Football: Monday Interview - Ron Atkinson: Big Ron - still football crazy after all these years

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The Independent Online
From Kettering to Madrid, via Manchester and several places in between, Ron Atkinson has plied his trade with a philosophy of `productive flair'. Now the oldest manager in the Premiership is back at Sheffield Wednesday with retirement the last thing on his mind, still putting a smile on football's face.

A shift of feet almost quicker than the eye can discern, a throw of the body this way then that, and the defender is eliminated. A dart forward, a fizzing low shot and Kevin Pressman is beaten. "Well done Paolo, my son," the executioner's improbable new accomplice bellows.

It is a commendation Di Canio hears repeatedly through the training session but a reciprocal expression, a mere "nice one gaffer" or perhaps an occasional "bravo boss" is, alas, not forthcoming.

Undeterred, the big auxiliary front player plys his doubtful trade to the end of the smallsided game and basks in the afterglow of the dazzling Italian's repertoire.

Ron Atkinson is back at Sheffield Wednesday, and to some his self-assessed starring role in practice matches is as familiar as the cutting one-liners and the expansive bonhomie. All of which can hide from the unsuspecting stern taskmaster and to those, including a European who arrived at Hillsborough via Celtic Park, this is a palpably unprecedented experience on the cultural mystery tour.

Di Canio seems a mite bemused, but maintains that his early impression of Atkinson is favourable. "He's good. He jokes a lot. He's funny. But he is also strong and works on tactics."

The manager's current crack about Di Canio would lose much in the translation: "He's volatile - he can play on either side."

Atkinson has never been afraid to put a smile on his football and, at the age of 58, he is not about to change his philosophy now. He stresses however, that his ethos incorporates pragmatism and demands of players the willingness to lather their skills in sweat. "I love flair, but I like it to be productive flair," he says. "I don't like amusement arcades."

Di Canio and Benito Carbone, the other gifted Italian in his squad, inevitably spring to mind. "Both have got immense talent," Atkinson acknowledges. "Now what we've got to do is harness their talent to our team play.

"Two of the most successful teams in Italy, and maybe in Europe over the last 10 years, have been Milan and Juventus, and they base their whole game on the work ethic - allied to the ability they've got. That's got to apply here."

Di Canio's gift for delivering vital goals gave Atkinson some early breathing space, but his volatile temperament has cost him a Christmas suspension. "He's fiery and I like a bit of that. Sometimes there is a price to pay."

The morning's work over, Atkinson steers his Lexus barely half a mile from the building site that is the training ground to the stadium, where he is to survey the development of other squad players in a reserve team facing Chris Waddle's Burnley.

He abandons his tracksuit for jacket and slacks, sees off noodles, big potatoes, press and radio reporters for lunch, and arranges for an executive box in the main stand to be heated for him. "Oh, can we organise a pot of rosy, luv?"

Despite successive defeats over the last two weekends, Atkinson has quickly made himself at home again and his baggage of optimism has patently comforted those who have come through the early-season traumas which led to the departure of David Pleat.

Atkinson, in turn, appears reinvigorated after his sabbatical, yet the implication that his batteries needed recharging is taken as something of a slight.

"I don't know about that," he says, easing into a chair in the appointed executive box. "I've never really been away from the game one way or the other. All I do know is that since I've come back I've had a hell of a buzz from it."

The men in football who carry the prefix `Big' are not commonly known for their sensitivity, and Big Ron is positively dripping in bravado.

Interestingly, he sought assurances that the fans who denounced him as a Judas when he turned his back on Wednesday in favour of Aston Villa six and a half years ago would countenance a reconciliation.

"If there had been a mass reaction against me and a general no-no, I'd have said `forget it'," he confirms, his eyes still fixed on the action below.

"But the funny thing is that while I was away, whenever I met Wednesday fans ... that's a good run, son... I've always got on well with them. All right, there was all that hoo-ha when I first came back with Villa, but that very quickly changed. Since I've been back they've been smashing."

They say, of course, you should never go back, but Atkinson, who travelled from Kettering to such palatial stop-offs as Manchester United and Atletico Madrid, has a ready response for that one: "If I didn't go back somewhere there would be nowhere for me to go. I think I've been everywhere!

"That doesn't worry me, though. I said there would be only certain situations that would attract me back into club management. I was almost going to take the Northern Ireland job. It quite appealed to me and I was a long way down the road on that.

