Saturday, July 9, 2011

Before Fergie There Was Big Ron

Ron Atkinson, a swashbuckling Wing Half, is an elite member of the One-Club Man, who played only for Oxford United in his career making 383 appearances for the team over a period of 12 years. He started his managerial career at 32 years of age with Kettering Town. From 1974 onwards, Ron made people sit up and take note by leading Cambridge United from the Fourth Division to the brink of the Second in consecutive seasons. His formidable physical presence attracted a fair amount of attention as well - not for nothing he's called Big Ron to date. Although a regular bloke, his tongue-in-cheek humor and jovial attitude to life compelled the British Press to give him labels like 'Flash' and 'Mr. Bojangles'. To be fair, Ron himself did little to discourage that flamboyant public image.

Ron's first job in the First Division (now Premier League) started in 1978, when he replaced John Wile at West Bromwich Albion; a club where he got the opportunity to manage exceptional talent like Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Baston, Cyrille Regis, Len Cantello and our very own legend, Bryan Robson - a player, who much to our delight, later followed Big Ron to Old Trafford. 

Perhaps Big Ron's greater achievement during his WBA days was more spiritual than it was tangible. Some thirty five years ago, the disease of racism significantly shamed the beautiful game of football. Never before had a team in the top division of English football simultaneously fielded three black players on a regular basis.WBA, under Ron was also probably the first English club side that prominently marketed its troika of colored players - Baston, Regis and Cunningham were brought to prominence in the mould of George Best as glamorous footballers and were later branded as Three Degrees. Bryan Robson recalls this aspect in the following words:

"At the opening of Andy Gray's nightclub in Birmingham, the real Three Degrees, the American Girl Group were there and it was too good a photo opportunity to miss. Albion's three black players and the three black singers happily posed for pictures, Andy got his publicity, and from that moment, we had our very own Three Degrees. That stunt, I'm convinced, helped break down the prejudice against black and colored players in this country, as did Viv Anderson's selection as the first black England international."

Under Big Ron, WBA finished in the Top 4 twice and reached the quarter-finals of UEFA Cup once. This era for WBA also included a famous 5-3 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford.


In 1981, United finished 8th in the league and sacked the manager, Dave Sexton. The coveted post was offered to Ron Atkinson who readily accepted it. Big Ron's first season at Old Trafford was definitely happening - although we finished 3rd in the league table and qualified for UEFA Cup, for most of the season United topped the table, only to fall short of a rampant late surge by Bob Paisley's Liverpool side. The transfer activity at Old Trafford however very fruitful. Future United captain, Bryan Robson joined from WBA for a league record fee of GBP 1.75 Million and was joined by Remi Moses, Paul Mc Grath and Frank Stapleton. Two exciting prospects were also promoted to the first team; their names were Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes.

Bryan Robson joined a reasonably talented squad at OT which included Ray Wilkins, Steve Coppell, Gary Bailey, Arthur Albiston, Martin Buchan, Garry Birtles, Lou Macari and Sammy McIlroy. Big Ron handed the Number 7 shirt to Robbo and in later years, an injury to club captain Ray Wilkins caused him to lose both United and England captaincy to Robbo as well.

Big Ron added the talented Dutch winger, Arnold Muhren to the squad, as well as brought Laurie Cunningham on loan from Real Madrid. United finished 3rd again the next season, once again topping the table and then surrendering the lead to Liverpool. The team also reached both domestic cup finals, but lost the Milk Cup (League Cup) final to Liverpool. Big Ron, however managed to bring a trophy to Old Trafford after a drought of 6 years. United beat Brighton 4-0 in the FA Cup Final with Norman Whiteside stamping his authority as the most exciting young prospect in English Football.


The next season began with a big blow to United - Steve Coppell, an extremely talented winger was forced into a premature retirement due to injury. In came Scottish winger, Arthur Graham from Leeds United. Ron also bought Garth Crooks from Tottenham and the young Danish prodigy, Jesper Olsen. Although United had reached two cup finals the previous season, it was an embarrassing story this time round with two Third Division sides knocking us out. Oxford United sneaked a victory past United in the 4th Round of Milk Cup, whereas Bournemouth made a name for themselves by marching to a 2-0 win over the FA Cup holders in the 3rd round of the competition. In typical United fashion under Ron, we topped the league on various occasions but ended up 4th at the end. This time, however several injuries to our key players throughout the season proved to be our undoing. The silver lining was in Europe though where United marched to the Semi Finals of European Cup Winners' Cup, only to lose to a brilliant Juventus side. This run included a memorable match against Barcelona, a game that testified for the amazing prowess of Bryan Robson as United run riot through a Catalan side that included the likes of Diego Maradona and Bernd Schuster by battering them 3-0. 

