He played for Liverpool and Aston Villa in the 1990s, and set a new British transfer record when he joined the former from Derby County. He began at his hometown club Swansea City before also playing for Brighton, Oxford United, Bradford City, Nottingham Forest and Sheffield United as well as spells at Galatasaray and Benfica.
He was capped 75 times at senior level for Wales between 1986 and 2001, scoring 22 times, making him one of the nation's highest-scoring and most-capped players of all time, although Wales never qualified for any major international competitions while Saunders was playing for them.
Following his retirement from playing in 2001, he entered football coaching and then management, firstly of non-league Wrexham (2008–2011) and since then of Doncaster Rovers (2011–2013), Wolverhampton Wanderers (2013), Crawley Town (2014–2015), and Chesterfield (2015).
Saunders was born in Swansea and began his career with Swansea City, where his father Roy had been a player and coach, signing as an apprentice on leaving school in 1980.
He turned professional in the summer of 1982, after Swansea had finished sixth in their debut season as a First Division club. Swansea were relegated in 1982–83, and Saunders made his debut in the 1983–84 season. He scored three goals in 19 games as a second successive relegation pushed Swansea in the Third Division. He scored nine goals in 30 league games in 1984–85, as Swansea narrowly avoided a third successive relegation. A goalless four-game loan spell at local rivals Cardiff City also came in 1984–85, before he signed for Second Division club Brighton & Hove Albion on a free transfer on 7 August 1985.
The striker was a success at the Goldstone Ground, scoring 14 league goals in his first season. He scored six goals from 30 league games in 1986–87 before a £60,000 move took him to the First Division with Oxford United. He was an instant success as his six goals in the final 12 league games secured First Division survival.
He scored 12 goals in 37 games during the 1987–88 season (during which Maurice Evans was dismissed as manager and replaced by Mark Lawrenson) but it was not enough to prevent Oxford from going down in bottom place after three seasons in the top flight.
He began the 1988–89 season still in the Second Division, with manager Mark Lawrenson and chairman Kevin Maxwell agreeing that they would only sell Saunders if Oxford failed to win promotion at the end of the season. However, he was sold to Derby County for £1 million on 28 October 1988 prompting Oxford manager Mark Lawrenson to resign in protest over Saunders' sale.
Saunders made his Derby County debut on 29 October 1988 against Wimbledon in a First Division fixture at the Baseball Ground in which he scored twice. In his first season at his new club he scored 14 goals in 30 games to help Derby finish fifth in the 1988–89 First Division table — their highest finish since they were league champions in 1975 — but they were unable to compete in the UEFA Cup due to the ban on English teams in European competition following the Heysel Disaster of 1985. He added 11 league goals to his name in the 1989–90, but Derby slumped to 16th place.
During the 1990–91 season he netted 17 league goals but Derby still went down in bottom place with just five league wins all season. Their relegation saw most of the country's top clubs queue up in their bid to capture Saunders' services, and Everton were favourites to sign him, and there were also approaches from Aston Villa's new manager Ron Atkinson, and Nottingham Forest's Brian Clough. Saunders ended up at Liverpool, who paid a then English record fee of £2.9 million for Saunders on 19 July 1991 to make him Ian Rush's new strike-partner following the departures of David Speedie and Peter Beardsley.
In 1991–92, Saunders partnered Rush – who also his strike partner for Wales – in attack, backed by young Steve McManaman which saw the club win the FA Cup for the fifth time in its history in manager Graeme Souness' first full season in charge.
Saunders scored 23 goals in all competitions, though just 10 of these were the league where the club only managed a sixth-place finish - one of their lowest positions since their current top flight tenure began in 1962. He became the first Liverpool player to score four goals in a European fixture when he did so during a 6–1 home win over Kuusysi Lahti in the UEFA Cup first round first leg on 18 September 1991 that was their first European fixture after their six-year ban. He also scored twice against FC Tirol in the third round first leg and a hat-trick in the return game.
On 1 September 1992, Saunders became Aston Villa's record signing in a £2.5 million deal that reunited him with former Liverpool players Steve Staunton and Ray Houghton at Villa Park. He managed six goals in his first four league games including two on his home debut against the club who had sold him; he also scored the winning goal at Anfield later in the season.
