Ron Davies, who has died on the eve of his 71st birthday, was esteemed by his outside-left John Sydenham as ‘the greatest header of the ball The Dell’s ever seen.’ Few who witnessed Ron’s remarkable feats in the late 1960s would disagree with that assessment.
Sydenham was eternally grateful for Ron’s agile adjustments that enabled him to turn hopeful crosses ‘into good ones’ and even Terry Paine, renowned for the accuracy of his crossing, welcomed that agility on those occasions when he had to ‘lay the ball into areas.’ Ron was so athletic that ‘you didn’t have to pick him out.’ Quite simply, Ron was, for Terry, ‘the best I’ve ever seen in the air.’
Bill Lambton, Ron’s manager at Chester, had had him jumping over hurdles wearing army boots. As Ron explained, in Jeremy Wilson’s Cult Heroes, that was ‘bloody hard, but when I took those boots off, I felt I could jump over the moon.’ The oddity about the technique he learned at Chester and demonstrated so stunningly at The Dell is that it was not apparent to his Southampton opponents when he played against them for his third club, Norwich. Paine had no recall of his being anything special, while right-half Ken Wimshurst could remember him dropping so deep that he found himself marking him.
As Ted Bates sought a new striker for 1966-67, Southampton’s inaugural season in Division I, he jibbed at the £80,000 asking price for Chelsea’s England international, Bobby Tambling, and instead bought Davies – capped five times for Wales, but with no top-flight experience – for £55,000. Bates told the press that Ron was ‘particularly good in the air’. Paine credits the manager for ‘a stroke of genius’ in spotting what the players had missed, although Ron would not head a First Division goal until the seventh game of the 1966-67 campaign.
He scored 43 times that season – the 37 in the League making him the top-scorer across all divisions. The fact that 23 of the goals came from a foot justifies Ron’s concern that he should not be talked about for his heading alone: there was more to his game than that; he could do it on the deck and had what it took to lead the line. The fans recognised that quality in their chant:
His name is Ronnie Davies
He’s the leader of the team.
So keen was Ron to drop deep and orchestrate matters that Bates had to urge him forward: never mind being the leader, his main job was to score goals. He topped the First Division charts again – jointly with George Best – in 1967-68 and, by the end of a third successful season, his tally was 85 goals in 119 games. He tailed off a little in his fourth season, 1969-70, although his four goals, on an August afternoon at Old Trafford – the first three of them headers from Sydenham’s crosses – will be recalled with special affection by those Saints fans who were there. Matt Busby thereupon pronounced him the best No.9 in Europe.
That would be Ron’s last hat-trick for the club, however, as Mick Channon took over as the main scorer. Channon has joined in the tributes to Ron’s prowess in the air, but Davies’s chances of heading in crosses was from now on limited by the need to feed Channon, the ‘man on the run’. That wasn’t entirely to Ron’s liking, but he battled on, winning another 23 caps for Wales and drawing publishable caricatures of his team-mates. The fans, in their turn, wrote graffiti about him on almost every wall of the Polygon: ‘RON IS KING’.
A fitting tribute to a super-star who gave his prime years to Southampton, contributing 153 goals in 281 appearances. He had told the People, in his first Dell season, that he’d ‘jump over the moon to join a top first Division club.’ Decoded, that meant Manchester United. Even though he doubted Willie Morgan’s ability to feed him as well as Paine did, Ron would have joined United ‘at a heartbeat’. But he didn’t know, until Matt Busby told him, after his Old Trafford spree, that Ted Bates had declined all offers.
United would eventually get their man in 1974, but only after he’d played 59 times for Portsmouth. By now 32, Ron had taken too many batterings from defenders unable to cope with his mastery of the airways and he never started for United, having to be content to come off the bench eight times. After three Third Division outings for Millwall, he headed for the USA, where he eventually settled. He was still coaching kids near Orlando in his late fifties – individuals only, as he couldn’t abide arguing with parents about team-selections.
A modest man, he gave his American partner, Chris, no inkling of what he meant to Southampton fans. When she accompanied Ron to the 1998 celebrations of Ted Bates’s first 60 seasons with the Saints, Chris told us that she ‘had no idea Ron was so famous.’ Soon after that, they left their Florida home for New Mexico, where they lived in a mobile residential vehicle in Albuquerque. Ron was now approaching 65 but, with bills to pay, was working on construction sites, despite serious wear and tear to both hips. With American health care seemingly unable to help, a group of Saints’ fans launched a hugely successful ‘Give-it-to-Ron’ appeal to raise funds for his medical bills.
Ron Davies (left) and Terry Paine (right) join Ted Bates at the launch of his biography in 1998.
Ron underwent two successful hip replacements, with more Federal aid than had been anticipated, and was looking to the future, with the financial support of the appeal fund, when Chris died, after a short illness, in 2009. Ron became something of a recluse, declining invitations to events organised by former team-mates or the club’s historians.
The King is dead.
Long Live the Magnificent Memories.
RONALD TUDOR DAVIES
25 May 1942 - 24 May 2013