James Lawton: Times have changed quicker than Atkinson

Ron Atkinson is not a racist. Or maybe it should be said that until his moment of self-destruction as a TV football analyst and columnist, he had given no indication of that to me in countless conversations across the football world.

Killing time in a Japanese coffee lounge, sharing a nightcap after a big game in Brussels or Madrid or Milan, Big Ron did many blood-curdling things with the English language, but none of them included even a hint that he attached any undue significance to the colour of a man's skin.

He was lionised in some quarters of Fleet Street for the pungency of his TV analysis; others enjoyed the fact that the broadsheet which once published the fastidious words of Alistair Cooke took on the weekly challenge of smoothing his exuberant assaults on the mother tongue.

Maybe the greatest irony of all, though, is that the increasingly celebrity-conscious world of showbiz sports TV broadcasting, so briskly cut down an exaggerated character they had done so much to create.

Atkinson recognised quickly enough that he had to offer his resignation. The words he applied to Chelsea's Marcel Desailly, while he thought he was off the air, gave him no option but to fall on his microphone.

The fact that Muhammad Ali employed exhaustively the word that was so offensive on the lips of Atkinson, or that it is impossible to listen to a rap record without hearing its constant use, is of course quite beside the point.

Atkinson crossed a line that was unacceptable, and he had to go. But for his sake, it perhaps needs to be said that he was as much as anything ambushed by changing times; also, that at the lowest point of his public life since leaving the maelstrom of football management, in which his record was more moderate than his reputation, his behaviour in the Monaco broadcasting booth was foolish rather than sinister.

On Ron Atkinson you can take your pick: amiable buffoon, self-publicist, But nothing in his professional life suggests racism.

Though some of the detail of his encouragement of black players has been faulty - his predecessor at West Bromwich Albion, John Giles, signed the brilliant Laurie Cunningham from Leyton Orient for £100,000, and the powerful and accomplished Cyrille Regis from Hayes - there is no doubt about the thrust of his record in this area.

When he signed another black player, Brendan Batson, for Albion and boasted that he was fielding the Three Degrees no members of a minority could take exception. Atkinson was drawing attention to the potential of the black player as a vital element in English football, a proposition that had languished until then, and if he flourished a questionable soundbite it was then far from a hanging offence.

When he went to Old Trafford one of his first moves was to sign the gifted Remi Moses, a deal that said that black players could at last gain entrance to the highest levels of the game. If this sounds odd, it should be remembered that it was a time of rampant racism on the terraces. John Barnes for a while had to run a gauntlet in Merseyside derby games. As Liverpool's first black player, he was greeted with bananas from Everton followers when he ran on to the field. Mark Walters suffered a similar fate when he appeared for Glasgow Rangers.

However, if Big Ron's signing policy was admirably ahead of its time, his language and humour was slow to adjust to new levels of sensitivity.

In 1989, when he signed Dalian Atkinson for Sheffield Wednesday, a general news reporter from a local radio station asked him if he had recruited a relative. Atkinson's reply, "Well, you may think I've got a good suntan, but Dalian's is even better."

Atkinson meant no offence, but it was dangerous levity and this week it rose up and, inevitably, took him down.

Ian St John, one of the most experienced former footballer broadcasters and noted for his acerbic wit, reacted sadly to the news of his friend's downfall. "No doubt Ron crossed a line," said St John, "but I know him well enough to say that he is by no means a racist. His record in the game totally contradicts that idea. He just seems to have forgotten for a desperate moment that the times, and what it is not acceptable to say, have moved on."

One truth is that part of Atkinson's appeal has been his non-intellectual approach to both life and football. If he was a media darling, it was as its rather large piece of rough. One football insider observes wryly: "Ron is a great character, but maybe we shouldn't forget that as a young man he went to Oxford to play for the local football club - not the university."

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