Plenty of miles in Dean machine

'It's confidence... when I have got the ball in front of goal, I assume I'm going to score'
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In these cynical times, a player can no more expect to be showered with hugs and kisses from the supporters he left behind than an errant husband returning to his broken family. The return of a former player is invariably met with a cascade of vitriol from the stands. Anfield, though, remains an oasis of old-fashioned courtesy, and when Bradford meet Liverpool tomorrow night, if there is one certainty it is that Dean Saunders will walk out to generous applause.

In these cynical times, a player can no more expect to be showered with hugs and kisses from the supporters he left behind than an errant husband returning to his broken family. The return of a former player is invariably met with a cascade of vitriol from the stands. Anfield, though, remains an oasis of old-fashioned courtesy, and when Bradford meet Liverpool tomorrow night, if there is one certainty it is that Dean Saunders will walk out to generous applause.

Indeed, the Welshman is that rare breed, appreciated by all of the 11 clubs he has previously played for, although it might be stretching the goodwill if his 12th and current employers, Bradford, ever found themselves paired with Galatasaray, with whom he spent a year. "I've had a lot of clubs, but I can walk back to any with my head held high," he insisted. "I've never asked for a transfer and if you've put the effort in, they forgive you your weaknesses. It will be great going back to Anfield."

The remarkable thing is that he is still performing within the elite, and in Britain. There will have been a few bemused looks around the country when the scorer, as well as the scoreline, appeared on the first Saturday of the season: Middlesbrough 0, Bradford 1 (Saunders 89).

Like a once-beloved old jacket that you think you've seen the last of, he still keeps turning up in football's wardrobe. But dust him down a bit and he will still do a thoroughly professional job. At 35, a year older than even Leicester's "veteran" Tony Cottee, and three months the senior of his present manager, Paul Jewell, the genial "Deano" is as dependable as ever, and just as capable of unnerving defences.

Yet around Christmas last year we all thought we had heard the last of the feisty striker when he moved to Benfica. He even thought so himself. "I thought I'd be there for two years under Graeme Souness, and that would bring me up to approaching 37. But Graeme fell out with the president and when I got the call I couldn't resist the challenge of coming back to play in the Premiership, even though I lost a lot of money in doing so."

From Benfica to Bradford is not just a vivid contrast in cultures and salary, but in fans' expectations. "Out in Lisbon, they expect you to win every game four-nil and they stop you in the street and say, 'Hey, Mister Saunders, are we going to win the Champions' League?' At Bradford, the question is whether we can manage to finish fourth from bottom."

The defeat of Leicester last Saturday suggests Jewell's team are establishing themselves. "We've got to be more horrible," said Saunders. "We've been too easy to play against, and when these £50m teams have the ball they don't make mistakes. With their injuries and the fact that their foreigners are taking time to settle in, now must be as good a time as any to play Liverpool."

It was Souness, in his reign as Liverpool manager, who signed the Welsh international from Derby for a then British record transfer fee of £2.9m in 1991. During his brief but distinguished career there, Saunders won an FA Cup winner's medal and scored nine goals in the Uefa Cup, together with another 11 in the League.

The cup run which ended with the Wembley defeat of Sunderland was tarnished for Saunders when he was called before the FA after a TV camera had caught him elbowing a Bristol Rovers player. "Trial by TV" became a much-debated issue, just as it is now.

"I have to say that the player I elbowed had already knocked out my two front teeth off the ball," Saunders recalled last week. "But the thing you have got to remember is that you are playing on the edge of your temper. David Beckham is a typical example of a player reacting, then realising as soon as it's happened what he's done. The stakes are higher, competition for places is greater, and games are faster."

Only 14 months after joining Liverpool, Souness called Saunders in and told him: "We need the money to buy a centre-back. I've had an offer for you." Aston Villa were the interested club. "It was a shock, I'll admit, but I met Ron [Atkinson] and it was hard to say no to him." The postscript was that the incoming defender was the Norwegian Torben Piechnik, generally acknowledged as one of Liverpool's less astute acquisitions.

Liverpool were already in decline, by their own meticulously high standards, though Saunders, unlike many, doesn't attribute the blame to Souness. "I couldn't have gone there at a worse time," he reflected. "Graeme had got rid of several big-name players, the likes of Peter Beardsley, Barry Venison, and then of those he had left, there were a number who had Achilles operations, including John Barnes and Ian Rush. I ended up playing only 16 games alongside John, and then Ian was out for five months. It meant that youngsters like Steve McManaman and Jamie Redknapp were playing, really, before they were ready for it. I think I played with nine different centre-forwards that season. Graeme was unlucky. Their problems had started before that."

When Saunders departed, Robbie Fowler and Redknapp were announcing their potential, and the air was also thick with talk of a young boy named Michael Owen, who was scoring an astonishing number of goals for the junior sides. "He's that quick, according to the lads who play against him, quicker even than on the telly," said Saunders. "Obviously, he's got an eye for goal and a sharp brain, but he hasn't even got to do anything clever; if the weight of the ball's right through the middle, he'll just run past you. If you ask any defender, they're all frightened to death of him.

"You just hope he doesn't get too many problems with injuries. The reason I'm still around now is that I don't get many. And I've still got my enthusiasm. Once you've got a hunger for goals you never lose that."

Self-belief is the other factor that sustains him. "When I was at Aston Villa, I had Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton on my back, moaning, from kick-off to the final whistle that I had not passed to one or another of them.

"They've got so much confidence, they think you should always give them the ball. That's typical of good players, and I'm the same. When I've got the ball in front of goal, I assume I'm going to score."

Saunders is contracted to Bradford until the end of next season. "In the future, I'd like to have a go at management or coaching," he said. "I'd be an idiot if I'd not learned something from all managers I've played under, wouldn't I?"

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