He was the last man to manage Manchester United. Before being replaced by Sir Alex Ferguson in november 1986, he had a long career in English football and actually has the experience of hammering United 5-3 in Manchester!
On December 30th 1978 his West Bromwich Albion achieved a famous 5-3 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Ron Atkinson remembers this with joy. ‘We had a fantastic team. I think we were one of the best teams in Europe at that time. And that was a fantastic game from us. I think Manchester United’s ‘Man of the Match’ that day was the goalkeeper Gary Bailey. Without him we would surely have won with ten that day’.
The former West Bromwich-boss recalls a great time. ‘We came to the quarterfinals of the Uefa-Cup. We beat Arsenal at Highbury and draw and won at home against Valencia, who had great players like Kempes in their side’.
Ron Atkinson resigned from his job in ITV as co-commentator in April 2004 after he was caught making a racist remark live on air about the black Chelsea player Marcel Desailly. Believing the microphone was switched off, he said, ‘…he (Desailly) is what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger’. It became impossible for Atkinson to come back to the fold as an commentator after this.
But during his time at WBA he had three black players together, that had never happened before. ‘They where fantastic players. Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis were among the best strikers in Europe at that time and I also bought Brendon Batson from Cambrigde to play alongside them. They where brilliant’.
Never before had an English team simultaneously fielded three black players. And the Three Degrees, as they became known in reference to the contemporary vocal trio of the same name, challenged the established racism of English football and marked a watershed that allowed a generation of footballers to enter the game, who would previously have been excluded by their ethnic background.
When Atkinson took charge of Manchester United in 1981, it was a club in a mess. They needed a lot of new players and Atkinson decided to bring in 3 or 4 players right away, to not be forced to go into the transfermarket as often. And he decided to go for his old midfield maestro Bryan Robson from WBA, for 1.5 mill pounds. This was decisive for United’s future. ‘It was very important that we got Robson in. But what people seem to forget is that I also bought in Remi Moses. He was a great lad and a good player. We needed and wanted the best players, and I knewed that Robson was maybe the best midfielder in Europe’.
Bryan Robson was the heartbeat of the club for more than 12 years. And the game Atkinson points out as the best game both he and Robson has been involved in is the European Cup Winners’ Cup QF 2nd Leg at home to Barcelona in 1984. That was maybe Robson’s best game in the United-shirt with two goals. ‘It was an unbelievable game’ remembers Ron. ‘I have never been involved in anything like that. Amazing! I believed before the game that we could get close to them. We lost 2-0 away and did not play well. But they did not play that well either. We scored an own goal and Xabi Alonso’s dad, Pichi Alonso scored a great goal. So if we could get an early goal, which we did, we would have a great chance. We also knew they would be concerned about our deadballs’.
United won the game 3-0 and got through 3-2 on aggregate to the semi-finals, but it ended there against Juventus.
Manchester United struggled and failed to win the league in Atkinson’s reign at Old Trafford. But he feels they were close, if not injuries had stroked his players. ‘We went very close on two occasions. But when Easter came, I did not have a big enough squad to challenge for the title. I lost players like Robson, Paul McGrath and Arnold Muhren, key players for us’.
So the Fa Cup became the rescue for United. Atkinson wants to thank two men for the victory over Brighton in 1983. ‘I owe our keeper Gary Bailey for that one. But Gordon Smith should have scored for Brighton’. Smith came alone with the United-goalkeeper in the last minute of the second half of extra-time, but Bailey made a great save.
Kevin Moran became the first man ever get a red card in the 1985 Fa Cup final against Everton. The former United-manager thinks that was a wrong decision. ‘Moran should not have been sent off there. There was no way that Peter Reid had a clear goalscoring opportunity, even if he said so. Because he could never run 50 yeards with a ball anyway’.
The drinking culture was becoming a well-known thing in the eighties. And players like McGrath and Whiteside was shown the door by Ferguson much because of their lifestyle. But Big Ron thinks that it actually was not that bad. ‘That was very overrated. Liverpool, Everton and Nottingham Forest was also drinking when they had the chance. And teams still do it today, when they find the right time. So I would say that it is very much created by the media’.
Atkinson have had a managerial career that involved clubs like Cambrigde, WBA, Man.Utd, Sheff Wed, Aston Villa, Coventry and Nottingham Forest, and even the Spanish side Athletico Madrid. And he still has a good relationship to most of them. ‘I have a great relationship to a lot of clubs in England. Sir Alex is a good friend of mine, and I attends matches when I can. I like to go to West Bromwich and Birmingham to watch games as Birmingham’s manager Alex McLeish is a good friend of mine. And I try to watch some of Aston Villas games as well’.
The former Nottingham Forest striker Pierre van Hooijdonk, who was a Forest-player at the time Big Ron was there, said in an interview in 2007 that he sometimes got the impression the side was managed by Rowan Atkinson. The former Forest-manager can only laugh at this. ‘Well he was quite useless wasn’t he? He had a very bad attitude and he went on strike as well. Nobody really cares what that he has been saying’.
Atkinson was co-commentating the Champions League final in 1999 between United and Bayern Munich. And he remembers that night with great fondness. ‘It was amazing. I said when Jancker hit the crossbar after 83 min ‘that could have been the moment when United won the European Cup’, and I was right’.
The former Sheffield Wednesday-manager says that he was sure Sir Alex was the right man for the job back in ’86. ‘I don’t think there was anyone in the game that could replace me except Alex. And I was not angry at being released from the job, that just goes with the territory of being a manager’.
It is amazing to think that Big Ron was the last man to manage Manchester United. And even if Sir Alex Ferguson is getting older, he is not quitting just yet, according to Atkinson. ‘He still has the drive and determination for the job. I think he stays for another two or three years’, believes the former United-boss.
Here is the goals from that famous game at Old Trafford from 30 December 1978 between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion: