Big Ron

From the late ‘70’s to well into the ‘90’s, Ron Atkinson was British football's King of Bling.  With hair neatly combed, tie done up to the collar, accessories of gold bracelets and ring, and the odd lay down on the sun bed, he certainly stood out.  Indeed, his love of the flash and bling earnt him the nickname of Mr Bojangles.

He was born in Liverpool in 1939, and is the only scouser to manage Manchester United.  Ron’s been a bit of a one-off in many ways.  He once recorded an album, singing the songs of Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately for Ron, he wasn’t destined for silverware in the music business as he only managed to sell a few copies, 10 to his family and one each to Des Lynam, Ally McCoist, Clive “And Solskjaer has won it!” Tyldsley, and one to Andy Townsend.  Ron’s down to earth and likeable personality led him to be asked to do many a co – commentary for live games, for a number of years.  He also gained a comedic reputation for his interesting pronunciation of the names of foreign teams, this habit of Ron’s was actually given a name, “Ron – glish”. Ron’s always come across as a decent type, affable and talkative.  However, Ron’s human and he has, like most of us, had the experience of knowing what it’s like to put his foot in his mouth. 

Ron’s certainly courted controversy in his time.  In 2004, he was sacked from ITV for his comments regarding then Chelsea player Marcel Desailly.  The inappropriate comment was made during Chelsea’s Champions League semi final with Monaco.  He was also sacked from his position of columnist from The Guardian newspaper over this sizable lack of judgment. 

Ron started his professional career at aged 17 at Aston Villa, was there 3 years and never got into the first eleven.  Although he never broke into Villa’s first team, Ron has since cited the then Villa coach, Jimmy Hogan, as the biggest influence on his career.   In 1959 he moved to Oxford United, then known as Headington United.  As a player, Ron was to enjoy much more success with Oxford United. At The U’s, he played with his younger brother, Graham.  The older Atkinson’s position was wing half, or midfield as it’s known these days.  Ron was at Oxford for 12 years, was made captain of the side. 

He led The U’s from the lowly Southern League to promotion after promotion. As United were lifting the European Cup at Wembley in ’68, Ron was leading Oxford into the second tier of English football. Ron hung up his boots in 1971, after some time out, he got his first job in management at Kettering Town.  Atkinson’s managerial career lasted nearly 30 years.  The last club he managed was Nottingham Forest in 1999. In between Kettering and Forest, Ron managed another 7 clubs, including 2 stints at West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday; he also spent a season managing Atletico Madrid. 

It’s interesting to note that Ron has led two clubs to victory in cup finals against United, Sheffield Wednesday in the 1991 League Cup final and again in the same competition, 3 years later whilst managing Aston Villa. 

There are many words you could use to describe Atkinson’s time in football, colourful, action packed, funny, charismatic, exhilarating, disappointing and controversial being just a few. Ron’s career encapsulated all those adjectives, but I certainly remember the vast majority of it was exhilarating and colourful, and good for football.  Ron knew how to win a trophy or two, winning two League Cups with different clubs. However, his biggest successes in domestic cup football, were as manager of Manchester United and with the FA Cup’s of 1983 and 1985. 

Ron’s first FA Cup victory with United was in 1983, Marin Edwards was only 3 years into his time as club Chairman and our average crowd was around 41,000.  Our top scorer for that season was Frank Stapleton with 19 in all competitions. 

Apart from the somewhat difficult relationship he had with John Gidman, Ron got on well with all the United players, United were a happy team for the most part under Atkinson. That season United were to visit Wembley three times, getting to both domestic cup finals. The first visit didn’t go so well, losing 2 – 1 to Liverpool in the League Cup final, our second visit was to be much more…How can I put it?  Edge of the seat stuff. After a semi final victory over Arsenal thanks to goals from Robson and Whiteside, United met Brighton & Hove Albion at Wembley Stadium. 

Ron was full of himself leading up to the final. His TV appearances showing him to be confident in his United team. 