"But I have to say the challenge here excites me. This is big, and when you think how big it could become... you only have to look around to see the potential. There's as much potential here as there is at Newcastle. During the '90s the club have been to Wembley three or four times, so they haven't exactly been a sleeping giant."

From one of those trips, Wednesday brought back the League Cup. More satisfying still for Atkinson, they had defeated United in the final. That still represents the club's sole success in 62 years, although it is one more than Newcastle have mustered in modern times.

Another sure way of probing Big Ron's sense of humour is to suggest that Wednesday may have taken a retrograde step by reappointing the oldest manager in the Premiership.

"The best Italian coach of all time is Giovanni Trapattoni, and he ain't exactly a spring chicken. And how old was Bob Paisley when he became Liverpool's manager?"

He might have mentioned Enzo Bearzot and Cesare Maldini. He has mentioned Bobby Robson. Alex Ferguson, George Graham and Jim Smith are contemporaries. He could go on to remind us that the three clubs relegated to the First Division last season were under the command of vaunted tiros, Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Stuart Pearce.

"All that age talk is a nonsense. It doesn't matter whether you are young or old - ability is all that matters. It's something that gets fashionable, to have a young manager. You can get some brilliant young managers, but then others who'll make mistakes and not be successful... cor he's lightning slow, ain't he?"

Peter Shreeves, sitting at his right hand, nods his concurrence. Atkinson and the hugely respected coach - another scarcely in the first flush of youth - are forging such an effective alliance, Wednesday may reconsider their much-heralded plan to headhunt a junior management partner.

Atkinson admits one concession to advancing years: "I'm changing my management style a little, in as much as I am prepared now to delegate a lot more than maybe I used to. Peter's province is mainly the training and I'll just go in from time to time when he wants a session mucked up!"

Shreeves grins wryly and nods again.

"But the involvement is still constant. You're planning and at it all the time. That the was the biggest thing I missed when I was out of management. I'd go to matches without having any direct involvement and feel a bit of an outsider. I appreciated I was going to good matches, and with my television work I've been fortunate enough to see the Champions' League games and all that.

"But I'd also go to matches to see my pals, to say Derby to see Jim Smith, and you don't have the same satisfaction, certainly not the same despair. Just after I'd agreed to take this job I saw Derby play Newcastle in the Coca-Cola Cup, when they should have had two or three penalties, and after the game Jim was flying off the handle in his office. So I said to him, `You've just put me right off management again.'"

He was joking, naturally. The compulsion to have hands-on involvement is still irresistible, despite the means to enjoy the semi-retirement of a pundit's life. But then, he has an apparently unfading power to stimulate footballers and football clubs.

"We've tried to get the spirit going here and the attitude has been first class," he says after discussing half-time changes with Shreeves. "But we are like everybody else, we are looking to strengthen, and we have the means to strengthen, though we've bought ourselves a bit of time with one or two good results. There might be people at the club now who surprise me, people playing in the reserves today, who just might give themselves a chance of getting regular places. But comings and goings are normal."

Atkinson's first venture into the transfer market this time round has brought the Swedish international, Niclas Alexandersson, to Hillsborough for pounds 750,000, but he has been frustrated in recent attempts to strengthen his defence, and Wednesday's initial ascent of the Premiership table under his charge has not deluded the manager that he should raise his original sights.

"Staying in the Premiership is still the target. First and foremost we've got to make sure there are three teams under us at the end of the season. We're not daft. We've a lot to do yet and we are nowhere near the position where we want to be."

If that objective is achieved Atkinson may be persuaded to sign a three- year contract. "I've said I'll stay on board till the end of the season, and at the moment there's no need to look beyond that... Go on, son... but I will say I think it's a safe bet I'll be here longer than that."

Whatever course Atkinson follows, he is determined to avoid a re-enactment of the fumbled, embarrassing and ultimately acrimonious escapade he had to endure at Coventry City.

There, his planned handing-over of team affairs to Gordon Strachan was hastened from within the club, rendering his position "upstairs" effectively untenable.

The sense of betrayal is still evident. As he says, "the Coventry situation hadn't been thought through enough. The next situation will be."

Atkinson is a proud man. Any doubts cast on his capabilities are taken to heart. His considerable physical stature and abundant personality belie thoroughly normal emotions. He feels he should have nothing to prove yet recognises his job is an unending public trial. It is a deal he is prepared to go on accepting.

"And I'll tell you this much," he concludes defiantly, "right now I'm not contemplating retirement at all."