Ron Davies: Prolific Southampton striker hailed by Matt Busby as 'the best centre forward in Europe'

 

No marksman in the last half-century has scored more goals in a single season in English football's top flight than Ron Davies did in 1966/67. That term the Welsh international, one of the most potent headers of a ball the game has ever known, struck 37 times in League competition, a feat rendered all the more colossal as it was performed for a defensively porous Southampton side toiling near the foot of the table.

As a result, Davies was coveted by a posse of leading clubs, with Manchester United manager Matt Busby, who described the prolific spearhead as the best centre-forward in Europe, making several record bids to sign him – only to be serially spurned by his canny counterpart at The Dell, Ted Bates.

Davies knew nothing of Busby's pursuit at the time, but the spring-heeled six-footer revealed later that he would have "jumped over the moon" for a move to Old Trafford. However, he was a philosophical, amiable, appealingly self-deprecating individual, and he never displayed even a hint of bitterness at missing the opportunity of a lifetime.

As it was, he hit the target 275 times in a 549-match, seven-club League career, which peaked with Southampton in the late 1960s and began only after being rejected by Blackburn Rovers following a trial nearly a decade earlier.

Having wished good luck to his friend, the future Wales skipper and manager Mike England, who was accepted at Ewood Park, the teenage Davies started work as a steel moulder, but returned to the game only five weeks later by joining the ground staff of Fourth Division Chester. He made rapid progress at Sealand Road, turning professional in July 1959 and stepping up to the first team as a 17-year-old the following spring.

Though the Deesiders were chronically poor, finishing bottom of the Football League in the next two campaigns, the young Welshman flourished apace, contributing 23 goals in 1960/61, his subsequent development hastened by the rigorous training methods of new manager "Iron" Bill Lambton. The former sergeant-major had Davies leaping over hurdles wearing heavy army boots, a ploy which paid dividends in the short term by enabling him to jump higher, but which possibly contributed to his severe hip problems in later life.

Though his strike-rate for Chester slowed, a transfer to a bigger club became inevitable – and in October 1962 he was sold to Second Division Luton Town for £10,000. Alas, he found himself in a struggling side once more, and although he scored freely for the Hatters, he could not prevent their demotion that term.

Unsurprisingly, Luton cashed in on their prized asset, selling him to Norwich City for £35,000 in September 1963, with Geoffrey Watling, chairman of the second-flight Canaries, so anxious to complete the deal that he told Davies: "If you fail your medical, we'll sack the doctor!"

Yet again the blond centre forward was the shining light in an under-performing team, netting 30 times in his first season at Carrow Road, and going on to average better than a goal every two games before Southampton, newly promoted to the elite division, paid a club-record £55,000 to procure his services in August 1966.

Manager Bates had wanted Chelsea's Bobby Tambling, only to be put off by the £80,000 asking price for the England international, but he could not have been happier with the man he landed, as Davies ran amok against the finest defenders in the land.

The Saints were ideally placed to capitalise on the Welshman's majestic aerial prowess, being blessed by two expert crossers in wingers Terry Paine and John Sydenham. Whether they delivered the ball directly to his head, or into vacant penalty-box space, he had the beating of virtually any opponent.

Timing his imperious jumps to perfection, often Davies seemed to defy gravity, creating the optical illusion of hanging in the air to meet the ball. Even if a delivery was slightly awry, he had the rare knack of adjusting himself in mid-flight, which delighted the flankmen as occasional wayward dispatches would be credited with pinpoint accuracy.

Not that the Welshman, who had marked the first of his 29 caps with a goal in a 3-2 defeat by Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, Belfast, in April 1964, was a one-trick pony. In fact, he was a classy all-rounder capable of deft touches with either foot – and strong enough to retain possession of the ball under fierce physical challenges.

His full panoply of attributes became increasingly evident as he was the First Division's top scorer again in 1967/68 – sharing the honour with Manchester United's George Best, who also hit 28 goals – and he added another 20 as the improving Saints surged into the top half of the table in 1968/69.

That spring, too, he emerged as a major force on the international stage with three superb headers – two against Scotland at Wrexham and one for which he soared above Jack "The Giraffe" Charlton to give Wales a temporary lead over England at Wembley.

Extending this scintillating form into the new domestic season, Davies plundered all four goals at Old Trafford in August – including three imperious nods from beautiful Sydenham crosses – as Southampton spanked Manchester United 4-1, a performance which prompted Busby's rhapsodic tribute and another unsuccessful £200,000 transfer bid.

However, a change of tactics by Bates to accommodate the speed of young front-runner Mick Channon had Davies lying deeper, and consequently the precocious Wiltshireman replaced the Welshman as the Saints' leading scorer over the remaining four seasons of his sojourn at The Dell.

Still, he maintained a high standard as the club consolidated its place among the elite, despite a couple of demotion scares, and widespread graffiti in the city continued to proclaim "Ron is King" until physical wear-and-tear injuries caught up with him and he was allowed to join south-coast rivals, Portsmouth of the Second Division, just short of his 31st birthday in the spring of 1973.

By then, Davies's 153 goals in 281 senior outings had cemented a permanent berth in Saints folklore, and he commenced carving a niche with Pompey by netting 16 times in his first campaign at Fratton Park.

Now, though, he was in decline. His Wales career, which also encompassed three under-23 games, ended in 1974, and that November an unexpected switch to Manchester United, which saw George Graham travel in the opposite direction, was not a success. Sadly for a player who would have graced Old Trafford in his pomp, he was limited to ten substitute appearances from the bench and a fleeting loan stint with Millwall before he finished with the English game in 1975.

There was also brief service with Arcadia Shepherds in South Africa, and three American clubs – Los Angeles Aztecs, Tulsa Roughnecks and Seattle Sounders – before he finally laid aside his boots.

Later he settled in Orlando, Florida, where he coached, then moved to Albuquerque in New Mexico, living in a mobile home and working on building sites as a roofer and landscaper into his mid-sixties, which wasn't ideal given his deteriorating hip problems.

His body having taken a pounding from football, it was appropriate that Southampton and Norwich City fans rallied round and launched a successful cash appeal when he needed operations.

Davies, whose younger brother Paul played briefly for Arsenal and a little more for Charlton Athletic, was also a talented artist – his caricatures of team-mates and managers being published in newspapers and magazines.

Ivan Ponting

Ronald Tudor Davies, footballer: born Holywell, Flintshire 25 May 1942; played for Chester 1959-62, Luton Town 1962-63, Norwich City 1963-66, Southampton 1966-73, Portsmouth 1973-74, Manchester United 1974-75, Millwall on loan 1975; capped 29 times by Wales 1964-74; died Albuquerque, New Mexico 24 May 2013.

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