Big Ron Atkinson Interview
Big Ron names the best exponent of a spotter’s badge, talks about Desailly and the night in Stade Louis II, tells how he lost out to Dale Winton and names his commentating dream team. And much more.
Right Ron, down to business. This Ronglish lark, what’s the story?
Well, a lot of the things I used when we were coaching – as identification things. Rather than go the long way round and go “he did this or whatever… one of the things – probably because it was the only trick I had as a player was the little stepover – and the lads used say, “oh, that’s a lollipop”, and it sort of stuck with me. And people say to me now, “what’s that got to do with anything? A lollipop?’ And I say “I don’t know”. But, tell you what, I watch cricket and I say “what’s a googly?” People just give it a name and it sticks. And now people know what the trick is. It’s an identifier, if you like.
Ronglish scholars put it down to rhyming slang – lollipop stick/trick?
Yeah, that’s not bad. It first came out actually on a club tour in Spain when it was a bit relaxed and I was still doing them. And all the lads were going “Ole, it’s a lollipop” and I just took it on from there.
Alright, you nicked that one. But you’re still a bit of a wordsmith. Were you a top English student in school?
Yeah, I wasn’t bad. I was good actually. I just went to an ordinary secondary school. I passed for Grammar School but I wouldn’t go because they only played rugby. [Fair play Ron] But yeah, I was always good at English. In fact, the other thing I was good at was religious knowledge. [laughs]
Have you held onto that knowledge?
Not really no. [laughs]
So… who’s the original amusement arcade?
Well, I saw a player once, quite a well known player but he shall remain nameless. Anyway, everyone’s saying “What a good player”. I said “Why, because he nutmegs people on the half way line? For me, he’s an amusement arcade.” He didn’t produce. If he nutmegs people in the penalty area and scores a goal, fair enough, he’s a productive amusement arcade.
Go go, give us a few names.
Heh, heh, I know exactly who I’m thinking of but….
You’re reluctant to reveal it?
Yeah. He’s had a good career, still see him now. In a lot of international squads but didn’t get a cap. He was a fans’ favourite at one or two clubs.
Alright, suppose you’re in enough trouble…. Kanu’s an amusement arcade isn’t he?
Hell, yeah… he is the ultimate, heh, heh.
Ok then, who’s got the most spotter’s badges in his locker?
That’s people with vision isn’t it. Tell you what, one of the best players I’ve ever worked with was John Sheridan. Sheridan was a magnificent passer. Great vision. He’d play a ball nobody would anticipate and you’d go “he’s seen that one early, that’s a spotter’s badge..”
But would it have been fair to say that John Sheridan was a player who would need to have been “in acres” to produce a spotter’s badge?
No no [appalled at the suggestion]. He could do it in the tightest areas. He made his own time and space. Great players make their own. Johnny Giles made space. [Nods in direction of Bacardi-cradling Gilesy] But I would have said, in the category of Ireland, John and Liam Brady would be up here, and in the next category, I’d have Shez in there.
Underappreciated in Ireland perhaps?
Well, the way Big Jack played it, he didn’t want play going through the midfield. And you have to keep Shez on the ball. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever worked with on free kicks you know. He pulled all kinds of strokes around the box. He’s cocky on the ball. Audacious. You talk to anyone at Sheffield Wed and he’ll come into their best ever team. I think there was some sort of ballot and he was voted their best ever player. Shez is well rated.
He could be spiteful enough if he had to be too. Leave his foot in.
Heh, heh, phew, tell you what.
You ever cross paths with Gilesy?
Would you have left a foot in yourself?
No no, I’d tackle. I’d compete. I never went over the top with anyone. I’d batter them if I had to. Physically, Fairly.
How would you describe yourself in Ronglish terms?
Complete midfield player. Centrocampisto. Pivotal in anyone’s team… heh, heh.
An “absolute colossus” then, as you might put it…?
Yeah, I did the frontscreen job too. In front of the back four.
