Ron Atkinson on the Desailly controversy, Paul McGrath and his best-ever signings

The former Manchester United manager chats to The42 about an eventful career in football.

Ron Atkinson enjoyed success as manager of Man United and Aston Villa among others.
Ron Atkinson enjoyed success as manager of Man United and Aston Villa among others.
Image: EMPICS Sport

BETWEEN 1971 AND 1999, ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson managed 11 teams.

From his first job at Kettering Town to his last at Nottingham Forest, it was certainly one of the more interesting footballing journeys of recent memory.

After all, not many people can list the contrasting likes of Cambridge, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid on their CV.

And as with many of the game’s most notable managers, he had a solid if relatively unremarkable playing career.

Born in Liverpool, Atkinson joined Aston Villa at 17, but was transferred to Oxford having not made a single first-team appearance for his first club.

Nicknamed ‘The Tank,’ Atkinson went on to make over 500 appearances for Oxford at wing half, becoming captain and helping to guide them from the Southern League to the Second Division.

Yet it was as a coach where Atkinson became one of English football’s most renowned figures and he began this occupation early. At 32, he joined Kettering and was made player-manager. After three years there, he left for Cambridge United where, between 1974 and 1978, he took the club from the Fourth Division to the brink of the second.

Atkinson’s success caught the eye of West Brom. Irish footballing legend John Giles had resigned from the club, as he returned to Dublin for what was an ultimately ill-fated job as manager of Shamrock Rovers.

In Giles’ place, Atkinson took West Brom to a third-place finish in the league and helped them reach the Uefa Cup quarter-finals, while they became the first top-flight English club to have three black footballers playing regularly in their starting XI.

It was also during the European run that, after losing the first leg of their game with Red Star Belgrade after conceding a “dodgy” free kick late on, Atkinson made one of football’s most famous and oft-quoted quips to the press: “You know me, lads, I never criticise referees, and I’m not going to make an exception for that prat.”

Atkinson enjoyed similar success the following year in 1981, helping Albion finish fourth, before Manchester United came calling.

It had been a remarkable rise. Within the space of a decade, Atkinson’s impressive managerial feats enabled him to go from the Fourth Division to the Theatre of Dreams.

Although they were far from the excessively rich business empire of today, back in 1981, the Manchester United job was still considered among the most illustrious and coveted in European football.

In the context of the person who succeeded him, Atkinson’s time at United is perhaps judged somewhat harshly. At the time, he was taking over a club whose last league title win dated back to 1967 and whose famous European Cup victory in 1968 was becoming an increasingly distant memory. They were also living in the shadow of a Liverpool side who, between 1972 and 1990, won an incredible 11 league titles along with several other major trophies.

Atkinson may not have won either the league or the European Cup during his time at Old Trafford, but he did win two FA Cups (1983 and 1985), a trophy the Red Devils had claimed just four times in their history prior to Big Ron’s arrival. Moreover, their league form, initially at least, was encouraging. Having finished eighth the previous campaign under Dave Sexton, Atkinson guided the club to five successive top-four finishes, before a disastrous 1986-87 campaign led to his sacking on 6 November, with the club positioned precariously in the bottom four.

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Everton v Manchester United - Wembley Stadium Ron Atkinson and his Manchester United team celebrate with the FA Cup in 1985. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

Yet perhaps more significantly, without enjoying comparable success to Ferguson, Atkinson did lay some of the foundations in place for the club’s dramatic ’90s rise.

In 1981, he paid a then-national record of £1.5 million for Bryan Robson from West Brom, subsequently describing the player as his best-ever signing.

Interestingly though, one key figure was not overly impressed. Having long been uneasy with the increasingly excessive fees paid for footballers, the signing of Robson finally prompted legendary former manager Matt Busby to resign from the board.

He said: ‘I think I’ve now come to terms with what’s happening in football,’ Atkinson tells The42. “That’s why I wonder now how he’d feel if he saw the amount of money going round these days.

“He came off the board and they made him president. He still went to all the games — there was no problem whatsoever there.”

And despite the pressure of the big transfer fee, at United, Robson would consolidate his status as a top-class midfielder, becoming a key player for both the Red Devils and England, with whom he would register an impressive 26 goals in 90 appearances.

Atkinson’s other key acquisition was a less high-profile but similarly important figure in the history of Manchester United. Eric Harrison, the club’s fabled youth team coach, is primarily thought of as the man responsible for nurturing ‘The Class of ’92,’ the last great collection of homegrown footballers that English football has seen.

But, as Atkinson points out, even prior to the glory years, Harrison — who he describes as his best-ever signing after Robson — was developing some exceptional footballers.

Eric had been a good pal of mine for years,” he says of the man Atkinson first encountered while the two were playing for the Royal Air Force football team. “So when I took the United job, I appointed him youth team coach. They talk of ‘The Class of ’92,’ which gets a lot of prominence, but even before that, there were people like Norman Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Clayton Blackmore, all of them went through Eric’s hands.

