Today I had the pleasure of speaking with former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, one of English football’s most recognisable and popular characters. Big Ron has just released an autobiography that delves into the highs and lows of his career, taking him from non-league football to Old Trafford in the space of seven years.
In The Manager, Atkinson gives an account of a life in football. From a youngster in 1950s Birmingham to managing one of the biggest clubs in the world football. Atkinson also discusses the rise of the foreign football, relates to Andrea Pirlo, and what it is like to sign live at Ronnie Scott’s. Below, you can listen a very special episode of the Strettycast before scrolling further to learn more about Big Ron.
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“Big Ron” or to others “Mr Bojangles” are just a couple of names given to Ron Atkinson. He sat in the Old Trafford hotseat for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986.
That 5 year tenure brought some great highs but was also laced with some deep lows in United’s quest for success and glory.
Atkinson was born in Liverpool in 1939 but moved to Warwickshire, where he was brought up. His early football career wasn’t much to shout about. He signed for Aston Villa in 1956 as a 17-year-old. His time at Villa Park lasted 3 years and he failed to ever make a first team appearance for them.
So in 1959, he signed for Southern League Oxford United and would go on to become their record appearance holder. He played over 500 games for Oxford and is still to this day, a record that still stands. Playing wing half and nicknamed “The Tank” he showed his leadership qualities and became captain of the team. He led the team from the Southern Divison all the way to the Second Divison of the football league. The promotion run started in 1962 and they achieved Second Division status in 1968. The Tank was the first ever player in history to captain a side in all those different leagues.
"Playing wing half and nicknamed “The Tank” he showed his leadership qualities and became captain of the team. He led the team from the Southern Divison all the way to the Second Divison of the football league."
His playing career finished in 1971 and his managerial career started the same year. He was manager of non league Kettering Town for 3 years until 1974. Atkinson then took over at Cambridge United until 1978, before landing his first big job at West Brom. In the 3 years he was there, he built an excellent attacking team and had some excellent players under him. He was the first manager to play multiple black players in his team, with Brendon Batson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham all first team regulars. Despite having a very good team, success eluded him but he had forged himself an excellent reputation.
Meanwhile at Manchester United, the 1980/81 season came to an end with the reds finishing a disappointing 8th place. They had been runners up the season before and went backwards. The board had enough and decided it was time for change. They sacked Dave Sexton, who had won the last 7 matches of the season but it wasn’t enough to save the quiet mans job. Ron Atkinson was appointed as his successor and another chapter in United’s history began. The man with the jewellery, the sun tan and the champagne lifestyle was now in the top job in Britain.
He didn’t exactly hit the ground running at the start of the 1981/82 season. Losing 2 and drawing 2 of his first 4 games. Then finally bagging his first win as a United manager with a single goal victory over Swansea City. His major contribution in the early part of his tenure was to raid his old club West Brom and capture the signatures of Remi Moses and Captain Marvel himself, Bryan Robson. Robbo was a British record signing at the time at £1.5 million and famously signed on the pitch before a home game against Wolves, which United duly won 5-0.
That heralded a good period for United in the first few months of that season. They embarked on a 13 game unbeaten run, which included a 2-1 victory at Anfield. However they just couldn’t sustain their title challenge and finished third, 9 points adrift of the champions Liverpool. Big Ron forged himself a reputation as a cup manager but that season it was early exits for United in both the League Cup and FA Cup. Tottenham knocked them out in the second round of the League Cup and Watford did the same in the third round of the FA Cup. Another huge highlight of that season came at the end of April, at the Goldstone Ground Brighton. 16 year old Norman Whiteside was given his debut for United as a substitute in a 1-0 victory. He made his first full start in the last game of the season at home to Stoke, where he and Captain Marvel got the goals in a 2-0 victory. Quite fitting really as both went on to become the stalwarts of Atkinsons reign as United manager. Both went on to create records with their countries a month later in the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Robson scored after 31 seconds against France for England, which at the time was the fastest goal in World Cup history and that record stood for another 20 years. Whiteside representing Northern Ireland, became the youngest player ever to play in the World Cup, eclipsing Pele’s record and that record still stands today.
