Football legend, Ron Atkinson‘I left school at 15 and never worked since.’

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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The list of well-known people who have ended, or nearly ended, their careers with ill-advised statements or actions is long and illustrious. Hugh Grant springs to mind, megastar actor, who nearly ended his career with a well-publicised liaison with Divine Brown. Remember that one? And with the United States election upon us, maybe some of you will remember the infamous “Dean scream”, which effectively ended Howard Dean’s bid to be the 2004 Democratic nominee.

Kanye West could have done it by interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMA awards in 2009. He seems to have recovered, but we live in hope.

Ron Atkinson, legendary soccer manager and guest on Today with Sean O’Rourke, is another to grace that list, ending his career as a soccer pundit in the same year as Howard Dean, 2004, with comments that most observers would agree went far beyond “ill-advised”. And during his interview this morning, Sean asked him about the episode.

While off-air, and watching a piece of tape roll in an ITV studio, he got angry at “Chelsea throwing away a semi-final”, and muttered something under his breath about Chelsea player Marcel Desailly which contained a very serious racist term.

“Once they told me what I allegedly said, I said, well, if that’s the case, I’ll pack it in.”

The furore that ensued prompted Ron Atkinson’s resignation and, for a period, his entire career was relegated and he became almost defined by that one remark.

His autobiography, just released, and entitled, The Manager, reminds people that he is more than one remark. A lot more. In fact, Ron Atkinson could justifiably be called a giant of football management over several decades, starting at the lowest level possible in his mid-teens, and rising to run teams such as Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa, not to mention Atletico Madrid.

“I left school at 15 and never worked since. The first connection I had with professional football was as groundstaff in Wolves. Then I moved to Aston Villa for a short while. Then moved on to Oxford for a long while, as a player.”

Born in Liverpool, but growing up in Birmingham, he was raised on ‘a diet of football every day’. He played for Aston Villa during the 1950s as a part-time player on a wage of £7 per week, in an age where the cap for professional players was £100 per week.

Kettering was his first significant job at the managerial helm, where he became the highest-paid manager in English football outside division one, cemented with the most disconcertingly brief and simple contract he had ever signed.

“You will run the football team and be responsible for it.”

His idol in managerial terms was Liverpool legend, Bill Shankly, with whom he used to spend hours talking on the phone on a weekly basis. “Football is more important than life and death”, was Bill’s most famous (or infamous) quotation, and he would talk football till the cows came home, according to Ron.

Amongst Ron Atkinson’s managerial highlights were his time spent with Manchester United during the 1980s. During this time, another maverick in the game, Bryan Robson, was brought to the club for a record £1.5 million fee, a decision Sir Matt Busby simply could not handle, quitting the board shortly afterwards. But Ron’s justification?

“It’s not an argument. It’s not even a gamble. You’re actually buying pure gold.”

In Irish terms, Ron Atkinson will always be associated with a man he describes as “the best centre-half that’s ever played in the premiership”, Paul McGrath, who he bought from St Patrick’s in Dublin to play in Ron’s great Aston Villa side.

Big Ron, as he is known, relocated to Atletico Madrid before returning to the premiership to rescue Sheffield Wednesday, subsequently moving into the world of punditry, with ITV.

To listen to the full interview, listen here.


Photo Credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

© The Listener 2016

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