Football: Why Big Ron is happy making a drama out of a crisis

Olivia Blair on a new start for an old hand
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The Independent Online
The irony, as so often in football, was sweet. Two of Britain's most respected football managers stepped back into action out of the blue on Thursday morning when both Kevin Keegan and Ron Atkinson announced new starring roles in the "Dream Team".

However, the similarities were confined to the west London locations (Keegan at Craven Cottage, Atkinson at Loftus Road). OK, so both managers were backed by votes of confidence from their respective chairmen, but while the backing was sincere in Keegan's case, in Atkinson's it was anything but.

And while Keegan clearly has licence to dig deep into Mohamed Al Fayed's pocket, poor old BFR will have to rely on youth."That", he says, "is obviously where the future lies, because it's pretty apparent we're not going to buy anyone."

Confused? You should be. Because although Keegan's dramatic U-turn less than a year after quitting the game has a certain air of fantasy about it, his new role alongside Ray Wilkins in the Dream Team Mohammed Al Fayed hopes will return a slumbering Fulham Football Club to their rightful place among the elite is actually very real indeed, whereas Atkinson's role is purely make-believe: he plays the harassed manager in Sky's new twice-weekly football soap opera, Dream Team, which kicks off on Sky One on 14 October and runs, for heaven's sake, for 64 episodes.

It was inevitable that Sky, having already turned the beautiful game into a bonanza, albeit an enthralling one, should choose Dream Team as the name of what they describe as "the football series we've all been waiting for"; football is, as we know only too well from that ad, their dream.

But tacky name aside, you have to applaud their commitment to the game, be it fact or fantasy. Not content with showing more than 150 (real) live matches a year on its three sports channels, the commissioning of that many episodes is, in the broadcasting world, a record of Ian Wright-like proportions; according to Elizabeth Murdoch it has "never been done before in the history of broadcasting. Hopefully it was very clever of us."

Her Dad doubtless shares those sentiments. But it's a big gamble none the less, since in the past football and television have proved as unsuitable bedfellows as Alan Sugar and Terry Venables. However, if the series itself is as slick as its launch, then Dream Team - which according to the Sky blurb follows the fortunes of five talented youngsters from the youth team of the mediocre Midlands Premiership side Harchester United - will, like a consistent penalty taker, regularly hit the spot.

Not content with issuing the assembled media throng with an authentic programme (complete with records and details of Harchester's abysmal start to the season - their only victory to date had come, surprise surprise, against Spurs), Sky had even thought to plant bobble-hatted Harchester "fans" in the crowd, one of whom informed me that the club's record cup win was 13-0 against Banstead Mental Hospital in the FA Cup first round on 7 September 1911, and that Cough (5), Traction (3), Plumb-Bunge (2), Rubicund, Spume and Slapper were the scorers. Arthur Slapper, he added, was also the club's highest aggregate scorer with 247 goals between 1897 and 1913.

The star of the show, however, was somewhat less earnest about the whole affair. Atkinson, who is not missing real-life involvement in football "one bit - at the moment", modestly described his fledgling acting career as "another adventure in life, great fun" - which is more than can be said of his relegation-threatened stint as Coventry's manager.

Still, at least his Highfield Road hell was ideal preparation for his role as Harchester's beleaguered manager, since the series opens with the club languishing at the foot of the Premiership and the fans calling for the manager's head.

Atkinson claims the scene in which he has an altercation with Harchester's chairman, Michael Jacobs, after a cup defeat by Chelsea is particularly close to the bone. He would not name names - but you can have a pretty good guess who he is referring to.

In a nutshell (to coin a phrase BFR must have used in many a post-match press conference), he took the new role in his stride, although after seeing himself on camera his stride was in fact the only thing bothering him. "I just don't know how to walk right," he admitted. "I feel self- conscious." Which is something I never thought I'd hear Ron Atkinson say.

I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you, but just for the record Dream Team combines (more Sky blurb) real-life Premiership action, commentaries and post-match analysis with the kind of gritty storylines inherent in any soap opera worth its salt. Sky have even enlisted the help of the former Chelsea player, John Hollins, to give the star players intensive football training, and are banking on authenticity to win over viewers. As someone present remarked: "Premiership action, sex, and a glimpse of Ruud Gullit - what more could anyone want?"

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