The former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson on tactics, tempo, television and Roland Nilsson
Before the racist remark that brought his broadcasting career to an end in 2004, Ron Atkinson was a central part of English football culture. Now 76, he has brought out his second autobiography, The Manager, published by deCoubertin Books. Here, he looks back on his life in management and television.
How did you start as a co-commentator?
I was interviewed on ITV with Dave [Sexton] after West Brom’s 5-3 win at Old Trafford in 1978. Afterwards Paul Doherty asked if I would be interested in doing some TV work. I went up and met him and he explained what he had in mind. He was the best, but he was abrasive! He didn’t pull any punches. But he knew what he wanted and he was a great innovator. Even after he retired and went to live in South Africa, I’d call him now and then and say, “Did you watch the game last night, pal?” And he’d say, “Yeah, I liked that bit, I thought you over-played this bit.”
Did co-commentary come easily to you?
When I first started doing it, I was completely exhausted by the end of a game. That happens less as you get used to it. I was lucky with the people I worked alongside. Brian Moore was absolutely lovely. He didn’t try to give too much opinion himself – he’d say, that’s your province. Clive [Tyldesley] is excellent at observation and he’s a good wordsmith. I never worked with Motty; I worked with Martin [Tyler]. Martin was very hard-working. He was very helpful to me because he was the first commentator I really worked with. I worked with Peter Brackley at Mexico 86, when the lines got mixed up and our commentary was going out to someone in Burma. We didn’t know who we were talking to!
Were you ever told to hype games up when they were crap?
No. No. People ain’t daft. If it’s a bad game they know.
Yet you still brought excitement and personality to your commentary.
I think so, yeah. If it was a bad game I’d still be enthusiastic about it, but more about what needed to happen for it to become a good game.
Was having that feel for the game your biggest strength as a commentator?
I think so. I used to try to commentate as if I was watching the game with a mate and I knew a lot more than he did!
How has co-commentary changed?
I think sometimes there’s too much talking. Some places do this three-commentator thing. Well, Paul Doherty did that for a game at Man City, and afterwards he said, “Doesn’t work, does it?” One of the things I was told was not to repeat what the commentator said. Sometimes you do it because it’s inevitable, but the idea was to put into context what had happened. You’d have a quick look at the game and you’d try to assess something that might be of value to the viewer – if they keep doubling up on the left-back, they’ll get a lot of joy, something like that. The one I missed by a hair’s breadth was when Italy beat England 1-0 at Euro 80. [Marco] Tardelli had been given the role of marking [Kevin] Keegan, and I was just about to say, “I think Keegan had better be on his toes because the roles have reversed a bit,” and then Tardelli scored.
As a manager, many people remember you as a cup specialist, yet you significantly improved the league position of almost every club you managed. Do you get enough credit for that?
That came up the other night, actually. I got a Lifetime Achievement award from the Birmingham Mail and somebody pointed out that I’d had eight top-four finishes. When I went to Man United from West Brom [in 1981] I was asked, “Do you feel nervous?” I said, “Hang on, I’ve just left a better team.” That was one of the first conversations I had with Martin Edwards – that Manchester United had to become a European team again, and you did that by finishing in and around the top four. At West Brom we qualified for Europe three times in four seasons and United had only qualified four times since they won it in 1968. That was the prime target, to make us competitive again – and this was in an era when to win our league you had to be the best team in Europe.
After the criticism of Dave Sexton, did Martin Edwards mention style of play to you?
I think that might have been a consideration but it was never laid down: this is the way you play. But I always believed that attacking football was the best way to play, both in terms of entertainment and results. I wanted to enjoy watching them. They say you can’t enjoy your team but you can. Dave was a brilliant coach and a smashing bloke. I’m not so sure his support staff were as good as they should have been. It would have been interesting if we’d had a partnership at United – me as the manager, him as the coach, because he really was a great coach.
You always liked good passers, didn’t you?
Yeah, I sometimes see a lad juggling with the ball and doing tricks and I say, “Come here son. See him over there – ping – he’s on our side. That’s a trick!” Play to your own players. I liked progressive football. At the back you looked into midfield quickly, then you looked into the front quickly. If you couldn’t go there then you went wide.
What would be the perfect example of how you see the game?