100,000 fans welcomed the two teams out onto the pitch at Wembley.  United were strong favourites against Jimmy Melia’s Brighton, so it was quite a surprise when the Seagulls took the lead in the 14th minute of the game, with a goal from Gordon Smith. Brighton went in at half time 1 – 0 up. Brighton had been underestimated.  United fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when top goal scorer Frank Stapleton leveled the game for United 10 minutes into the second half.  It was 22 minutes later when King of all cockneys, Ray Wilkins scored that absolute pearler of a curler. That Wilkins goal has remained my absolute favourite United goal, in any kind of cup final. I loved Ray Wilkins.  He did us proud in a United shirt.  So it was 2 – 1 in our favour with only 18 minutes to go. Three minutes from time Gary Stevens broke United hearts with the equalizer, with only his second ever goal in 4 years for Brighton.  It finished 2 – 2.  Extra time beckoned.  Both keepers kept clean sheets in extra time, so it was down to a replay. The replay took place the following Thursday night at the same venue.  I remember Ron’s confident manner during interviews with the media leading up to the replay. He could talk the birds out of the trees; he would have made a superb used car salesman.  United turned up for the Wembley replay in similar mood, over the 90 minutes Brighton were brushed to one side. United set a record that night.  Over 91,000 people witnessed Wembleys biggest FA Cup win.  The final score Manchester United 4 Brighton & Hove Albion 0. Robbo got the first, the second was scored by Norman Whiteside, whose love affair with the FA Cup and Wembley was in no way over. On the stroke of half time, Robbo scored again, making it 3 – 0. United were in cruise control. In the 2nd half, Dutch ace Arnold Muhren scored from the penalty spot. So it was United again, who took the cup back to Manchester. Atkinson would return to Wembley with United two years later, for an FA Cup final with Everton. 

Back in ’85, Howard Kendall’s Everton were the best side in the country, and they went into that cup final as holders.  Not only that, they had just won the league title, and the European Cup Winners Cup.  Impressive credentials, but it would be United, that would be setting the records that day, more on that later…  Both teams had periods of dominance, both teams were going for it, no one was parking a bus.  The match was becoming something of a chess game.  Everton came closest to scoring after Peter Reid hit the post.  First team to make a mistake, and that was it.  Record No1 was a total injustice. Irish international Kevin Moran became the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final after a challenge on Peter Reid, video would show later that Moran’s challenge was indeed a fair one.  After 90 minutes it was goalless.  Once again United would have to endure extra time.  Have I mentioned Norman?  Not far off the ref blowing his whistle, Mark Hughes released a superb long pass to Norman Whiteside wide on the right, Norman took the ball ran with it, into the 18 yard box he puts the ball past a stretching Neville Southall, you won’t see a tighter curler. 

The scenes in United’s dug out were jubilant, an ecstatic Kevin Moran jumping into the arms of Big Ron.  The ref blew his whistle, the Cup was United’s, handed to a beaming Robbo.  And that video I mentioned, it did indeed go onto exonerate the midfield war horse, Kevin got his winners medal. And that other record United set?  Well, all of the United player that played that day were full internationals, which made United the first FA Cup winning team to be entirely made up of full internationals. 

Ron was at United for 5 years, and it was an exciting 5 years. Even games that weren’t finals felt like finals, like the European Cup Winners Cup quarter final, second leg, against Maradonna’s Barcelona, at Old Trafford.  Trailing 2 – 0 from the first leg at the Campe Nou, United needed a herculean effort to get past the Spanish giants.  And that’s what exactly happened.  Robbo made it 1 – 0 United, the Old Trafford in raptures, Ron was quite animated too. Into the second half and Robbo pops up again to make it 2 – 0, this was the kind of captains performance that would quickly go on to make Robbo a United legend. Two minutes after Robbo’s second, Frank Stapleton made it 3 – 0. The Old Trafford crowd had made itself heard, and United, lead so brilliantly by Robbo, had responded.  Me and three mates came out of Old Trafford that night feeling ecstatic, up until that point I had never witnessed a United game like that, day before my birthday too. 

That’s what life was like at United with Ron in charge, there was some quality highs in Ron’s 5 years. 

Richard Fenton. May 2015



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