Football: From soft soap to hard reality

All the Judas talk forgotten as Big Ron signs in for second 'Tango' at Wednesday.
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AS THE man himself might have put it, Big Ron arrived early doors. Unusually for the limelight-friendly Ron Atkinson, he arrived back-doors too. The snappers were stationed by the main gates when the soap opera star of football management returned to the real-life saga, and to Hillsborough too. He drove through the rear exit and stopped his car outside the players' entrance. The name-plate that once marked his parking bay was torn down six years ago. It could probably be found in its natural rusting place, across the car park in the bed of the River Don. It was thrown there, by an irate Wednesdayite, when Big Ron became the Big Bad Villan.

That was in June 1991. After guiding Sheffield Wednesday to the League Cup and to promotion, Atkinson left Hillsborough to become manager of Aston Villa. Police protection was required when he returned for the first game of the following season, when someone hung a sign proclaiming "Judas Atkinson" above the main entrance. On Friday morning the Sheffield Telegraph carried a cartoon of Atkinson walking over prostrate Wednesday fans with 40 pieces of silver in his left hand and the welcoming Wednesday chairman David Richards proclaiming: "I forgive you, my son."

Traitors' agents clearly weren't around in Biblical times, the original Judas having been paid, reportedly, only 30 pieces of silver for his particular sin. The accurate gauge of public opinion will be when Big Bad Ron steps out on to the ash-track to take his place in the home dug-out for Arsenal's visit to Hillsborough next Saturday. There was a general mood of forgiveness in the air, though, as Atkinson reported for his re-signing ceremony on Friday morning. "All the Judas stuff will be forgotten now," Paul Gregory promised. And few are likely to argue with the bare-chested extrovert more popularly known, thanks to his television exposure, as "Tango".

Not that Wednesday fans are ecstatic about their beloved Owls being guided by a man whose top-flight reputation has nosedived since his League Cup success with Villa four seasons ago. A record of 16 wins from his last 85 Premiership matches, the tail end of his term at Villa and his conspicuously undistinguished spell at Coventry, is hardly that of an in-form manager. It does not, however, take into account Atkinson's most recent managerial assignment. Many believed he had found his perfect role as the type-cast flamboyant boss of Harchester United in the Sky television football soap, Dream Team. Sky, though, has not quite been the managerial limit for Big Ron, even if he could be found indulging in a little team-dreaming after negotiating the formal press conference and the photo-shoot with his customary football showman's aplomb.

As he gazed out from the Chatsworth Suite, at the contest in progress on Hillsborough's sward, someone asked if he could recognise the players. "Sewell, Quixall, Froggatt, Swan..." he mused, conjuring a dream of an all-time collection of Wednesday greats. In reality, it was a practice match between a Wednesday team of present-day first and second teamers and Huddersfield Town. "I've been to many games this season," Atkinson said, "and that's when it comes home to you. You're watching a game and you're thinking, 'I want to be involved'.

"I just fancy the challenge of this job. I really do. This is a big club, capable of big achievements. Arsenal will be here next week and we'll have 35,000 to 40,000 in the place. That's the kind of thing that's whetted my appetite: pitting my wits against the best managers again. I don't look at it as a step back at all, just because I happen to have been here before. It's an adventure."

The adventure, though, is likely to be a short one. The Wednesday blueprint is for Atkinson to avert the threat of relegation and then assume an executive managerial role, with a younger man (Danny Wilson, ideally) taking control of team affairs. "I would be very happy," Atkinson said, "to be in some sort of capacity with Wednesday for the next three years. But what that capacity might ultimately be I don't know. I do know that if we get relegated it'll be as a distant relative or something."

Atkinson has a contract until the end of the season and pounds 10m to repair a team that remains potential relegation material, despite the 5-0 beating of Bolton which followed David Pleat's dismissal. Big Ron has inherited Pleat's big-money Italians, Paolo Di Canio and Benito Carbone, but with them the big problem of the dressing-room rift caused by their big pay cheques. Restoring harmony, and providing collective motivation, are his two key tasks. But in Petter Rudi, the Norwegian midfielder signed by Pleat shortly before his departure, Atkinson has been gifted the gem of a Chris Waddle clone attacking schemer to help in his rebuilding job.

The fear, among Wednesday fans, is that Atkinson will lose the plot like he did at Villa and Coventry, by making ill-judged investments in not so much fading as faded stars. With Dean Saunders apparently at the top of his shopping list, the deja vu signals are already threatening to flash. Atkinson, though, refutes the suggestion that his judgement and indeed his managerial reputation will be on the line between now and May. "I've got nothing to prove," he insisted. "I'll put my track record up against most managers."

The highlights on that long-playing record - at 58, Atkinson has eclipsed Jim Smith as the oldest manager in the Premiership - features two FA Cup conquests with Manchester United and League Cup wins with Wednesday and Villa. The biggest prize of all remains absent from Big Ron's curriculum vitae. It was at Hillsborough that he blew his big chance - not as manager of Wednesday but as driver of the Manchester United bandwagon that gathered irresistible momentum until the wheels fell off by the banks of the Don in November 1986.

Atkinson's Red Devils were red-hot at the time, 10 points clear of Liverpool and undefeated after 15 First Division games. But they froze after losing to Wednesday that fateful afternoon when Lee Chapman headed the only goal, past Gary Bailey at the Kop end. The dead certs Devon Loched in spectacular fashion, finishing 12 points adrift of Liverpool. The following November Atkinson was shown the Old Trafford exit and Alex Ferguson was ushered in. The rest is history upon which Atkinson no doubt reflects whenever he drives through the gates at Hillsborough - front doors, back doors or early doors.

Hello again, Mr Quips: A manager never lost for words

I call them The Three Degrees. Atkinson on the West Brom trio Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson in 1978

You're welcome to my home phone number, gentlemen. But please remember not to ring me during The Sweeney. To press after becoming Man Utd manager in 1981

It's bloody tough being a legend. In 1983

Half an hour? You could shoot Ben Hur in half an hour. You've got 15 seconds. To a photographer in 1984

He was playing much of the time from memory. But by God, what a memory. On Gordon Strachan's comeback after injury in 1985

The Iraqis don't take any prisoners. While commentating on World Cup for ITV in 1986

I've had to swap my Merc for a BMW, I'm down to my last 37 suits and I'm drinking non-vintage champagne. After being sacked by United in 1987

He has got blood out of a stone in dealing with some very ordinary players. Yet look what he's done with them, conquered Europe and the First Division. On Clough

I believe there are only a select few managers who can handle the real giant clubs of this world. I happen to be one of them. Month before being sacked by Atletico Madrid

They wanted Robert de Niro but decided he couldn't act tough enough. At end of 96-day reign as Atletico manager in 1988

When I was sacked the most respected radio commentator in all Spain called it 'the greatest injustice in the history of Spanish football'. On taking over Sheffield Wednesday for the first time in 1989

Blimey, you're the first bird I've met with an FA coaching badge. To woman reporter who asked him about long-ball policies of his predecessors at Hillsborough in 1989

I don't send my cv to anybody. If they don't know me they must have been on the moon for 20 years. To football directors