It’s a fine line between a spotter’s badge and a Hollywood ball. Do you reckon Steven Gerrard hasn’t yet learned the difference?
A Hollywood ball is one that looks for miracles.. looks over-ambitious or too glamourous…. To be fair, he does produce but I’ll go with you on that. He’s got to mix it up a lot more – hold onto the ball a lot better than he does. Beckham is a bit like that too but he was quite good to be fair with his ability to produce a few spotter’s badges.
Who’s the best exponent of a reducer?
Well, that came about with a player I had, a very much underrated centre half called Alistair Robertson at West Brom. Tremendous player. And before the game, we’d be talking about something and we’d say to Robbo, “Hey, get your reducer in early. Let him know you’re about.”
…but the thing is at the moment I’m persona non-grata on television aren’t I…
Do you think that’s a bit harsh?
The thing is I didn’t technically say what they told me I’d said. What I allegedly said about Desailly I didn’t say – in the terms they told me I’d said it. What I actually said was “he’s the sort some people say is… ”
Fair enough, it was still a little ill-advised to say it though…
Alright, but the thing is, if I’m talking to you now, I don’t expect what I’m saying to be picked up on a mic over there. Because we had the world feed, the mic was open.
The thing is, I wasn’t even having a conversation. I was just watching the highlights footage and I was angry. And it’s no money out of my pocket Chelsea going out, I was just going to head out for a drink in Monaco with Andy Townsend. But the problem is, as Andy always says “Ron, when you watch a game, you believe it’s your team and you get passionate about it”.
And, tell you what, the one I really slaughtered was Veron. And then Ranieri came on – and I’d supported him for fun that season – but I was going “Well what have you done tonight?” And the thing is they should have put Gronkjaer on after that, because, by heck, I would have really slaughtered him. He couldn’t cross a postal order that night.
And then Desailly… I’ve had a theory about Desailly for a few seasons, is that he kidded Chelsea the last two years of his career. Kidded them. Even on that day you know, if you ever analyze his performance, he was cheating.
How do you mean?
Tell you what he was doing, he was trying to play offside on the wrong side of the ball. In other words, if the play is coming over there… [gets up to play John Terry before deciding to recreate the formation using his Vodka and Coke as Desailly instead] They’ve got Terry in the gulley there, and Babayaro – was it Babayaro at left back – might have been Bridge. So the ball’s coming thirty yards down there and Desailly’s stepping up there. He can’t do it. He can’t leave him (Terry) alone there. He’s the insurance man. If Terry decides to go, he can go, but he can’t go the opposite side to the ball because he’s leaving him one on one.
And I’m going ‘what’s he doing that for?” And then, he started chasing the ball into areas and I thought “His head’s gone, he doesn’t know where he is.” And that’s why, you know…. [trails off sadly]
Do you think there’s any way back for you now?
The thing is, wherever I go, people are asking me when am I going to be back on the telly? Big businessmen, ordinary kids whatever. People come up to me going “Hey, big man, when are you coming back.” And tell you what, there’s a lot of black kids in Birmingham.
The reaction within the game’s been great. Some of the papers tried to put Carlton Palmer into the “anti” camp but he wasn’t having it. He’s been a great mate for years. But some people, you know… that twat, Ian Wright … by the way, is he useless on television or what? And what really upset me was that bloke Darcus Howe. What about all that?
It didn’t help you that show (BBC documentary What Ron Said) did it?
No I don’t think so. The guy who was helping me out said “All I know Ron, I don’t think it’s done you any harm.” But all my mates said “Ron, you shouldn’t have done it.” But I don’t know.
I was so pissed off in America because they didn’t really know what they were doing. The thing is, Martin Bashir rang me within ten minutes of it all happening and wanted to do something. But then he signed a new contract with ABC that wouldn’t allow him to do other stuff. But he was one of the main reasons for going to America.
The team were struggling to find things to do. They kept asking me every ten minutes how I was feeling. And I was like “I told you half and hour ago how I was feeling.”
What was your favourite television gig?
