A Birkenhead-born right half, George Saunders was first brought to the attention of the Everton management in the 1930s by his town’s greatest son, Dixie Dean. Saunders had been playing for his former school’s Old Boys team, when a friend of Dean’s recommended the youngster. So strong was the commendation that Dean urged the Everton management to check him out without himself seeing him play, and so began a fifteen-year association with Everton.
Saunders – whose younger cousin Ron Saunders made a handful of first team appearances for Everton in the 1950s and later managed Aston Villa to the First Division title – was, noted a pre-war profile ‘of very quiet disposition, and is very popular with his colleagues.’ At golf, it recorded, he was ‘no mean performer’. While honing his trade in the Everton A Team and in the Central League, he converted from right half to right back – and would later in his career fill in as an auxiliary left back.
Like so many players of his era, Saunders saw the bulk and prime of his career ravaged by war. He was aged nineteen when he signed professional terms with Everton in January 1938, but had to wait until he was 28 before making his league debut, in September 1946.
Despite possessing a good first touch, Saunders was an uncomplicated full back, who believed foremost in a safety first mentality. Clearing his lines quickly was his principle responsibility; not for him the fancy touches and embellishments of other defenders. He was strong in the air and possessed the ability to outjump other, more physically imposing rivals. Although he was a committed and reliable member of the Everton team, he played in some of the poorest teams in the club’s history. Everton were relegated in 1950/51, although by then Saunders had started to fall out of favour with Cliff Britton.
In March 1952, Tranmere Rovers came in for Saunders, now aged 34 and out of the team for most of the 1951/52 season. Everton asked for £3,500 for the player, but Rovers pleaded poverty and said they could afford no more than £1,000. The Everton board dismissed the bid and Saunders remained an Everton player, even though he never again played for the first team.
The entire predicament spoke much about the limits of player power in this era and the hold that clubs had over footballers. In fairness to Everton, they paid up Saunders’ accrued benefit of £675 in July the following year. But their refusal to let him go and the way that the club effectively ended his career must surely have rankled with the right back in years to come.