This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald on November 7 2004.
RON ATKINSON, founder member of football’s bling dynasty, glides through the double doors of Jefferson’s like an honoured guest on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross.
Only this is Friday afternoon, we are not at the BBC Television Centre, and there is no evidence of an avalanche of audience hysteria.
He’s chosen this restaurant on the southern periphery of Birmingham, where cocktails are mixed and juggled a la Tom Cruise, as the location for his first major newspaper interview since he made his highly contentious exit from ITV Sport, amid accusations of racism.
Just before Big Ron’s arrival, the photographer sets up a mini studio and reveals he wants to try out his new equipment before an appointment with film actor Kevin Bacon the next day.
Hollywood, in fact, arrives 24 hours ahead of schedule: the deeply-tanned Atkinson, clad comprehensively in black, is also wearing the obligatory shades and jewellery.
Has he borrowed the avant-garde look from Simon Cowell, or indeed from some peripatetic foot soldier in the Sopranos? Alternatively, is he simply a man handcuffed to a state of mourning? Certainly, he has much to mourn, having put his foot in it so horrendously last April that amputation must have been a consideration at one time.
To recap on his moment of verbal suicide: Chelsea have just lost 3-1 away to Monaco in the semi-final, first leg, of the Champions League. Atkinson’s work is over for the night, but his frustration is still acute as he takes off his co-commentator’s microphone and earphones.
He puts his elbows on the table and cradles his head in his hands. To his mind, Chelsea have blown it big time. What he doesn’t know is that he is just about to follow their example in spectacular fashion.
He is watching some tape that is being analysed by Terry Venables and Andy Townsend, and muttering to no-one in particular, other than himself, about those most culpable for defeat.
He recalls: “They’re showing (Juan Sebastian) Veron. I’m going: ‘Oh, bloody hell! What about him?’ Then they go on to (Claudio) Ranieri. And I’ve gone: ‘Oh, Claudio…’ Well, I mean, we’d stuck up for him all last season. And then they’ve shown (Marcel) Desailly and I’ve made the comment.”
The comment, which Atkinson is careful not to repeat, is delivered when the company’s live feed has ended, and is broadcast in the Middle East. “He’s (Desailly) known in some schools as a fucking, lazy, thick nigger!”
Within 24 hours, Atkinson finds himself modelling sackcloth. He apologises profusely to the Chelsea player and, in fact, to anyone who is willing to listen, and proffers a resignation. It is instantly accepted. The act of self immolation is immediately recognised by ITV as the only logical escape route from a potential nightmare.
Six months down the road to perdition, you would have to peer through a microscope to identify any contrition in the big man. He’s done the apologies. Done his time. Now, a bitter after-taste has taken up residence in his mouth. If you lean close, you can smell the bile spawned by the accusation of racial intolerance.
He claims further examination of the offending tape has revealed that he prefaced the offending remark with the words “some people might say…”
I’m not quite sure how this quite ameliorates his choice of words, but he is adamant.
He sips a glass of Pepsi and says: “Look, I didn’t exactly say what I was alleged to have said. When I talked it over with a few legal people, they’ve remarked: ‘That’s a totally different concept.’ Like me saying to someone over there: ‘That Ally McCoist. Some people might say he’s a what-do-you-call-it!’ It’s different to me saying it.”
Whatever, there can be no doubt that Atkinson’s professional life went into freefall after his outburst. “I had a load of commercial interests. They were flying in. All of a sudden, in one day, it was like the collapse of a pack of dominoes. Phew! I’m talking about big deals. It cost me dearly.”
Now, he insists he is putting that professional life back together, brick by brick. But it seems the hod-carrying is accompanied by a feeling that, in resigning, he may have acted precipitately.
“Knowing what I know now, I think it could have been dealt with in a different way. Hindsight’s brilliant, of course, but it might have been everybody’s fault. The decision might have been made in a lot of haste.
“Yeah, there you go. But it has left a bitter taste with me. The last thing in the world I’d have thought I would have got a career blemish for was a racist thing. It’s the stigma that really annoys me. I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I’ve been very impartial. Talk about equal opportunities: I’ve given black lads more opportunities than anyone.”
This explanation comes as an essential supplement to the anger. “Ironically, about two months before this happened, I attended a Kick Racism Out of Football dinner in London. I was one of the few white people invited there. I remember being sat on a table, and Martin Tyler (the Sky commentator) and eight of the black lads, Cyrille Regis, Uriah Rennie, Brendan Batson and a few more, were on it.
“The people running the dinner made quite a few nice references to me about the help I’d been. I’ve never had a problem with race, colour, creed or whatever. My record will stand up against anybody’s regarding the treatment of black players.
“I can remember in the mid 90s, one game in Merseyside when you were allowed only two subs out of 13 players. Out of the 13 in my team, eight were black. Ironically, the opposition didn’t have one.
“Again, we would go and play another team up north. I used to get a very well written letter, but it would be very, very abusive to the lads. I used to show it to them and, in the end, they’d ask: ‘Gaffer, has he written yet?’ We used it as a motivational thing.
“Mind you, if anyone went for them vindictively, then it was a different kettle of fish. Then I’d give them both barrels.