The 1950s Hungary would be in there. The Brazilians of 70. I think Cruyff’s Holland were a terrific side, and in the last decade you’ve had a very good Barça. Hungary were something else. I suppose if you had to nail one down I’d say Brazil 1970, but I did like the Hungarians, we’d never seen anything like them.
Do you think English clubs need more tempo when they play in Europe?
Yeah, that drives me up the wall. The passing has to be quick.
Like the Manchester United side that won the Treble in 1999?
I suppose I’d have done all those games for ITV, and one of the things the European sides couldn’t deal with was the pace United played at. They didn’t play typical, patient Champions League football. It was boom-boom-boom and a lot of the teams they played against were like, “What is this?! This doesn’t happen.”
Even a great Juventus side couldn’t cope…
I remember saying on commentary that I thought United were still in with a chance even when it was 2-0. I don’t know why, because normally 2-0 down against Zidane and Davids and that would be it. I just had a feeling. There’s no logic for it. And funnily enough I think Roy Keane said something similar after the match.
You came close to winning the title at Old Trafford a couple of times. Everyone remembers 1985-86, when you won the first 10 games, as the one that got away, but was 1983-84 an even better chance?
We beat Arsenal 4-0 in the middle of March to go top, a few days before we beat Barcelona. Then in the last 10 games we took 10 points and Liverpool took 17. They only won two of their last eight games but we ended up finishing fourth. We got a lot of injuries. I think we’d have won it if Robbo [Bryan Robson] hadn’t been injured. You can say one man doesn’t make a team, but would Argentina have won the World Cup without Maradona? He was the dominant player in Britain at the time. We were preparing to play Juventus in the semi-final of the Cup Winners’ Cup and I had all the Italian journalists in my office at the Cliff. There was a big window overlooking the training ground, and as I was talking Robbo had just finished training so he pinged the ball into the net bag. As he did so I saw him clutch his leg. I was talking away to them and all I could do was think, “What the hell’s gone on here?”
Back then injuries had a bigger impact because you were playing with 14 or 15 players, and then you’d have to bring in young lads out of the reserves. Now they can virtually pick a whole different team. You can pay £30m for a squad player. Mind you, sometimes that works against you. I always found one of the hardest things as a manger was if you didn’t know your best team. If you knew the bulk of it – if you had nine certainties – that was fine. The year we went 10, 1985-86, we also got a load of injuries.
Is it a good or bad thing that those 10 games weren’t filmed because of the TV dispute? They’ve become almost mythical.
[Laughs] The number of people who say, “the stuff you played in that period was unbelievable”. We didn’t always – there were three games in that period, I think Ipswich was one of them – where we really had to dig out a result. Then we had the injures again. I remember [Gordon] Strachan running into the goalpost at West Brom and putting his shoulder out. I think [Paul] McGrath was out for a long while around the same time. Robbo got injured playing for England when they were about 7-0 up against Turkey [England led Turkey 5-0 in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley on 16 OCtober 1985 when Robson was forced off after 66 minutes. It was still 5-0 at the final whistle. Atkinson is perhaps confusing that match with England's 8-0 win in Istanbul the previous November] He went racing after a ball in the last few minutes and did his hamstring.
Did Robson ever come close to going to Italy when he was at his peak?
I was out last night at a party with Trevor Francis and he asked about this, “What was it you wanted for him to go to Sampdoria, £3m?” I said, “The deal was: you, Liam Brady and £1.5m.” And then I’d have gone in for John Wark for about £400,000.
Were there any other players you almost signed?
I thought we had a deal for Mark Lawrenson when he went from Brighton to Liverpool. But swings and roundabouts: if we’d bought Lawrenson, I’d not sure we’d have had enough money for Robbo. I had Robbo ringing me up every day telling me to sign him! The big one we missed out on was Gary Lineker from Leicester. It was a done deal. Before the 1985 FA Cup final, his contract was up and we’d spoken with his agent Jon Holmes. I was told I had to get rid of a striker. It looked like it’d be Frank [Stapleton], but at the last minute he pulled out of a move abroad. So we spoke to Lineker and the agreement was that he’d sign a one-year contract and stay at Leicester until we’d done our business and then come to us. Howard Kendall saw his chance and sold Andy Gray to Villa and bought Lineker. He’d have been perfect for what we wanted – we never had that blistering pace through the middle.