“He based a lot of (his coaching) on technique, coupled with attitude and will to win.”

Although he left United in difficult circumstances, Atkinson’s coaching stock was still relatively high by then. So perhaps surprisingly, as his next move, he chose a return to West Brom, who had been relegated from the top flight in his absence. But, after only a year with the Baggies, having guided the club to safety in their fight against relegation to the Second Division, Atletico Madrid expressed interest in him.

It was not the first time that Atkinson had been approached by a La Liga club. In 1984, the then-United manager held talks with Barcelona. In his new book, The Manager, he says that Bobby Robson, a close friend of then-club president Josep Nunez, had suggested Atkinson was using the Catalan club to get a better deal at Man United. Unsurprisingly, Barca were put off, and chose to appoint another Englishman, Terry Venables, instead.

Source: Adrian Houghton/YouTube

Yet before and since, few high-profile English players or managers have made the bold move to Spain (or indeed most other European countries). And Atkinson’s turbulent period in Madrid probably didn’t help in encouraging others to follow similar paths.

Despite guiding the club to fourth place, Atkinson was sacked after just 93 days in charge by Atletico’s maverick owner at the time, Jesús Gil, a Massimo Cellino-esque individual who would quickly gain a reputation for his prompt hiring and firing of coaches, as well as some players.

But despite Gil’s erratic behaviour, Atkinson reflects positively on his brief stint in Spain.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says. “I had a great time there. We went from bottom of the league to the top two or three, just behind the leaders. I think we might have come close to winning it.

Gil sacked a manager shortly after (I left) because they were beaten in a pre-season tournament. He liked getting rid of people. He always said that I came back to manage an English side, and that he never got rid of me.

“All the time I was there, I never had a problem with him. I thought he was quite a character actually.”

After what seemed an impossible situation at Atletico, Atkinson returned to the more familiar surroundings of English football, becoming manager of Sheffield Wednesday. This period was similarly full of highs and lows, but for the different reasons.

In just two years with the Owls, Atkinson’s side got relegated, promoted and enjoyed a surprise League Cup triumph. His team included some notable names such as Dalian Atkinson, Carlton Palmer and ex-Ireland international John Sheridan, a player his former manager believes was on a par with English footballing legend Glenn Hoddle.

But most gallingly of all as far as some Wednesday supporters were concerned, with promotion secured and a team on the up, Atkinson told reporters he would remain there as manager the following season, only to leave for Aston Villa just days later.

Atkinson’s subsequent stint at the Midlands club was arguably his most successful period as a manager. Along with Kevin Keegan, he holds the record for the highest-place Premier League finish of any English manager, as he guided Villa to second behind Alex Ferguson’s Man United in the 1992-93 campaign.

Dalian Atkinson death File photo dated 27/03/94 of Aston Villa manager Ron Atkinson holding the Coca-Cola cup with former Aston Villa footballer Dalian Atkinson (right). Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It was in that period too that Atkinson enjoyed probably his greatest managerial achievement, denying one of Alex Ferguson’s most famous United sides an unprecedented domestic treble, as he oversaw a 3-1 victory in the 1994 League Cup final, in the process guiding the club to their major trophy win since the 1982 European Cup triumph.

That’s the side Fergie said was his most powerful team,” Atkinson recalls. “They had power in every position virtually.

“Going to Wembley and winning, I think I won five times there. That would be the highlight (of my career).

I’ve been lucky enough. I’ve been to Wembley a few times. I’ve produced teams that have by and large consistently been in the top bracket.

“Overall, I look back and think, I left school at 15 and have never looked back since.”

Source: barbarian981/YouTube

While at Villa, Atkinson worked with four key Irish players of that period — Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend, Steve Staunton and of course, Paul McGrath, who was nicknamed ‘God’ by the club’s fans.

Atkinson had previously worked with McGrath at United. A strict disciplinarian, Alex Ferguson lost patience with the troubled centre-back ultimately, and many people wrote McGrath off after he left Old Trafford, with the player dogged by injury problems and some well-documented off-field issues.

Soccer Paul McGrath was a key player for Aston Villa during Ron Atkinson's tenure. Source: EMPICS Sport

But Atkinson undoubtedly got the best out of McGrath, leading him to be named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 1993. Only two other Irish footballers, Roy Keane and Liam Brady, have won this illustrious award.

And the ex-Villa boss is glowing in his praise of the Irish footballing legend, with whom he shared a number of special moments in football.

“I think he’s the best centre-half that’s ever played in the Premier League,” Atkinson says.

I always say that the best player I ever worked with is Bryan Robson, but Paul McGrath would run him a very close second.

“The irony is Paul probably finished Robbo’s international career at Wembley one night when Jack Charlton made him mark Bryan, and I’m not sure Bryan ever played again (for England) after that.