By the time this season of mixed fortunes was coming to an end, Big Ron had another challenge to face - AC Milan and Juventus were seriously courting Bryan Robson. Soon another Serie A outfit, Sampdoria joined the race. This was the time when Serie A was an incredibly glamorous football league to play in and the competition became interesting when the star player of Juventus, Michel Platini got involved by trying to personally persuade Robbo to join them. Various figures were bandied around and it was understood that if there was an offer of GBP 3 Million, United would have to accept it. In case you're wondering, 3 Million was a huge transfer fee in 1984; even Maradona had moved to Barca for a fee of just over 4 Million. In the end, the combined efforts of Big Ron and the United Board won the battle as they successfully managed to price Robbo out of the market and it was his team-mate, Ray Wilkins who ended up moving to AC Milan for GBP 1.4 Million. The writing was clear on the wall for Big Ron. United had to win the league that fans had been craving since 1967.


Ron Atkinson reinforced the squad by signing Gordon Strachan and Alan Brazil and committed Bryan Robson to a seven year contract. Once again United could only manage a 4th spot in the league, the difference being that this time Everton were champions. United marched to the FA Cup Final, including a brilliant victory over a strong Liverpool side in the Semi-Final and enroute to meet league champions Everton at Wembley. Once again, Whiteside shone and it was his goal that separated both sides, thereby enabling Big Ron to claim his 2nd FA Cup in 3 years. The year was tragically marked by Bradford Disaster and Heysel Disaster, after which English teams were banned from participating in European competitions. 


In spite of winning 2 FA Cups and reasonable runs in Europe, Big Ron knew that he had to win that elusive domestic title. United looked set on course to achieving so, as the season began with us winning our first ten league games of the season - not only winning but absolutely battering opposing teams. The football played by Ron's team was devastating and the goals flowed. Be it Arsenal, the Manchester Derby, Newcastle or a 5-1 hammering of WBA, Manchester United were unstoppable. Alas, once again, injuries to Robbo, Strachan and Moses halted the team in its tracks. The end result was similar: United finished 4th in the league, with Liverpool reclaiming the champions spot, in addition to winning the FA Cup. The fans were further disappointed when Mark Hughes was Barcelona towards end-season. Truly, a season of dejection for the United faithful.

Even before the season began, there was strong speculation that Big Ron would get the sack. It didn't help his cause when we lost our first three games in the league. The last thing he needed was headlines in the papers about two of his players involved in beating up each other, but that's precisely what happened. As Bryan Robson recalls in his memoirs, Robbo:

"The players in question were Remi Moses and Jesper Olsen, and it was the biggest mismatch imaginable. Remi wasn't a big lad, but he absolutely battered Jesper. The fight took place on the training pitch. Jesper went over the top on Remi, who wasn't happy about the tackle and gave Jesper a menacing stare. Jesper came back at him with a defiant 'Yeah, what are you going to do about it?' kind of response. Remi showed him. He went bang, bang, bang and that was the end of it. There was blood all over the place."

Southampton beat United in the League Cup on 4th November, 1986 and in less than 48 hours, Big Ron was sacked. 

Ron invited the lads to his place to celebrate their association. Drinks flowed and Gordon Strachan showed off his DJ skills at the event. A chapter was ending but an era was about to begin for Manchester United.

Upon hearing that Alex Ferguson, manager of Aberdeen had been appointed as the boss of United, Gordon Strachan, who had played under Fergie in Scotland, reacted as such, "Och, no! Not Him!"

This is a brief account of what United went through in those Pre-Fergie years, so that all of us can appreciate what we have today. The fans who stood by the club through thick and thin during those years thoroughly deserve all the joy and pride that has come to Old Trafford with all the silverware.

Here's to Big Ron - thanks for your time with us. We appreciate the spirit of harmony that you brought to our dressing room, but even if Big Ron knew himself what lay ahead in our destiny, he would've probably stepped aside himself very happily.


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