I also set up a swap with Alan Brazil for Cyrille Regis, because I always thought Regis would be a terrific Man United player. I’d have gone for him in 1981 if I hadn’t already taken Robson and [Remi] Moses; I thought if I take him as well I’ll get lynched! That was the original deal, but then Cyrille got injured, so I had to switch to Terry Gibson. He was quick and I thought he’d give us something different, but it didn’t happen for him at Old Trafford.
Have you ever heard a noise like the one at Old Trafford during the win over Barcelona in 1984?
No. And even the people who had been going to Old Trafford for decades, they said the same. We really shouldn’t have got beaten in the first leg, you know. It was a nothing game – we were ordinary, but we were in no trouble at 1-0. Then they scored a late goal, almost the last kick. I thought that flattered them a bit. We knew they didn’t fancy our corners and the first goal in the second leg came from that. That settled us down and then we got two in a few minutes after half-time.
How do you prepare for a game against Maradona and Schuster knowing that you have to attack but you can’t concede?
Mentally you just had to play it as a one-off game. We said the only time we’d go barmy, if we had to, was in the last 15 minutes. That’s the only time we’d throw everything at them. As it turned out, we were ahead in the tie after 53 minutes and we thought, “Hang on a minute, it’s gonna be a long 40 minutes!”
What would you usually do after a game like that?
It was wild, with Robbo coming off on the shoulders of the fans. After I’d done the press I’d just go back into my office. I remember having a few Spanish mates in there, from the Midlands, and we ended up arguing about the Armada! How that came up I don’t know.
Can you sleep on a night like that?
Eventually you would. One night I didn’t was when we beat Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final replay at Maine Road in 1985. I remember us going to a restaurant at about one in the morning. I watched that game a few weeks ago, and the challenges – och! And nobody gets injured. I’m seeing Whiteside get kicked to pieces and I’m thinking, “I didn’t know that ever happened to you, Norman.”
I think the Premier League has become a bit sanitised. The English fans love a thunder tackle. Mind you, I used to think when I played that nothing frightened me, but when I saw some of those tackles I’d think, “How’d they get away with that?!” The Liverpool games were great matches to be involved in. I always use the example of Gordon McQueen. He could be slack, but you’d see him get on the coach to go to Anfield and he seemed even bigger.
What do you remember about being gassed at Anfield?
We used to pull up right close to the door at Anfield. This time they’d built something that meant the coach couldn’t get against the door – there was about a 20-yard walk and it wasn’t fenced off. It was all part and parcel. We were getting towards the door and all of a sudden I thought, “What the bloody hell was that?” My first reaction was that they’d painted something and there were fumes coming from it. Apparently I went down the corridor, staggering along and I threw Dalglish and Hansen out the way!
Do people forget how good a footballer Norman Whiteside was?
He was a man at 15. But the best part of his game was his know-how. His vision was unbelievable. I used to say to him, “Norman, all that silly stuff, running to do someone, we can all see you coming. If you’re close enough you can rattle.” He would know where every player on the field was. Although he wasn’t quick, he was lightning in his head.
Was it always the plan to move him back to midfield?
I’d seen Ray Kennedy and I always had it in mind with Norman because he didn’t have blistering pace. He was a decent centre-forward but I always thought that if he dropped back and faced the game, he’d be very effective.
You say in your new book that you thought Whiteside and Aidan Murphy were the two young United players who were certs to make it. Tell us a bit about Murphy.
We had a reserve game once against Forest - I used to think the Central League was a great league - and we beat Forest seven. Cloughie used to put plenty of his first team in reserve games. It just coincided that we had Arnold Mühren and Frank Stapleton coming back from injury. Arnold was clipping them in, Frank was laying them off and this kid just kept powering through like a young Robbo and he got four goals. He was only 16 and I’m going “bloody hell”. He looked terrific. It just didn’t happen. I think he had some sort of problem with his parents and that affected him.
Did Jesper Olsen become as good as you thought he would?
No. I thought he’d become the best player in the country. Everybody who saw him said: what a player. I’d have had good money on him being Footballer of the Year in his second season before a ball was kicked. He was a good player and he could beat people for fun, but his last ball was not always as good as it should have been. I tell you what he was in training, a right nasty so-and-so! Little Arthur Albiston used to say, “Gaffer, he’s mad.” He took a punch from Remi Moses one day.
