Shropshire Star

Ron Atkinson's mission to set the image right

In one fell swoop, more than four decades of experience in football was flushed down the pan, and a reputation was tainted beyond recovery.


Thanks to those infamous comments about Marcel Desailly in 2004, Ron Atkinson the manager was suddenly Ron Atkinson the racist.

It was especially disappointing for Albion fans, who remain to this day staunchly proud of Big Ron's swashbuckling Baggies team of the late 1970s that boasted the 'Three Degrees' – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, and Brendon Batson.

It was a team that took on defenders and prejudice with the same panache and cavalier artistry that came to epitomise Ron the manager.

After 30 successful years in the dug-out, Atkinson was carving out a career as a personality pundit at the start of the millennium, an experienced man with plenty of stories whose opinion mattered.

But in 2004 that media career was left in tatters, and for the past 12 years he's been on the peripheries, occasionally popping up on reality shows trying to learn French or taking part in Celebrity Wife Swap.

Now though, he's trying to restore his previous image, and there's no surprise then that his new book is called 'Ron Atkinson: The Manager'.

Atkinson knows his life is now synonymous with those words he uttered when he thought the microphones were off, and he addresses the issue head-on in the book.

"It was idiotic, stupid and offensive, and I should never have said it," he says. "To this day I can't believe I did."

When he's probed further about it during interview, he's noticeably weary of the question, but understands the need to answer it. Does it make him unhappy, to be pigeonholed by so many because of one sentence that he describes as a mistake?

"No, not really," he says, acknowledging his reality. "All I do know is that Paul Williams just got a job at Cardiff. He rang me and said 'gaffer, what do you think?' That's what's important to me."

Williams is black. For many of us, Atkinson's 'I have black friends' defence is awkward, ill-advised, and out-dated.

But it's obviously important to the 77-year-old who brought through the likes of Regis and Cunningham that he is still well-respected by his former players, whatever colour they may be.

There's no denying his impact on the game was huge in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, especially around these parts.

An apprentice at Wolves' famous match with Honved in 1954 that was a pre-cursor for the European Cup, he found his way back to the Black Country in 1978, when he took over the Baggies.

"It was great, you went to every game in anticipation," says Atkinson. "And I still believe, but for the big freeze up in January and February, we'd have won the league. There wasn't a team in Europe that could have lived with us."

Albion finished third in Atkinson's first full season at the club behind Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and for most of the season they were in the hunt for the title.

"We had to play 12 games in the last 36 days with a small squad – we were operating on 14 players – and we still finished up with 59 points, losing the last two games," he says. "Seven times out of 10, that would have won you the league when it was two points for a win."

The Baggies also reached the latter stages of the Uefa Cup.

The Manager is available now.

"Valencia away," Atkinson says, fondly. It's a game synonymous with one player, Laurie Cunningham. Albion's wing-wizard was so impressive in the 1-1 draw at the Mestalla that Real Madrid signed him at the end of the season, making him the first Englishman to play for the Spanish giants. "Earlier this week I was in a restaurant in Tenerife," regales Atkinson. "There's a Spanish guy in there who knew the guy who played left-back. He said he never forgot what Cunningham did to him."

Atkinson's team is still widely regarded as the most exciting Albion team in living memory, but who was the best player from that era?

"If you asked that team, they'd all say little Derek Statham at left-back! I can remember Willie Johnston saying he's the only player in England he'd pay money to watch. Robbo (Bryan Robson) was great, Laurie Cunningham was sensational.

"But people thought we just played top-class football. We didn't. I can remember going to Bolton and Leeds and getting battered and John Wile and Ally Robertson keeping us in the game. Everyone talks about our attacking players but we had good defenders and the two proper centre-halves. Neither of those two got a cap but I look at the international sides now and both of those would have got 50 caps for their respective countries."

Atkinson left for United in 1981 but he maintains that he was keen to stay at The Hawthorns.

"I'll be honest, I would not have left the Albion at the time for any other club. But I think they were caught cold.

"That year I can remember going to the board trying to get a contract increase for John Wile and Robbo, They said we can't really. Times are different now, they'd be doing it three years earlier."

After five successful years at United, when he won two FA Cups, Atkinson returned to The Hawthorns for a second spell when the Baggies were in the Second Division. But it wasn't long before Atletico Madrid came calling with a salary offer that was seven times more than the Baggies were paying.

"It was like being in a soap opera," recalled Atkinson, who dubbed the Atletico president Jesus Gil, 'Mad Max'. "I remember him looking at the next four games once, and he said the next three referees will be OK. We're playing Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and the referee was announced and he said 'oh problèmes'.

"We got beat in the 97th minute on a really dodgy free-kick and we had two players sent off!"

In 1989, Atkinson returned to England where he guided Sheffield Wednesday to an historic League Cup title. Two years later, he took over at Villa Park, where he also lifted the League Cup.

"The obvious standout point would be beating United at Wembley (in the 1994 final) but the most eventful game – which would go in my top three of all time – is the semi-final with Tranmere.

"It basically had everything. They beat us 3-1 up at Prenton Park and Dalian Atkinson scored with the last kick of the game. After the match you'd have thought we'd won. When we came back to Villa Park we were 2-0 up within 20 minutes. But then they scored a penalty, and maybe Mark Bosnich should have been sent off. Dalian equalised, and they hit the post with the last kick of the match before it went to penalties. It was a very dramatic afternoon."

Atkinson may have been born in Liverpool, but he feels at home in the Midlands. As well as Baggies and Villa, he also has links with Wolves, Coventry, and Nottingham Forest.

"When I was at the Albion the first time, we had a terrific side," he said. "Wolves were brilliant, Villa had a smashing team, and Coventry were in the top division. Birmingham had some good players. On the outskirts you had Cloughie at Forest.

"The derbies between all those teams were brilliant and the camaraderie was great. I'd like to see the Midlands back to what it was."

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