Football / The Championship Race: Always laughing but never cavalier: Ron Atkinson takes his Aston Villa side to an old haunt on Sunday. Derick Allsop reports

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INJURIES are the scourge of managers and Big Ron was wrestling with a lingering dilemma. 'I'm not sure whether the knee will take any more,' he said solemnly. 'I think we'll have to get it sorted. It could be crucial.'

His anxiety was understandable. We have all been aware of Paul McGrath's dodgy joints and his importance to Aston Villa's championship cause.

'Nah,' said Big Ron with a derisory wave of the hand. 'Not McGrath. Me. I'm not quite as mobile as I was in five-a-sides. Mind you, I still inspired us to come from behind and win 7-6 today.'

The clubs and training grounds have changed, but Ron Atkinson, the Aston Villa manager, has not. His extravagant sense of fun is as consistent as his insistence on immaculate attire and his loyalty to a purist footballing creed. A grey, double-breasted suit, just back from the cleaners, hangs from a hook on the wall of his office; a steady stream of phone callers engage him in conversation about the merits of this player and that, and inevitably ring off with a wisecrack in their ears.

One caller makes a circuitous request for tickets to next Sunday's showdown at Old Trafford, the match which pits Atkinson's present club with one from his past, Manchester United, a confrontation which could determine the destiny of the first Premier League title.

'No chance,' he says, unequivocally. 'We've got 600 and odd tickets. We're having to raffle them for our fans. Having said that, if Oldham do the business against United, I just might be in the mood to move heaven and earth on Wednesday morning . . . '

Laughter fills the office. These are buoyant times at Villa. It helps, of course, when you are in the ascendancy, competing for the biggest prize in the domestic game and the passage to Europe's premier competition.

Atkinson explains his philosophy: 'I've never wanted to make my clubs prisoner of war camps. My belief is that the British player is at his best when he's happy and bubbling. Hey, the work's got to be serious, though. He's got to deliver.'

Throughout his career, Atkinson has coaxed his teams to deliver quality as well as results. 'The three sides I've enjoyed watching more than any this season are ourselves, United and Wednesday,' he said. It may not be coincidental that he has managed all three clubs.

Atkinson cut his teeth at Kettering, lifted Cambridge from the old Fourth Division to the Second, made West Bromwich Albion a side to be admired and feared, established himself as United's most successful manager after Sir Matt Busby, twice winning the FA Cup, revived Atletico Madrid during a brief and stormy spell in Spain, and led Sheffield Wednesday to a League Cup victory - at United's expense, naturally.

Irony of ironies, United now appear to be the only club between Atkinson and the prize he craves as much as anyone at Old Trafford.

Atkinson, like most of us, has been beguiled by the skills of United's 19-year-old prodigy, Ryan Giggs. 'He's one of those players who can excite and lift a crowd. But we've kept him relatively quiet a couple of times and will endeavour to do so again.'

It was always Atkinson's contention that Old Trafford crowds, for all their numbers, required more lifting than most. He never had a head-over-heels love affair with United's supporters, and he was largely responsible for that. He made little attempt to show the man on the terraces that the man in the gold bracelets was just another football fan at heart.

He makes no pretence that this will be a sentimental journey. 'Sunday's a big match, big occasion, big stage. I had some enjoyable times there, but I've had enjoyable times everywhere I've been. The United part of my career has gone. Villa is my club now.'

Essential to Villa's fortunes is the enduring excellence of another former United principal, McGrath. The Irishman's knees may not withstand the rigours of both matches and training sessions but his performance in matches excuse him training and make him everybody's favourite for Footballer of the Year.

Atkinson predicted McGrath's emergence as a world-class player from the day he signed him. That day is still vivid in Atkinson's mind: 'He arrived with the St Pat's officials and I noticed he was wearing an ear-ring. I told him, 'I've seen John Charles, Neil Franklin, Billy Wright, all the great centre-halves. If you want to play for Manchester United and be a great centre-half I suggest you get rid of that.' To be fair to him, I never did see it again, and he's certainly been the best defender since Lawrenson and Hansen served their time.'

Surprisingly, McGrath would not be Atkinson's choice as Villa's player of the season. He nominates Earl Barrett, whose versatility has increased the manager's options. So why was he prepared to trade Barrett as part of a deal to sign John Barnes from Liverpool? 'That story was garbage. I'd get lynched if I let him go. He's been our best player this year.'

Atkinson's interest in Barnes is a measure of the team's growing stature and ambition. Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and Dean Saunders have all made significant contributions since moving from Anfield to Villa Park. 'The one major disappointment,' Atkinson said, 'is that we haven't had Saunders and Dalian Atkinson playing as a pair on a regular basis.'

Injury has restricted Atkinson's appearances and the manager is only too conscious that a lack of firepower undermined the championship aspirations of his United. 'A Saunders would probably have made the difference, but don't forget we had the best team in Europe in front of us - Liverpool.'

Villa have sustained their challenge without Atkinson's explosive front running of late and the manager is content he has the shadow squad to cope with any eventuality. 'People say we haven't got strength in depth because we don't have the name players. But we've called up nine or 10 players of 21 or under and have never been let down. Our reserves are, after all, top of the Pontins League.'

United he believes will have stiffened their resolve following their capitulation at the climax of last season, which, incidentally, blew his late pounds 1,000 bet. At the beginning of this season, he backed his own team at 50-1. 'I'm sure United will be tougher for that experience, but then the one thing I'm confident about is that our lads won't bottle it. If, in the end, they're not good enough, then fair enough, but I'm sure they'll have the nerve to go all the way.'

Atkinson's latest restoration work has given rise to a fresh lobby for his accession to the England seat of power. He diplomatically fends off that prospect. 'I don't envy Graham Taylor that job. I prefer the day-to-day involvement with players. I have to enjoy it. That's what it's about.

'No, I'm looking no further than Villa. We've set out our stall to make this a big club again, a European club. We're doing OK. But we've still got some way to go yet. If we don't do it this year, we'll be at it again next.'

(Photograph omitted)