The following season in 1982/83, United finished third again in the league, this time 12 points behind champions Liverpool. However, that season did deliver Atkinson his first piece of silverware at Old Trafford. It could have been even more glorious as United reached Wembley twice that season in both domestic cup finals. At the end of March, they played the champions Liverpool in the League Cup final. After taking the lead through 17 year old Whiteside, thus making him the youngest player ever to score at Wembley, United looked likely to win the trophy. However United suffered a double injury nightmare, which ultimately cost them victory. In the 69th minute, United lost central defender Kevin Moran to injury. With only one substitute in those days, Lou Macari replaced him, with striker Frank Stapelton moving back into the defence. Then something quite astounding happened, Gordon McQueen went on one of his marauding wins and broke through the Liverpool defence. The Liverpool keeper Grobbelaar, rushed out of his area and Kung Fu kicked McQueen taking him out completely. The most blatant red card in history wasn’t given. United didn’t even get a free kick. McQueen was just a passenger for the rest of the game, just hobbling around up front, whilst the central defensive positions were filled by the strikers Stapelton and Macari. The equaliser came with 15 minutes to go and Liverpool scored the winner in extra time.
Consolation was to come 2 months later in the FA Cup final though. After an epic comeback in the semi final against Arsenal at Villa Park, where goals from Robson and Whiteside secured their place in the final with a 2-1 victory. Their opponents were to be Second division Brighton, so United were huge favourites at Wembley. Brighton took the lead but United stormed back with goals from Stapelton and a superb curler from Ray Wilkins. Brighton scrambled an equaliser with 6 minutes remaining and missed a sitter to win it with the last kick off the game. United stormed to victory in the replay with goals 2 goals from Robson, 1 from Whiteside, who became the youngest scorer in an FA Cup final and a penalty from Arnold Muhren, who became the first Dutchman to score in an FA Cup final. Atkinson had his first piece of silverware as a manager and United their first since 1977.
The following season 1983/84, United finished 4th but we’re only 6 points off champions Liverpool. They did suffer huge humiliation in the FA Cup though. Getting knocked out in the third round by Third Divison Bournemouth. A 2-0 victory meaning the holders were despatched in their first game in the defence of the trophy won the previous May. The League Cup was also a big low for United, going out in the fourth round after a second replay against lower Divison opponents Big Rons old club Oxford United. The undoubted highlight of the season was the magical night in March, when United overturned a 2-0 first leg deficit against a Barcelona team containing Diego Maradonna. The atmosphere that night was just incredible and Atkinson really enjoyed his champagne that night. United reached the semi finals with 2 goals from Captain Marvel and the winner from Stapelton. The fans invaded the pitch at the end and Robbo was carried off as all the players were mobbed. It set up a 2 leg semi final against Juventus but United had to play both legs without their inspirational leader Robson, who had succumbed to another injury. A goal apiece at Old Trafford set up a tense second leg in Turin and after Whiteside had equalised the Juventus opening goal, United were close to making their first European final since 1968. However, a very late lucky winner for Juvenuts knocked them out of the competition.
Another 4th place finish the following season for Atkinson in the league. They were only 1 point behind Liverpool in second and Tottenham in third but Everton romped to the title and United ended up 14 points adrift. League cup exit came early at home to Everton. UEFA cup exit came on penalties away at Videoton of Hungary, just leaving the FA Cup as the only chance of silverware in the 1984/85 season. The semi final against Liverpool was played at Goodison Park and a late equaliser from Liverpool to make it 2-2, meant a replay 4 days later at Maine Road. United went behind to an own goal in the first half but stormed back in the second half, to win 2-1, with goals from Robson and Mark Hughes. The final was against the Champions Everton, who had also secured the European Cup Winners Cup 3 days before the FA Cup final. In what was a poor final of few chances, history was created. Kevin Moran brought down Peter Reid 35 yards from goal and the referee gave him a straight red. He became the first player ever to be sent off in an FA Cup final. This seemed to galvanise ten man United and they won the cup with a wonder goal in extra time from Norman Whiteside. Big Ron had his second piece of silverware in 2 years and the future looked bright for United.