Was Moses underrated?
Good player, good player. You talk to players who were in that group and they’d go, “Oh. He was hard”. Souey [Graeme Souness] didn’t half respect him.
Who was the most underrated player you managed?
Kevin Richardson. He won every honour in the game but people don’t realise how good he was. It sounds simple, but he just did the right thing at the right time. When we did the deal to get Dalian [Atkinson] from Sociedad, we took him as well. And the only thing I should have done was get [John] Aldridge as well! I wasn’t sure about his age, but with hindsight I should have taken him.
Do people realise how good Roland Nilsson was?
People who were associated with him do. I always remember when he went to Coventry, Gary McAllister called him the legend. It’s funny how things work out: Fergie wanted him before he went for Denis Irwin. When Sheffield Wednesday got relegated I asked everybody to stick together and give it one more year to get promoted. I was offered the Aston Villa job when Graham Taylor went to England but I couldn’t very well say that and then leave! Roland was terrific.
You went to Villa a year later [in 1991] and almost won the Premier League with them in your second season. What do you remember about that?
The game that did us was the Steve Bruce game [when Bruce scored two very late goals to give Manchester United a 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday]. They were a better team than us, but we were playing with a bit of bubble. We drew that day with Coventry and as I walked off the pitch somebody shouted, “They’re getting beat you know.” By the time I got to the dressing-room somebody said, “Bloody hell, they’ve equalised.” I said, “I tell you what, they’ll play till they win.” That was the first time I started to doubt. We won the next three games, but they won their last seven.
That year, four of the nine Goals of the Month were by Villa players. Everyone remembers Dalian Atkinson’s run and chip at Wimbledon, but there were some beautiful team goals as well.
There was one with about 30-odd passes. We played some good stuff. Some people who have watched them win the European Cup and the title still say that is the period they enjoyed the most. We put a big emphasis on passing. I thought Dean [Saunders] and Dalian were the best front two in the league at the time, and then Dalian got injured. We beat Sheffield Wednesday, if I was betting money I’d say it was December 12 [it was December 5] and Dalian got two, hammered them both, and then on the Tuesday after that he got injured in training. He wasn’t properly fit until Easter.
Was there anything you could have done differently?
I tried to buy Mick Harford from Chelsea just before the deadline in March. I offered them £100,000 and I think he went to Sunderland for £300,000. I thought he’d give us a boost, knowing the type of lad he was, and he’d played with Dean at Derby.
You had some great cup nights at Villa Park as well, particularly when you beat Inter in 1994.
It was worth a million or two million, which was massive money. We used to play on the Thursday night, to get it on TV, and then play Saturday. We had Newcastle on the Saturday. That game, Keegan was doing the commentary and he came into my office after and said, “You know when you were taking those penalties? Our lads had been in bed for two hours!” They beat us 2-0 that Saturday.
What do you remember about that amazing semi-final against Tranmere in the Coca-Cola Cup earlier that year?
The second leg might be the most dramatic game I’ve ever been involved in, because things were happening all over the show. We were 2-0 up early, so we’re back on terms, 3-3 on aggregate; then they get a penalty, and Bozzie [Mark Bosnich] could well have got sent off. Dalian then gets us back on terms and the last kick of the match Liam O’Brien hits a free-kick that hits the inside of the post, rolls behind Bozzie and stays out! And finally the penalty shoot-out went this way and that before we won.
Was the 1994 League Cup final, when you outwitted Sir Alex Ferguson, your best tactical victory?
Our midfield was very creative – Garry Parker, Ray Houghton – but they’d just run out of a bit of form. The kid Graham Fenton had been on loan at Leicester and West Brom; he was a centre-forward really, so I thought, “We’ve got to match their power.” Rico would look after things and we had Andy Townsend and I put the kid in there as well. We put Dalian and Tony Daley wide and it worked.
When you beat United in 1991 and 1994, was there any sense of revenge?
Nah, nah. When we beat them the first time at Sheffield, I knew we’d win it. I didn’t know we’d win the second one! When you win a game like that it’s a big feather in everybody’s cap. After I left Villa they beat Leeds in the League Cup final and I never really hear people talk about that, but beating Man United – who would have done the domestic Treble – was a huge thing. You can be really proud because you’ve beaten the best.