Here, he developed a strong partnership with Dalian Atkinson until the latter suffered an injury midway through the season. Linking up with Dwight Yorke, Saunders continued scoring as Villa challenged for the inaugural Premier League title but the team ultimately finished runners-up behind Manchester United. He ended the campaign with 16 goals in total with 12 in the league, one being a 35-yard strike against Ipswich.
Saunders and Villa found goals harder to come by in the league in the following season and he only managed 10, three coming from hat-trick scored against Swindon. He did however manage six more in cup competitions, with his goals against Birmingham City and Tranmere helping Aston Villa reach the 1994 League Cup Final where they beat Manchester United 3–1, as Saunders scored twice to end Villa's 12-year wait for a major trophy.
Despite his best goalscoring season for the club with 17 goals, the 1994–95 season saw Villa finish only one place short of relegation — two years after they had come one place short of the league title. At one stage during the campaign Saunders recorded a run of seven goals in six games, including braces against Wimbledon in a 7–1 victory, and Sheffield Wednesday. His final Villa goal came against Leicester City and despite not scoring in his final twelve appearances for the club he was named the Supporters' Player of the Year.
As part of new Villa manager Brian Little's rebuilding programme, which resulted in many players of the Ron Atkinson era being sold, Saunders was off-loaded to Turkish club Galatasaray on 1 July 1995 for £2.35 million (a large sum for a 31-year-old player), where he reunited with his former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness. In fact, according to Shelley Webb's book Footballers' Wives Tell Their Tales, the first Saunders' wife Helen knew of the move was when she went to Turkey with him one weekend, to find that by Monday he had signed for the Istanbul club and this was her new home.
In the 1996 Türkiye Kupası final, Saunders scored the only goal of the first-leg before scoring an equalising goal in extra-time of the away leg against rivals Fenerbahçe S.K. to win the cup for Gala.
Saunders spent one season at Galatasaray, before he returned to the Premier League with Nottingham Forest in 1996 for £1.5m. His only season at the City Ground was a disappointment with a shortage of goals which contributed to Forest's relegation before joining Sheffield United in Division One. Whilst at Sheffield United he is remembered for an ingenious passage of play which resulted in a cheeky goal for his team. In a game against Port Vale, Saunders chased a long ball down with Vale keeper Paul Musselwhite, Musselwhite won the race and knocked the ball out for a throw in, only for Saunders to quickly pick it up and throw it onto the keeper's back, and then proceed to curl it into the goal from 25 yards.
Saunders remained at Sheffield United for two years before another spell abroad with Benfica (again under Souness) before moving back to the Premier League with newly promoted Bradford City. He remained at Bradford for two years until the end of the 2000–01 season, when Bradford were relegated from the Premier League. It was the eighth time in his career that Saunders had been involved with a club during a season of relegation. After spending the summer training with Premier League Blackburn Rovers while considering his options, he eventually signed a contract with them to work as a coach in November 2001, thereby ending his playing career.
Saunders was one of the Wales national team's most prolific goalscorers. He scored on his international debut, aged 21 in a 1–0 friendly win against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on 26 March 1986, the first of 75 caps. He scored 22 international goals, putting him fourth on the all time Wales list behind Ian Rush, Ivor Allchurch and Trevor Ford. Among his list of goals was the only goal of the game to defeat Brazil in Cardiff in 1991. He won the last of his 75 caps as a substitute in a World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on 28 March 2001, a few months short of his 37th birthday.
After his playing retirement Saunders initially became a coach at Blackburn Rovers working alongside his former manager Graeme Souness. He moved with Souness to Newcastle United in 2004, initially in the role of striker coach, and then later becoming first-team coach. When Souness was sacked on 2 February 2006 due to a run of poor results, his entire backroom team including Saunders were also replaced.
Saunders started the Certificate in Football Management course at the University of Warwick Business School in June 2007 and holds the UEFA Pro Licence coaching badge. In June 2007, he was appointed assistant manager to John Toshack for the Wales national football team, and remained in the role until Toshack's departure in September 2010.
On 2 October 2008, Saunders was appointed as manager of Conference Premier club Wrexham, taking over from Brian Little to become the side's fourth manager in 22 months. He was allowed to combine the role with his position as assistant manager of Wales. Wrexham won their first five league games with Saunders in charge, giving him the best starting record of any new manager in the club's history. However, the team failed to maintain that early form and finished in tenth place.
