...as his predecessor is unexpectedly 'promoted'

Phil Shaw reviews the colourful career of Ron Atkinson, an old style manager
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The Independent Online
"It's bloody tough being a legend," Ron Atkinson decreed during his reign as manager of Manchester United. Amid a welter of one-liners which sustained many a scribe for the best part of two decades, its blend of swagger and self-mockery made it the quintessential "Big Ron" quip.

With his sharp wit, garish dress sense and liking for champagne, Atkinson seemed easy to pigeonhole as a kind of sporting spiv, a Medallion Man among managers. Yet invariably when he uttered such quotes, the tongue was so firmly in cheek that it was practically poking through.

Moreover, as one who covers Midlands football, this reporter's mental image of Atkinson is not of dripping jewellery or Armani suits. It is of him wrapped in a towel after one of the five-a-side games he would not conclude until his team were winning, tearing into a chicken lunch while doing what he likes best: chewing the fat about football.

The discrepancy between the popular image and the more serious side of his personality has led Gordon Strachan, who now succeeds him as manager of Coventry, to describe Atkinson as "the most misunderstood man in football". That may be stretching the point, for there is no doubt that he cut an opulent figure, even if he was never the one-dimensional character some portrayed him as.

Strachan also hailed his mentor as "the last of the character managers". However unfair that may be on Jim Smith, Dave Bassett, Joe Kinnear et al, Atkinson's "promotion" to director of football means the profession is diminished much as it was after Shankly, Clough, Docherty, Allison and Waddington named their last side.

It was 22 years ago this month that this one-time wing-half with Oxford United took charge of Fourth Division Cambridge. They were on their way to a second successive promotion when West Bromwich Albion moved to install him as Ronnie Allen's successor in 1978.

Atkinson's flamboyant approach transformed the club. At a time when myths about the "bottle" of black footballers abounded, he had three in arguably the most attractive and effective of all his teams: Brendan Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. Albion came third in the old First Division, prompting United to lure him to Old Trafford in 1981.

After going back to Albion for Bryan Robson and Remi Moses for pounds 2.5m, the onus was on Atkinson to restore the championship to United. In 1985, after further heavy spending, they took 41 of the first 45 points, only to fall away to fourth after Robson and Strachan suffered long-term injuries.

Two FA Cups were not enough to prevent his making way for Alex Ferguson 10 years ago today. Characteristically, Atkinson laughed off his demise: "I've had to swap my Merc for a BMW, I'm down to my last 40 suits and I'm drinking non-vintage champagne."

A return to West Brom was short-lived, his defection at Atletico Madrid provoking bitterness and legal action. In Spain he lasted 96 days before falling foul of that serial sacker, Jesus Gil. Sheffield Wednesday offered the chance of rehabilitation, and stuck by him after relegation in his first full season. Wednesday not only came straight back up, but won the League Cup - against Manchester United - before Atkinson abandoned them for Aston Villa in 1991. The pattern at Villa Park became familiar: football that was pleasing on the eye and brought League Cup success, but Premiership results fell short of Doug Ellis's expectations.

Atkinson's dismissal in late 1994 - months after Villa's Wembley triumph - hurt him badly. Ellis claimed there were too many veterans in the squad. Tenuous as the argument seemed, Ferguson said only last week that the difference between him and Atkinson was that he preferred to nurture young talent, whereas his predecessor liked to buy the finished article.

Coventry enticed him back in February last year. His sense of humour was intact - "My missus reckons if people don't recognise me in the street, I go back and tell them who I am," he said on day one - as was his appetite for big transfer deals. He spent pounds 15.6m on players, eight of whom cost a modestly supported club seven-figure sums.

His purist principles had also survived, though at times Coventry looked as if they would benefit from an equal measure of pragmatism. They won only 14 out of 63 League games under Atkinson. "I'm 56 and I'm the best five-a-side player at the club," he said last year, adding: "Mind you, that's probably why we are down at the bottom." The change will at least ensure that the legend is not further tarnished.

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