occasion, this time to Millwall. He would feature just three times for the London Club and that appeared to be the end of Davies’ career, as he moved back to Southampton to see out his post-football career life. However, there was one last ‘hurrah’ left in the football career of Ron Davies and it was to come in the form of the thriving North American Soccer League (NASL).
The 1970s was the golden age of US ‘soccer’ as the NASL kicked into full swing, thanks largely to the kick thrust of the New York Cosmos and their unlikely signing of Pele. As mentioned on the Cosmos documentary Once in a Lifetime (based on Gavin Newsham’s book of the same name), every club wanted their own ‘Pele’. The Tampa Bay Rowdies signed Rodney Marsh, Seattle Sounders would snap up 1966 World Cup hatrick hero Geoff Hurst, as well as eventually signing 1966 World Cup winning captain Bobby Moore from San Antonio Thunder, and Fort Lauderdale Strikers would sign Gordon Banks – this is just to give a few examples of the stars entering the NASL. The LA Aztecs were no different in their star chasing and for the 1976 season they had signed up the legendary George Best from Fulham. Joining Best in LA would be Ron Davies. In fact, in that interview with the Observer, Davies revealed that it was Best that instigated his move to LA:
“There was a list of available players sent round and Bestie saw my name on it and told them to sign me, so they did,”
Davies would later describe his move to America as a ‘resurrection’.
Both players’ careers were fading out, but both performed admirably in the NASL, especially Best who would score 15 goals in his first season alongside Davies. Although nowhere near as prolific as before, Davies continued to score and helped the Aztecs make the playoff stages of the NASL in 1976 and 1977. Davies would remain with the Aztecs for three seasons, making 69 appearances and scoring 15 goals.
Davies would then move to the Tulsa Roughnecks for a brief spell in 1978, before ending up at the Seattle Sounders the following year. At Seattle Sounders, Davies would encounter a coaching team that included a young coach named Harry Redknapp and it was whilst with the Sounders that Davies was moved back to play sweeper, even once marking the great Giorgio Chinaglia (the former Swansea youngster and top goalscorer in NY Cosmos and NASL history) out of a game. Also, in a quirky touch, Davies played for the Seattle Sounders with the unusual squad number of number 1.
By 1980, Davies had called end to his playing career and after spending some time living back in LA, he moved back east to Florida to live nearer his wife’s family. Whilst living in Florida, Davies took on some coaching roles with high schools and colleges, as well as getting a job working as security. In an interview with a local Albuquerque newspaper, Davies claimed that his eventual move away from Florida after 10 years was triggered by his wife finding 6 snakes in the back garden of their home.
Davies’ itinerant life across the US continued, as he moved to Phoenix before eventually ending up in Albuquerque, where he got a job in construction. The Winnebago in which he and his wife, Chris, lived in, was offered to them by Davies’ boss and this was to be the couple’s home right up until Davies’ death.
In his later years, arthritis in Davies’ hip would practically disable him, leading him to live a reclusive life in their mobile home. In fact, during his heyday, doctor’s had predicted that Davies would suffer later in life because of his style of play focusing on his aerial ability.
“When I was 25, 26 years old, my club doctor, Dr. Ramsey, he said to me, `Ron, when you get into your late 50s or 60s, you’re going to have a job to walk. He was dead right. I couldn’t believe it.”
However, Davies revealed that he was more than content with him and his wife’s isolated life in Albuquerque and he even shunned the footballing world, not even looking out for the results for his once beloved Southampton. Reporters that visited Davies in his caravan regularly commented that there was very little sign that Davies was once a professional footballer, apart from the odd photo and a couple of Welsh caps. However, in his interview with the Albuquerque Tribune in 2007, he did unveil a video tape with the Match of the Day highlights of that 4-1 victory at Old Trafford, a memory he clearly treasured above all others.
Although Davies forgot about football, football refused to forget about him. Saints fans had literally ‘lost’ their former ‘boyo’ and nobody seemed to know where he was for years, apart from the idea that he was probably in America somewhere. When he was eventually tracked down to New Mexico and news came across the pond back to Southampton that their former legendary striker was suffering badly and needed a hip replacement, the Saints fans began the ‘Give it to Ron’ campaign. The group’s aim was to generate the £15,000 needed to pay for Davies’ medical bills and get him his hip replacement; it must be remembered that Davies had never earned the mega bucks that modern players do throughout their careers to afford such an operation. With the campaign, Southampton FC and the fans really showed how highly they regarded the Welshman; the club held a ‘Ron Davies Day’ on 27th October 2007 to help raise funds, the day Saints played Welsh opponents Cardiff City. However, it would not only be the Saints that fought to help Davies, but also fans of Norwich City and his first club Chester Cit contributed generously, as well as the Welsh FA, PFA, The Times Norwich City FC, the BBC, ITV and a host of local Southampton-based businesses all chipping in. The man was clearly adored.
Happily the funds raised helped repair Davies’ hip (although further treatment was needed to fix his other hip). One anonymous Saints fan even donated a large sum towards Davies’ dental fees having noticed that Davies was missing some teeth in a TV interview.
Sadly, Davies passed away in May 2013, 4 years after the death of his wife had prompted him to become even more reclusive. Davies career and life are quite a story: from First Division goalscoring machine to nomadic Welshman wandering around the US. The great man was the antithesis of the modern footballer, establishing a career out of good, solid hardwork on and off the field and a genuine passion for the game and the fanbase he played for:
“I know players always say that fans are great but Southampton fans really were brilliant to me – and I can still say that now, 40 years later, and know that it is true. I’m not one of these bitter old pros who go on about modern players making big money – except when it comes to crap players making big money! – but the one thing I would say is they don’t seem to give the fans the respect they deserve. They have to realise that without the fans, football is nothing.”
Truly a classy gentleman, who loved the fans and celebrated what they gave him. The great man will always be cherished in football circles and we say RIP Ron Davies (1942-2013).
Many of the quotes used were taken from Davies’ interview with the Albuquerque Tribune in November 2007 (which can be read here) and his interview with the Observer in January 2009 (which can be read here).