Tell you what, the best thing I did on TV actually was a series of interviews for Central – I promise you, it was a great show – not me but they had me interviewing all the managers. I did Martin O’Neill, Bobby Robson, Venables, Keegan, Jim Smith, Trevor Francis, Graham Taylor. But I did Cloughie and that program was sensational – of course they had to cut half of it out. I’m giving it “Brian, you were strong with the players, what would you do with today’s modern players – you know, the one at Man U, the Beckham lad?
He goes,[Cracking Cloughie impression] “The first thing I’d fucking say to him is ‘why do you need four cars, because you can only drive one? [Carries on as Cloughie] ‘But, I have to be honest Ron, I do feel sorry for the lad because if that Missus starts singing to him, she’ll keep him awake all fucking night.”
And then I go to Nottingham to meet him and do all the stuff with the statue of the Sherriff of Nottingham and what have you, and he goes “Hey Big ‘ead, you’ve got a fuckin’ hour.” Four hours later, by the way and we ran out of tape. And the crew were clapping. It was fantastic.
They put it up for one of those awards… not the Bafftas, but one of them… good night, lots of folks there. So they go, whatever the category was, third place… John Singleton or something or Palin or one of those fellas, Around the World in Eighty Days or what have you. And in second place, Ron Atkinson. And I’m going, ‘well that’s alright’. And then it’s “First place… Dale Winton with Supermarket Sweep.” Ha ha ha [Sounds horrified]. And I’m like “I’m going to get slaughtered now. The boys will be going ‘Came second to Dale, did we?’”
When was the last time you kicked a football?
Five-a-side? About five years ago. In Barbados.
When I was at Man U, I had my own five-a-side team. Even after I was sacked, we used the hall at Old Trafford. In the end, Bobby Charlton put the block on it. So then we moved to Oldham – played on the plastic pitch.
Four times a year, maybe 5, we’d load up the Man U bus, fill it up with booze, get all the best gear and go and play somebody. If we’re going through the midlands, we’d normally pick up a group which would be John (Giles), Brendan Batson, Tony Brown, maybe another one or two. Big Joe Royle would play centre half.
What I do is get 11 proper players and then 1 or 2 of my mates who’d come on if anyone was injured. One day, we got Bestie down and nobody thought he would show. The rest were like “Bestie, yeah, he’ll turn up alright, you’re having a laugh.”
Sure enough, he walked in five minutes to kick-off. Only problem, he was crap.
Chris Kamara is full of praise for you. You get on well with him?
Yeah, Chris is a good lad. We’ve both got places on Tenerife and a mate of mine’s got the best restaurant on the island – fabulous atmosphere. And every time I go in, he’ll say “Kamara was in.” and I always miss him.
He told us he plays gigs around Tenerife?
Yeah, we did a charity record, didn’t we?
Speaking of… any more singles in the pipeline? Let’s give love another try?
Yeah, yeah, yeah…. It was Kamara, wasn’t it. Got us to do a charity record and the bloke that was producing it says ‘What about doing a Christmas song?’ One of the songs we did, we’d written it ourselves so then we write a Christmas song.
You co-wrote that yourself then?
Yes, me and my mate wrote it…. Tell you what, I like musicians, I think musicians are brilliant. I can’t play an instrument to save my life. I’d like to play the piano. I wouldn’t want to work at it but I’d like to pick it up and play it. I think they’re brilliant.
Right, time to clear this up once and for all: Buddy Holly – a volley or a dive. A school of thought suggests it’s “go down like Buddy Holly”
A volley, no doubt. Rhyming slang… Someone else pointed that out, but I didn’t give that a thought. No, ask anyone in the game, it’s always a volley.
Who would you have in your side – a flier or a jinker?
A flying jinker… ha ha ha.
Talk us through Bagatelle Football…
You know when everything’s flying around and the ball’s flying around in a crowd scene. Or”like a crowd scene from Ben Hur,” we used to say.