People didn’t realise quite how quick he was. I know for a fact, for many years, Ian Rush, who was probably as good a centre forward as I’ve ever seen, couldn’t score against him. Rushie used to say: ‘I’d set off on a run and by the time I’d got there, I found McGrath waiting for me.’”

After the League Cup success, Atkinson’s fortunes at Villa took a turn for the worse. A tense relationship with chairman Doug Ellis was exacerbated by the fact that the club were battling relegation all of a sudden, and on 10 November 1994 — just days after the owner had called him one of the top three managers in England — Atkinson was relieved of his duties.

In the three years thereafter, Atkinson would manage three different relegation-threatened clubs — Coventry, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. He guided the latter two to safety before overseeing the former’s drop to the First Division (as it was then known), having taken over midway through the season with the club already in serious peril.

Forest’s issues were not helped by their talented-but-temperamental key player, Dutch striker Pierre van Hooijdonk. Under Dave Bassett, the unhappy star had gone on strike, protesting the club’s unwillingness to sign better players following their promotion.

He caused the previous manager, Dave Bassett, a lot of trouble,” Atkinson recalls. “When I went in, it was kind of like a lost cause anyway. I merely said to him: ‘If you want to be in the battle, you’ll be the spine, if you don’t, then so be it.’

“He was an awkward character, yeah, but it didn’t bother me one iota.”

Source: AATV/YouTube

Following Forest’s almost inevitable relegation, Big Ron announced his retirement from management. However, he remained high profile as ever, gaining popularity while working as a co-commentator with ITV, with his idiosyncratic use of language affectionately described as ‘Ronglish’.

Nevertheless, Atkinson’s early success in this role was totally undone in one instant. Watching back replays of Chelsea’s 2004 Champions League loss to Monaco, Atkinson — believing his microphone to be switched off — described defender Marcel Desailly as “what is known in some schools as a f*****g lazy, thick n****r”. Although the programme with ITV had ended, the words were broadcast in several Middle Eastern countries, much to the embarrassment of Big Ron and his ITV bosses.

The controversy meant Atkinson had to step down both as a commentator with the station and as a columnist for The Guardian, although some people defended him, including former England international Carlton Palmer, one of the many high-profile black players he has worked with in football.

Since this racist slur, while opportunities in football have been limited, Atkinson has continued to appear on various TV shows including Celebrity Big Brother, Wife Swap and Big Ron Manager, in addition to doing punditry work for MUTV and William Hill.

Celebrity Big Brother Summer 2013 - London Ron Atkinson arriving at the launch of Celebrity Big Brother Summer 2013. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

However, with over a decade having passed, Atkinson still struggles to live down the notoriety of the Desailly incident. In other interviews to publicise his new book, Atkinson has spoken about being sick of saying sorry for the infamous remark.

I am fed up of apologising – (former England manager) Terry Venables rang me up once and he said, ‘when are you going to stop apologising?’ And I thought, ‘ah, you’re right’.”

Asked now whether he realised the fallout would be so severe, Atkinson simply says he has moved on from the controversy.

You don’t know quite what’s what (at the time). But as I say now, (the criticism is) just water off a duck’s back and you get on with it.”

The incident also cost him a chance to take over Trinidad and Tobago in 2005 — the side who would go on to play in the World Cup the following year.

At the time, senior players including Atkinson’s former striker at Villa, Dwight Yorke, were understood to have protested the veteran coach’s appointment, and forced the country’s footballing authorities into a re-think.

(Dwight Yorke) was involved in it, but I don’t know quite what his involvement was. The person I was dealing with, (special advisor to the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation and now disgraced ex-Fifa Vice President) Jack Warner, people said I should have sued him.”

And now, at 77, Atkinson’s career as a coach is most certainly over. A brief 2007 return to Kettering as Director of Football aside, he has largely watched the game develop from the outside in the years since his Forest departure.

Nonetheless, Atkinson still retains a voracious interest in the game and has plenty of opinions on contemporary developments, describing current Man United boss Jose Mourinho as “the right man for the job”.

And while football is a totally different beast now compared to when a star-struck 15-year-old Atkinson watched Hungarian side Honved play Wolves in 1954 while dreaming of joining them some day, he believes the fundamentals of the sport, and of management, remain essentially the same.

I’ve heard it talked about: ‘How do you motivate millionaires?’ What I’d say is that while there are some that will take advantage, I still believe the majority of players want what I call ‘proper management,’ i.e. strong discipline, and there may be different ways to do that. But you evolve with whatever’s going on. The majority of footballers today just want their club to be run well.”

‘Ron Atkinson: The Manager’ is published by deCoubertin Books. More info here.

Ron Atkinson will be speaking at an event in The Sugar Club in Dublin on 5 December. You can purchase tickets here.

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