Whilst he improved the club's defensive record during 2009–10, a lack of goalpower continued, despite the arrival of Andy Mangan in January 2010, the BSP's leading goalscorer during the previous year, saw the team end in 11th position.
Saunders made several signings in the summer of 2010, and after an uncertain start, the team finished in the play-off positions. They failed to win promotion though, after Luton Town defeated them 5–1 on aggregate in the semi-finals. After the club received a takeover at the conclusion of the season after several years of financial instability, Saunders signed a new contract.
Despite his new deal Saunders remained at Wrexham for only ten matches of the following season, during which he led the team to second place, before he moved to Doncaster Rovers of the Championship.
On 23 September 2011, Saunders was named manager of Doncaster Rovers following their sacking of Sean O'Driscoll. His first match gave the club their first win of the season and their first in 20 games, when they beat Crystal Palace 1–0. Despite this opening victory a run of poor results saw a section of fans call for Saunders to be sacked as Doncaster remained at the bottom of the league.
His attempts to keep Doncaster in the Championship came to an end on 14 April 2012 as they were relegated following a 4–3 home defeat by Portsmouth at the Keepmoat Stadium, ending their four-year stay in the Championship. In the transfer window Saunders said " I'm going to try and bring the best to the club (Doncaster Rovers) and I'm targeting Championship quality".
On 14 July 2012 Saunders made a brief return to playing as he came off the bench to score in Doncaster's 4–2 friendly victory over Cleethorpes Town.
Following their relegation to League One Saunders oversaw a promotion challenge which put the club joint top of the division by early January, but on 6 January 2013 Doncaster gave Championship club Wolverhampton Wanderers permission to talk to Saunders with the prospect of him becoming the club's new manager.
On 7 January 2013 Saunders was confirmed as the new Wolves manager on a one-year rolling contract, succeeding Ståle Solbakken less than 48 hours after his dismissal, with both his assistant manager Brian Carey and fitness coach Mal Purchase at Doncaster also making the move to Molineux. Saunders' first match brought a 1–1 draw against Blackburn Rovers on 11 January 2013.
Despite announcing that he believed the team could still challenge for promotion, it was not until his tenth game in charge that Wolves recorded a victory. By the final months the team firmly lay in a relegation battle that ultimately proved unsuccessful, with their first relegation to the third tier since 1984–85 being confirmed on the final day of the season with defeat at Brighton.
Saunders stated that he hoped to remain in the job and "sort the club out from top to bottom", but his contract (as well as his assistant's) was terminated three days after relegation was confirmed, following only four months in the job.
On 27 December 2014, Saunders was named as interim manager of Crawley Town after John Gregory stepped down due to health problems. His main task was keeping the club in League One. Saunders' first match brought a 0–0 draw against Colchester on 28 December 2014.
A win at Oldham Athletic on 6 April 2015 put Saunders's side in 19th, one place above the relegation zone, however they moved back into the relegation zone when they were beaten 4–3 by Peterborough. On the final day of the season, it was confirmed that Crawley Town had been relegated from League One, becoming the third team relegated under Saunders management.
Saunders' contract ran out on the final day of the season. However, on 9 May 2015 John Gregory left as Manager of Crawley Town and there was speculation that Saunders would become their permanent manager. On 13 May 2015, it was announced that Saunders had become the manager of League One side Chesterfield, ending the speculation.
On 13 May 2015, Saunders was appointed the manager of Chesterfield on a two-year contract following Paul Cook's departure for Portsmouth.
His first game in charge bought a 3–1 win at home against Barnsley and other notable results included a 2–1 win at then leaders Walsall in October, a 2–0 win at promotion chasers Millwall and a 4–1 win at FC United of Manchester in the FA Cup.
However, after four consecutive league defeats and dramatic drop in the form and style of play, Chesterfield announced on 28 November 2015 that they had parted company with Saunders following a 4–0 home defeat to Swindon Town, that left them in 16th place.
Saunders lives in Cheshire, where his closest neighbour was Gary Speed, his former international teammate. Following Speed's death, Saunders described himself as 'flabbergasted' upon hearing the news.