You’ve described Michael Ballack as being a bit milky…
Tell you what, I saw him play against Arsenal once and he was f…ing hopeless. He was a bit like “dipping your foot in the hot water” we used to say. But hey, he’s a top player.
You didn’t actually watch the Wide Awake Club with Timmy Mallett?
Heh, no way. But yeah, we used to say “We want 11 coiled springs in the Wide Awake Club.”
Can you shed any light on the mysterious “Mugger’s Snatch”? Scholars suggest it’s the little stepover link-up think Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole did..
No. (firmly). No, that’s an over. Or a little over. No (shakes head as if despairing of Ronglish frauds) mugger’s snatch? No, I’ve never said that.
Alright… so which do you prefer – co-commentary or punditry?
I like both. They’re different experiences. But co-commentary is harder. It’s as its happening. In the studio you get people feeding you stuff and it’s a bit easier.
Any co-commentator fit to fill your shoes with Clive?
I think Andy is doing quite well. But I thought he was good on screen as well.
In his Tactics Truck? Where’s that parked now?
Tell you what. We gave him some stick about that, heh, heh, heh. I used ring him up, “Hey Andy, is that you I’ve just gone past on the motorway?” Ha ha.
That was when the Premiership started on ITV, they just tried to cram everything in you know, instead of going, “Hey, what about the football?”
Can you give us your Commentary Dream Team – an anchor, two pundits, a commentator and a co-commentator:
Without a shadow of a doubt, the best anchor of all time as Des Lynam. You knew how good he was when he wasn’t there. Jim Rosenthal is very good but Des would be top man.
Two pundits in the studio, I’d go for Andy (Townsend, we manage not to protest). I think Andy’s very consise. Who else? I think I’ll go for….. [Enormous pause. He's seriously considering this] I’ll tell you who’s very analytical – Mark Lawrenson. And people go “not Lawrenson” but at the BBC, I think he’s probably the most informative.
So Andy and Lawro….
No hang on. I’m not going with Lawro. I think Hansen is pictorially good but he fuckin’ says the same thing over and over. He’s a boring bastard. He just says words doesn’t he?
Yeah. Pace. Power. Control. Pass. Move. Diabolical.
Yeah yeah, ha ha. The think is I learned more about football in the first six months in management than I did in all my playing career. And Hansen hasn’t managed so…. Hang on, am I in this or not?
No, fraid you can’t pick yourself? Them’s the rules.
Alright, ok, I was just seeing if I had a free co-commentator slot. Alright then, hang on… [thinks again at some length] look I’ll come back to it. Let’s pick the commentator. Is it of all time or just now?
I suppose the doyen of them all would be Brian Moore. He had a marvelous manner. He didn’t want to be too opinionated, even too analytical. Ah Mooro was brilliant. We had some fun with him. He was a first class toff. The night before a match somewhere, I’d say “Mooro, get yourself geared up. I’ve found this club in Marseilles… ” And he’d be “No no, Ron Ron Ron. [fantastic Moore impression] we’ll go to this nice little restaurant, have a nice bottle of wine and some fish.” Great character.
Clive Tyldesley is very good. He’s got great words and he’s got great observation. He sees things properly and very seldom gets names wrong.
Actually, one of the most helpful people when I first started doing it was Martin Tyler.
He seems to have been axed a bit at Sky. Chris Kamara hinted that it might be something to do with Andy Gray…
I understand, they’ve never been mad-keen on one another for some reason. But actually, I’ll have Andy Gray as the co-commentator – alongside Mooro.
Now, second pundit, let’s see. For a perfectly balanced programme, I suppose you’ll have Hansen in there…
You’re not convinced about that are you?
I just don’t think he gives me enough information. He’s not the only one I suppose. Terry bluffs em a bit, to be fair. The number of times he doesn’t know the players. Oh go on, put Hansen. I’ll go Hansen [sighs].
Thanks for that, Ron.
So, hang on, you started all that Ronglish lark did you? People are always saying to me, you seen that Ronglish thing. Of course I can’t work the Internet anyway…