Dean Saunders: The only way is up

Dean Saunders waited a long time before taking the managerial plunge, but tells Ian Herbert why he is convinced he can succeed at non-league Wrexham
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He is the man who went native after signing for Graeme Souness at Galatasaray 13 years back, smearing goat's blood on his face and boots before stepping out into the raging atmosphere of the Ali Sami Yen, so the prospect of a new life in the Blue Square Premier – attempting to manage Wrexham out of the oblivion in which they find themselves – really ought to have represented a step into football's sunny uplands for Dean Saunders.

It didn't, of course. When it comes to sheer, unsparing pressure British football management can't hold a candle to the Bosphorous and Saunders has been around enough to see that for himself. Most vivid for a player remembered with affection at Anfield, Villa Park, Valley Parade and most points in between is his recollection of Chris Waddle's fate at Burnley, 11 years back: one difficult season and then the sack. "I don't know Chris but I saw what happened to him when he got offered the job a bit early and never got another chance," says Saunders, pausing for breath amid the cyclone of activity he has created at Wrexham since taking charge there two months ago. "I thought there's a bit more to management than going straight into it. If I had gone straight into it, I would have made mistakes."

This conversation begins at the foot of the staircase at Wrexham's Colliers Park training ground and at the top of them is one who would have to agree with Saunders' sentiment. Brian Carey, a central defensive legend at Wrexham, was pitched into a losing battle for league survival when the club offered him the manager's chair. Now he is a back-room man, planning an impromptu training session for Saunders, with the evening match at Northwich cancelled, and doubtless hoping that he might find the road back easier than Waddle did.

Perhaps leading the north Wales club back into league football is a more enviable task than preserving their place up there but the experiences of Oxford United, York City and many others in the Conference show that years of wilderness can lie ahead for those who can't make it straight back. "This is a massive risk for me because I know the consequences if I don't get it right," Saunders admits. "There's a lot of league clubs in there and only two of them will get out. I've just got to try everything to get promotion this season. We can't wait about." Eight wins out nine following the late victory at home to Kettering on Saturday suggest something is working.

Saunders' seven years out of the limelight, providing some of Radio 5's most entertaining summarising and assisting John Toshack with the Wales set-up – a job he has kept, have much to do with Souness, the man who, having dispensed with his services at Anfield, subsequently hired him as his assistant at Newcastle. Saunders was on a promise to work for Souness if one of his attempts to buy a club – Wolves were a prospect – had come off. Nothing came of it and so the 44-year-old knuckled down to collecting his Uefa Pro Licence and is still remembered with affection at the Warwick Business School.

It meant others, Paul Ince included, "flying" past him into management while Saunders looked on with no little envy. "I've seen people going past me, yes, getting jobs without getting a coaching badge when I've done everything properly," he says. No prizes for guessing which of Saunders and Ince, is most likely to be in employment this Christmas. How the football world can turn.

So what has he learnt during these years of waiting? The answer is elaborate – Saunders' are rarely anything but – but the consequences of action and inaction and a sixth sense about who can do a job is the nub of it. "When I first started, there were players that I thought were good and weren't; players I thought weren't who did a job."

The Welshman has certainly taken some extraordinary conviction into Wrexham's Racecourse Ground. "I would like to think all those players down there now know, because I've drummed it into them enough, that we've got to get promotion," he says, nodding across to the pitches, "I mean, they are not proper players. They are non-league players. I'm a non-league manager. I've said to them: 'I don't want to be known as a non-league manager. I want to be up where it matters. You want to be players, not non-league players. You are playing against people who have got jobs, part-time players some of them.' All I've asked them to do is give me the effort."

It is just the dose of salts the club need. The past five years could hardly have brought more calamity: a chairman who tried to get the club evicted from the Racecourse so he could sell it off to developers, administration, relegation from the Football League and a feckless start to the campaign under Brian Little. "They've been losing for four or five years here," Saunders adds. "This place is full of losers – I've told 'em that. It becomes a habit and suddenly you can go to the cinema when you've lost four games on the trot and watch the film. You start to be able to live your life losing."

Wales is willing Saunders to succeed. The Welsh FA has been deeply concerned by Wrexham's drift and the recent loan signings of Cardiff's Aaron Morris and Jonathan Brown, and the Swansea City teenager Joe Allen, lending the club a strong Wales Under-21 feel, have added to the sense of this being a national effort. "I've seen Newport go out of the league, Swansea nearly go out of the league, Cardiff not so many years back almost bankrupt," Saunders says. "For Wrexham to be where they are is just a disgrace."

He knows all about life in the football's twilight zone – recalling with a grimace, even now, the way Swansea released him as an 18-year-old. But it is his era as a player on the top stage (right) which he is drawing on as he delivers a message which, taken from some managers, might sound patronising, but from him has proved a rallying cry. "I've said to them: 'I don't expect you to play like Ronaldinho and I don't expect you to play like Barcelona'," he says. "But I say: 'We can run and we can fight like 'em. You've got a heart, a pair of lungs, legs and a brain like Ronaldinho. You can't do the same as Ronaldinho when he's got the ball. But you can do the same as him when he hasn't. You can stop the man in front of you playing well and if you do that you'll get results. You are in a cog. Don't be the one that messes it up."

No one is immune from his uncompromising stance. "Don't want him," he tells Carey, scanning the two practice match line-ups he has scribbled on a board. There is praise for Jefferson Louis, a Dominican striker whose struggle to make it has taken him through 17 clubs in eight years but who has been formed a powerful strike force for Saunders with Wales Under-21 youngster Marc Williams. But Louis has been forgetting to hold up play just lately. "He knows the gate's just there. The exit sign's there. I can't hang around with people who don't want to win," Saunders says.

The real pressure, of course, is at the manager's desk. Saunders will have a little money to spend next month and, though he isn't telling how much, you can get a good sense of it. "The whole of our midfield on Saturday won't be earning what the groundsman's earning at Blackburn," he says.

Saunders in numbers

2 The number of trophies Saunders won as a player – the 1992 FA Cup with Liverpool and 1994 League Cup with Aston Villa.

5 Successive wins Wrexham enjoyed this season – the most successful start by a manager in the club's 136-year history.

12 The number of clubs Saunders has represented. (Swansea, Cardiff, Brighton, Oxford, Derby, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Galatasaray, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, Benfica, Bradford City)

22 Goals Saunders scored for Wales in his 75 appearances. Saunders is placed fourth on the all-time list of Welsh marksmen.

616 Club appearances that Saunders made over the course of his 19-year playing career.

£2.5m Fee Liverpool paid Derby County for centre-forward Saunders' services in 1991. It was then an English transfer record.