Football: Atkinson poised for next big offer

Football: Nottingham Forest are trying to recruit a manager still hungry for success two months short of his 60th birthday
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The Independent Online
IF ONE thing struck no one as a surprise in the PR disaster that has been Nottingham Forest this week it was the whereabouts of their proposed new manager. Big Ron? Barbados. Where else would he be?

Ron Atkinson is nothing if not stylish. Flash he might be. A little too quick with the one-liner to be unquestioningly trusted, possibly. But you cannot knock the man's polish. So when Forest came knocking on Monday his reaction was that he was on holiday (celebrating his wife's 50th birthday) and that he would talk when he came back. That is a fine judgement of one's self-worth.

It is also a characteristic of Atkinson's 28-year managerial career. He has found just about every reason there is to leave clubs, but even when he has been sacked his confidence appears to have remained intact. It might have been an act, but to the public Champagne Charlie was alive and well, just waiting for the next big offer to come along. And, as this week proves, it surely will.

It is a lifestyle that is a far cry from Atkinson the player, who was about as removed from the shiny Big Ron image as you could get. He was big all right - his nickname was "The Tank" - but to describe him as exotic would be wrong. He was a straightforward, no-nonsense defender and midfielder who would probably collect more yellow than Christmas cards if he played today.

Like Howard Wilkinson and Jim Smith, whose playing careers were similarly eclipsed when they went into management, Atkinson began coaching at non- League clubs and only became noticed on a wider scale when he guided Cambridge United from the Fourth to the Second Division in successive seasons.

West Bromwich Albion employed him next and with limited resources he created the finest Baggies team since the 1950s, finishing third in the First Division in 1979. It was not the results that beguiled, however, but the way the team played. Bryan Robson, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis - Albion were a blend of graft and flamboyance whose finest moment came in December 1980 when they slaughtered Manchester United 5-3 at Old Trafford, and even the home crowd applauded them off.

That day was remembered, and when United wanted a higher-profile manager than the diligent but undynamic Dave Sexton it was Atkinson they turned to. In many ways it was a happy marriage. Atkinson provided Old Trafford with its quick-quip figurehead and no one could describe his five-year tenure as a failure. The FA Cup was won in 1983 and 1985, and United never finished outside the top four in the First Division. But they were desperate for the championship, and when the Holy Grail never came he was sacked.

Results was the reason given at the time - United were second from bottom when Alex Ferguson came in November 1986 - but Atkinson had compiled a team heavy on experience but with a short shelf-life, and the youth system was neglected to the point of crisis. The facade at Old Trafford was fine, but the substance was suspect, a description that critics might apply to Big Ron himself.

Since United, Atkinson has travelled with varying success. He won the League Cup with Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday, but there is a sense of decline. He was moved upstairs at Coventry City and brought in for a temporary repair job at Hillsborough last season.

Wednesday had nine points from 13 games when Atkinson took over and although he resuscitated them to 16th place his contract was not renewed last May. It is the only occasion that he appeared genuinely shocked by the fickleness of football. "I have been left numb with betrayal," he wrote in The Sun. "Let down sadly and savagely by weak men I believe should have been stronger. Rarely have I felt more disappointed - no, worse than that, absolutely disgusted - by the pinstripes in the boardroom."

Atkinson has since concentrated on media work, commentating for ITV on the World Cup and the Champions' League. His bon mots have legendary status, but for all his problems with English only a curmudgeon would deny him his place among the best football experts.

Rich enough not to need to work again, Atkinson, 59, has hankered for management since May. "People might think I'm barmy, " he said recently, "but I miss the life. I love pitting my wits against the best, the Uniteds, Arsenals and Liverpools. I enjoy being involved."

Forest, it seems, will give him the chance and the game will be more interesting for his involvement.

A man who responded to dismissal by Atletico Madrid after 96 days with: "Okay, let's talk about my testimonial," will always be loved more than loathed.

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