Ron Atkinson on the one word that has defined his career: I cannot believe that I said it
Published 22/09/2016 | 02:30
To Ron Atkinson, mud sticks. Twelve years after he was caught by a still-live microphone using the most demeaning of racist epithets to describe the then Chelsea centre-back Marcel Desailly, the stench lingers.
His appears a crime without a statute of limitation. He has just published his autobiography, called The Manager, and a UK newspaper pulled out of serialising it at the last moment, its editor describing him as "still toxic". Meanwhile, the publishers are struggling to find a bookshop prepared to host a signing.
"It's been a harsh education, yeah," he says when we meet in the Hotel Football, opposite an Old Trafford where, in his tandoori-tanned peak, he once swaggered.
"The funny old thing is, all the boys who played for me stood by me. That mattered. It reminded me I was the person I thought I was."
As he admits in the book, the language he used to describe Desailly after a Champions League game on which he had been commentating was indefensible.
He was caught on a microphone that was still sending audio feed to Dubai saying that Desailly "is what is known in some schools as a f***ing lazy thick n*****". There is no extenuating circumstance, no excuse.
"It was a word I had never used before and have never used since," he writes. "It was idiotic, stupid and offensive and I should never have said it. To this day, I cannot believe I did."
The moment he did, however, the consequences were significant. He resigned his well-remunerated position at ITV and lost several lucrative commercial deals. Even in the days before Twitter accelerated the process of public shaming, his was widespread.
These days, the man who reinvented football punditry is an occasional contributor to Manchester United's MUTV.
Once mainstream, Big Ron now splashes about in the backwaters.
In the book, he insists he has apologised endlessly for what he said. Though when he discusses the subject, you get the sense he still has not fully grasped why the phrase he used is so venomous.
"It makes you aware of things," he says of the decade-long fallout. "Mind, I think there's a lot of nonsense. But you're aware of it. I've kept my head down, didn't want to make a fuss. But some stuff confuses me."
He then mentions a couple of instances of other broadcasting gaffes that provoked far less intense consequence and looks baffled.
"Barnesy (John Barnes) said the best thing after it happened," he says. "He said, 'I tell you what, Ron, you're the sort of bloke who if I went into a room looking for a job and you thought I was the best man for the job, you'd give it to me. There's lots who give it all 'Hello John' and say the right things yet I wouldn't have a prayer'. That meant a lot."
What has clearly hurt Atkinson is that, as a manager who, at a time when racism was rampant within the game, helped kick-start the careers of a number of black players, he has come to be defined by a gaffe. That is partly why he has come out with the book now, to show there is more to him than that.
"The publishers said, 'You've had a long old time in the game, long old time out of it, you'd have some observations, some opinions'," he says. "They reckoned maybe I still had something to say."
And they have a point. This was the manager, after all, who produced progressive, attacking, swashbuckling teams at West Brom, Manchester United, Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday, who managed in Spain, who twice won the FA Cup and League Cup and came within a whisker of winning the Premier League in its first year.
"Well, the energy levels are down a bit, but yeah, I could manage now, very much so," the 77-year-old says when asked if he could still cut it. "That said, it's a much harder job now. In my time you were given time. Now the lifespan is two years max. You get well rewarded for it, mind."
Indeed, in the city in which he is speaking can be found the two highest-paid managers in the country, Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola between them taking home close to £20m a year.
"Most I earned was quarter of a million, when I was in Spain," he says. "Now it's astronomical. But there's astronomical money in the game. Full marks to managers for getting some of it."
Listening to Big Ron in full flow is to hear glimpses of the reason he made such a success of his second career as a television co-commentator. His has an unlikely turn of phrase, exemplified in this extract from his book, in which he recalls the instructions he gave ahead of a training session when he was managing Coventry City.
"It's a lovely day, let's have a bit of zip and push. Let's have a blast on the banjo." This idiosyncratic vocabulary of his became known as Ronglish.
"Yeah, a lot of it was off the training pitch," he says. "Near-post corner, little flick on: 'Give it the eyebrows'. The lollipop? Now that was the only trick I had as a player. My manager said, 'You're like a bloomin' lollipop with that stepover thing you do'. Why? No idea. But it came from those days.
"And it worked when I was a manager. Players don't want long, detailed explanation. They want a quick soundbite. And so do television viewers."
That is what he discovered when he became a co-commentator: brevity is all.
"When I first started doing it, there was nobody doing it like that in football. They just told you what the pictures showed. I miss it. And I think I'd be better than most of them doing it now. If not all of them. I'm not a great one for moving stuff around on whatyoumacallits, you know i-thingys and that."
With his lollipop, his eyebrows and his banjo, Atkinson helped us understand all right. And that is the irony of Big Ron: the man who built a reputation on the vivacity of his language was brought down by a single word. (© Daily Telegraph, London)