Football: Big Ron back, at least until the summer

Ron Atkinson became Sheffield Wednesday manager for the second time yesterday. But, as Jonathan Foster reports, he might not last long.
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The Independent Online
The Christmas tree in Hillsborough's foyer is a patently temporary presence, decorated in minimalist style. Ron Atkinson should last longer than 12th Night, but scope for elaborate dealing will be minimised during his second period as Sheffield Wednesday manager.

The giant Redwood of football management yesterday signed a contract which lasts only until the end of the season. It could be characterised as spadework for a young sapling, with one priority task.

David Pleat was sacked 13 days ago after a sequence of grotesque defeats left a gifted but increasingly demoralised team bottom of the Premiership. Atkinson was the man they wanted to take Wednesday upwards, their chairman, Dave Richards, said yesterday. But he could not dispel the impression that what they wanted was determined only by who they could get.

Howard Wilkinson, Danny Wilson, Martin O'Neill and Jim Smith had claims or aspirations to the job but, for the time being, had commitments elsewhere. The one available manager with strong Sheffield credentials and proven ability was the one dismissed by the Spice Girls.

Apart, of course, from Old Spice - or Judas, as Atkinson was branded in 1991 as he left Hillsborough for Aston Villa and fans defaced his parking bay. Those memories were vivid this week as he asked local journalists if it was safe to return. It was - even one of the '91 school of graffiti artists was heard outside the Park Tavern saying Ron was the best man for the immediate task.

There are better players at Wednesday now, Atkinson said, than when he took over in comparably parlous circumstances in February 1989. He turned towards the Kop and talked about inspiring again its great, rolling roar. Perhaps he remembered the roar beneath which, three months into first first spell, Dean Barrick struck a fourth consecutive corner. Steve Whitton's head beat Gary Pallister's to the ball, Wednesday stayed up and Middlesbrough were relegated.

But Atkinson took Wednesday down the next season, a team of seven internationals barged out of the First Division by Pleat's Luton Town.

It was a more coy, minimalist Atkinson yesterday than many will recall. He arrived this time from Coventry, not Madrid. His face is still polished mahogany, as if he uses Pledge for after shave. But there was no jewellery, not even cuff links, and there was dirt behind his finger nails.

"The impression I've been given is that there has been a big groundswell of support towards me coming back," Atkinson said. There had been "one or two tickles" for jobs abroad, he sought challenges more than anything else, and Wednesday could finish in a comfortable position. After that, "I would be very happy in some sort of capacity."

The 5-0 defeat of Bolton last week had been "a massive result", and behind that remark may lie arrangements of massive significance. Peter Shreeves, Pleat's assistant, prepared the team for that game. Three erstwhile injured players suddenly recovered. Shreeves will be staying at the club. Sources claim he has the confidence of the players and his continued influence was a condition of the offer made to Atkinson.

Atkinson spoke warmly of "Shreevesie". They first met when Atkinson the centre-half tripped Shreeves the centre-forward and conceded a penalty. Atkinson chuckled at the memory, and settled down to watch his new players in a friendly against Huddersfield Town.

He is 58 now, and a manager for the seventh time. It is probably his last to run a big club, and there is money to spend if he needs to - perhaps as much as pounds 10m. "Ron has a contract until the end of the season. Wednesday will then take a look at the long-term effects and see whether he is the man to take us forward," Richards said.

They will probably axe him next summer, but Ron Atkinson has a chance of something more enduring at Hillsborough. Unlike the Christmas tree, he may yet become part of the furniture.