Brits abroad - Ron Atkinson
Former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson has just about seen and done it all in football. But his brief spell in charge of Atletico Madrid was a unique experience even for him. In this week's Brits Abroad, Sky Sports speaks to Atkinson to discuss his time in Spain.
By Adam Bate - Follow @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 03/05/13 6:39pm
When former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson agreed to leave West Brom to join Atletico Madrid in 1988, he couldn't have known what he was letting himself in for. Things went well on the pitch as he lifted Atletico up to second in La Liga but even that couldn't save him from the sack. Infamously trigger-happy president Jesus Gil fired Atkinson after just 93 days in charge. Adam Bate caught up with the man known as 'Big Ron' to find out more about his whirlwind three months in the Spanish capital.
How did the move to Atletico Madrid come about?
They actually got in touch with me on the night I left Manchester United. The president of the club wanted to see me and virtually promised me the job at the end of the season. So I didn't bother getting another job in football other than my television work. Unfortunately, in the intervening period he went and died.
As a result, they then had an election to decide upon a new president. The new guy, Jesus Gil, came in and on his ticket he had Cesar Menotti and was promising to bring in Paulo Futre. The rival guy was backing me at short notice but he had no chance. Jesus Gil got the job and brought in Menotti, but I must have made some sort of impression because when he got rid of Menotti he came in for me.
Was it a difficult decision because by then you'd gone back to West Brom and things were going quite well?
In a funny sort of way it was. I had gone back to West Brom to do a rebuilding job from where I'd got them prior to that. I asked the chairman of the club to extend my contract. I didn't ask him for any more money, I just wanted him to extend my contract because I thought we were on the right lines but I needed another 18 months to get where we wanted to go.
So I wanted a three-year deal so I had time to get them promoted and get back to where we belonged. He told me I should get them up first and then he'd discuss a new contract. You've got to bear in mind that Atletico were offering a contract that was worth about five or six times as much. So even though it wasn't all about the money by any means, he left me no option really.
Was the language barrier an issue for you when you arrived in Madrid? Man-management was seen as one of your strengths so that must have been tough?
Obviously, you need a translator. I'd rung Terry Venables up for advice and he said to me that no matter how much of the language I picked up I should make sure my translator always did my press conferences because if you make any sort of error they'll pounce on it. So that's what I did.
In terms of coaching, I did a lot of stuff through the translator early on but I quickly picked up all the phrases that I needed. I also took Colin Addison with me as an assistant and he'd worked in Spain so he had a decent understanding of it all as well. We found that on the coaching side it wasn't that much of a problem - the boys knew what you wanted.
The season had already started so you couldn't bring in any players and, presumably, it was a case of working with what you'd got...
That's right. We didn't bring in any players and I think we were second from bottom when we went there. When I left, around 17 games later, we were two points off the top behind Real Madrid.
Are there any particular games that stand out?
The Saturday night game in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid is probably the most vivid memory. We got beaten in the 97th minute on a doubtful free-kick, having absolutely outplayed them from start to finish. Their goalkeeper got suspended after the game for nine matches because we had four one-on-ones. I don't know if you remember the incident at the 1982 World Cup when Toni Schumacher took out Patrick Battiston but we had that same scenario four times. But he only got booked on the night. It was still a great night though as we were by far the better team.
You had some good players didn't you - What are your memories of Futre?
Futre was a great player. He was a really great player. Futre just loved dribbling. When I used to say we were going to do 20 minutes of three-touch, he would be begging me: 'Mister! Mister! Livre! Livre!' He just wanted to dribble, so I'd wind him up no end.
A lovely story about Futre came about years later when he went to West Ham. He was knackered as he'd gone to Milan and broken his leg badly straight away. He was never the same player again that he was when I went there. But we played against West Ham when I was managing Coventry. We were staying in the same hotel as where he was and he came over still calling me Mister.
Noel Whelan was with me and I introduced him. Paulo knew all about him and was bringing up his time at Leeds. I just thought that was brilliant that a guy who was European Footballer of the Year should know all about someone who wasn't even a big name at Leeds. It was terrific and typical of continental players - they know more about our game than the British players do.
Unfortunately for you, as well as Futre, you also had the president there...
Mad man! He was quite a character actually. I didn't really have too many problems with him. Even when I left there was no official word I'd been sacked, it all seemed like a bit of a mix-up! In the end, he said that I'd left to join an English club!
He also got rid of Menotti, Tomislav Ivic, Javier Clemente and Luis Aragones so...
Oh yeah, looking back I was probably his longest-serving manager!
You tend to joke about getting the bullet now. But it must have been a huge blow at the time?
To be fair, it was. But we always knew it was a knife-edge job. It was like being in a soap-opera. He asked Colin to take the job after me and then got rid of him at half-time in a semi-final! Later on, I went out to play in a pre-season tournament with Aston Villa and was up against Atletico Madrid in the final. The manager then was Francisco Maturano, who had coached Colombia at the World Cup, and I'm told he sacked him for not smiling on a team photo!
You never managed abroad again. Were you ever tempted?
I loved it and I thought it was great. I don't have many regrets in my career but I always intended to go back to Spain and manage there again. I had offers from Valencia and Sevilla to go back. I was only supposed to go to Sheffield Wednesday for the final three months of a season but I ended up getting engrossed in it there and then the Villa came in for me and that was it. But I had always intended to work out there again because I loved the lifestyle and had a great rapport with the players and the fans.