The beginning of the 1985/86 season, was the classic false dawn in the quest of the title for United. After winning their first 10 league games and remaining unbeaten for the first 15 games, surely this was the season United would win their first title since 1967. Alas, it just wasn’t to be, Uniteds title challenge foundered due to injury and they finished a very disappointing 4th again, a massive 22 points behind the champions Liverpool. As it turned out, those first 10 victories of the season, really were a false dawn. They came against teams that all ended up in the bottom half of the table and United only picked up 10 points from a possible 30 from the top 6 teams. Liverpool knocked them out of the League Cup at Anfield in the 4th round. West Ham did the same in the 5th round of the FA Cup. After securing a draw at Upton Park, the Hammers came to Old Trafford and won the replay 2-0. There was no European competition that season either, with all the English clubs serving the first of a five year ban, due to Liverpool fans indiscretions at Heysel in the European Cup Final the previous season. Juvenuts winning the final 1-0 was scant consolation after 39 of their fans perished at the game.
Running out of steam in the 1985/86 season, seemed to trigger an acceptance that Big Ron just couldn’t deliver the Holy Grail for the Old Trafford hordes. A poor start to the 198/87 season really piled the pressure on Atkinson and when they succumbed to heavy defeat in the League Cup in early November by 4 goals to 1, Big Ron was fired. His appointment had promised so much but apart from a couple of FA Cups, his team came up short. The champagne had gone flat and the jewellery had lost its sparkle and Atkinson departed to make way for Alex Ferguson. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it was probably the best decision in the history of the club with regards appointing a manager.
Atkinson did carry on in management and went back to West Brom in 1987. He didn’t stay long and moved to Spain to manage Athletico Madrid in 1988. Once again this was short lived and he came back to manage Sheffield Wednesday from 1989-1991. He did win the League Cup with Wednesday, ironically against United in 1991. He then went on to manage Aston Villa for 3 years from 1991-94. His Villa team were the challengers to United in 1993, when finally after 26 years, Ferguson delivered the Premier League title. The following season in 94, Atkinson won the League Cup with Villa, once again denying United at Wembley and in the process stopping them winning the domestic treble, as they won their first double in history that season. His managerial duties were coming to an end now, he managed Coventry in 1995-96, back to Sheffield Wednesday in 1997-98 and then drafted in to try and save Nottingham Forest from relegation in 1999. He was manager at the City Ground when United beat them 8-1 that season with Solskjaer famously coming off the bench and scoring 4 goals in 8 minutes. Big Ron under pressure from the Forest fans, quipped, “I don’t know what they moaning about, we just put on a 9 goal thriller.”
By this time he was already a pundit for ITV and again his links with United were forged with his classic co commentary in the 1999 Champions League Final. The night United clinched the treble and Big Ron was there giving his insight and provided one of the iconic moments of commentary for all United fans. “The big goalies coming up, he’s got once already in Europe” the rest is history as they say. He was sacked by ITV in 2004 for racists comments about Desailly, which were broadcast when he thought his microphone was turned off. Such a sad end for an enthusiastic and insightful pundit but the TV company had no choice.
Big Ron’s United teams did deliver silverware and many memories for the fans but ultimately, he came up short in such a demanding club. His four pieces of silverware in a near 30 year managerial career doesn’t do him justice but it’s four more than a lot of managers will ever achieve. Overall I think Ron Atkinson will be remembered fondly by United fans of that era. I’m certainly one if them.
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