“The good thing is the backing I’ve had from almost everybody. People are great with me. They keep coming up and telling me what a joke it is. Almost everyone is supportive. My little old mate, a Portugese waiter, tells me: ‘You could be a Prime Minister if there was a referendum.’
“But there is a percentage – and it’s minimal – of politically correct people, and I’ve been vilified by them. I’ve never really thought about PC. I’ve always thought that you are what you are, and if a bloke’s a good bloke and has the ability, I’ve always encouraged him. Yet I’m finding more and more that we have a band of politically correct people.
“My father was one of the first to tell me about the legendary Hibs player, Gordon Smith. Gay Gordon, they named him. But that’s wrong now.
“By the way, you’re going to have a laugh: what about the song, When I’m 64? You know, they’ve had to cut the line out about birthday wishes, bottle of wine because it’s offensive to Jehovah Witnesses, who don’t drink or celebrate birthdays. Now tell me about that. They need a revolution.”
While I’m imagining an anti-PC uprising led by the anarchic Atkinson, it is a wonder why he has not gone into any depth about this emotive subject in print already. Let’s face it, six months out of the newspapers is an eternity for him.
Atkinson, however, reveals that the deprivation has been self-inflicted. He explains that he was making a BBC Television documentary addressing the issues of race and political correctness, and didn’t wish to pre-empt or prejudice it. The film, made by the ubiquitous Adrian Chiles, is scheduled for this month.
So many aspirants were turned away, including a certain hackette from The Sun whom, he suspected, wished to trawl through the foundations of his private life with a searchlight. “She wanted to go in deep about the racist thing, asking all sorts about my wife and her feelings.”
Atkinson, moreover, was aggrieved by the presumption by many that he had been bankrupted by the affair. “I think everyone thinks you’re walking around as if you’re dead. Then they come to my house (in the most salubrious part of Barnt Green) and say: ‘Bloody hell!’ You’re struggling, aren’t you?’ Yeah, I’m struggling all right – I’m down to my last four cars!”
The mood in Jefferson’s has brightened considerably. If Atkinson is a dead man walking, then he is the healthiest corpse ever seen. He is laughing, he is reminiscing, he is also 65. Not that he likes to be reminded of such a sobering statistic.
Now we’re talking about Brian Clough. He still cannot believe that Cloughie is no longer of this earth. He says that when he was manager of Manchester United, Cloughie wouldn’t speak to him. “Normally, I got on well with him, but apart from business, he wouldn’t have a drink with me, nothing. I think he felt he should have had the United job when Matt Busby retired.
“Then, when I was away from Old Trafford, I was doing a TV series of interviews with managers. I met Cloughie and he shouts: ‘Hey, Big ‘Ead, you’ve got a f****** hour!’ I replied: ‘That’ll do me, Brian. It ain’t a problem.’
“Four hours later, we are still working and we’ve run out of tape. It was absolutely hilarious. A lot of it was so outrageous we couldn’t use it, but it was so good they put it up for an award. I came second, runner up to Dale Winton in Supermarket Effin’ Sweep. I got absolutely slaughtered.”
Such self deprecation tends to dilute the theory that Atkinson’s skin is thinner than rice paper, and that he’s only interested in humour when he himself has spawned it.
Much of the humour, of course, has been of the unconscious variety. Remember, he has produced classics such as: “Beckenbauer really has gambled all his eggs…zero – zero is a big score….either side could win it, or it could be a draw….I’ve had this sneaking feeling throughout the game that it’s there to be won.”
Even allowing for what he said in Monaco, there is no chance of him losing belief in himself. So you ask the question: where would he put himself in they league of football commentators? He initially comes over all coy. “It’s not for me to say.”
But his natural inclinations then seize the situation by its throat. “Look, I’m going to use that Cloughie expression. ’I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one!’ ”
Adhering to the dictum that there is no profit in hiding your light under a bushel, he continues: “I did the job and enjoyed it for 24 years. I also get the impression that an awful lot of people enjoyed it and said, in fact, that there was none better. Yeah. I think I was pretty good at it.
“I still listen to the men who have replaced me. In fact, I talk with Andy Townsend an awful lot. He’s a big mate of mine, a big supporter, and I think he does it quite well. I think he’s okay at it.”
Does it not pain him on occasions when he realises what he has lost? “No, it doesn’t hurt. I listen to them all, even sometimes, I’m watching games and I think, yeah, what would I be saying now? What would I be doing? Sometimes I practise. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance again.”
Will he ever return to our television screens, and will the documentary help him? “I’ve no idea,” he replies. “But I’m getting approaches now. Aw, yeah, I’m getting little nibbles. My mobile phone is my office and I’ll bet virtually every call I get is a business one. I’m always optimistic. That’s for sure.
“Yeah, hey, I’m not walking with my head down here, Que sera. The only regret I’ll have is about the way it finished – if it is finished. And I don’t think it has, by the way. But if that’s the way it’s going to happen, I’ll be very sad. Still, it’s no good moping.”
Ron Atkinson is singing as I leave him in the photographer’s care. He would never quality for sainthood. He can be vainglorious, egotistical and, frankly, downright silly sometimes. He is also massively politically incorrect.
But racist? You’re having a laugh, aren’t you?