When it comes to managers Manchester United fans have had plenty to discuss down the years; from the legacies left by the likes of Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson to the endless debate and analysis surrounding the success and, more-often-than-not, failures of their subsequent replacements.
But there’s one man who, despite not being the club’s most decorated boss, still commands the respect of many Reds, even though he’d left the club before many were even born.
Because of the way Ron Atkinson departed United and the unparallel success of the man that replaced him, the larger-than-life character is sometimes seen as something of a failure by some in the media. However, for those who remember his swashbuckling style, the teams he selected and the players he brought to the club, his years at the helm are looked upon with nothing but fondness.
“Football has taken me all round the world and I’ve met some great people,” he once said. “I’ve enjoyed doing a job that I would probably have done for nothing anyway.”
And that short statement perfectly describes his outlook when he was in charge at Old Trafford – he was enjoying himself and he wanted everyone else to enjoy it too. He always managed every game as if it was his last and that came across in so many of the matches he took charge of.
But this cavalier approach wasn’t something he cultivated for the press or to take the pressure off his players, it came about due to his early and honest upbringing in a midlands council house.
When he was growing up, the young Atkinson (who was actually born in Liverpool) thrived on a diet of football, football and more football, and at the age of 12 even played alongside his father in an amateur game – needless to say nobody noticed or dared say anything. How he would earn a living in later life was never in doubt. “I always say I left school at 15 and haven’t worked since,” he joked.
Though as a young player at Oxford United in the 1950s and 60s, he actually managed to hold down a job selling bathroom suites and paint to local businesses – including a certain Robert Maxwell, the man that would later buy Oxford – as well as plying his trade as a tough and no-nonsense defender.
But this wasn’t just to subsidise the relatively low income of footballers back then or for a little more pocket money to spend on horses and champagne, it was more a way for him to find his feet in the world of business and forge a career path when his playing days came to an end.
“I was a full-time footballer, but it was always the plan that I would go into business,” he explained some years later, an attitude that was to stand him in good stead when it came to breaking into football management and boardroom politics.
Atkinson’s playing career wasn’t the most memorable – though his 562 appearances for “The U’s” remains a club record – but he is still very humble when it comes to talking about his on-field days.
Describing the job he had of marking Trevor Francis when the future England international made his Birmingham debut, Atkinson revealed, “He only had one kick in the whole game – but that was the equaliser.”
So when the time came for Atkinson to hang up his boots, it wasn’t the bathroom industry or the paint trade that came calling, but an introduction into football management thanks to stints with Kettering and Cambridge, before a three year spell in charge of West Bromwich Albion that saw him make his name as a top flight manager.
Blessed with a team containing future United legend Bryan Robson, as well as the likes of Remi Moses, Cyril Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Atkinson put together a side that was feared by no one and that was capable of producing some stunning results – none more so than a 5-3 defeat of United themselves at Old Trafford in December 1978.
So it was no great surprise when, in 1981, opportunity knocked for “Big Ron” as he was given the opportunity turn around United’s fortunes, following four rather non-eventful seasons under Dave Sexton and manage one of the biggest clubs in the land.
In fairness, Sexton had taken United to an FA Cup final and a second place finish in the league during his time at the club, but Atkinson injected a sense of belief, passion and expression, which had been so obviously missing since the days of Tommy Docherty.
His decision to bring former Albion skipper Bryan Robson with him to Old Trafford was inspired and was a statement of intent for the way Atkinson’s United were to go about their business in the years to follow.
Ask any United fan who was lucky enough to see United during his time as boss and they will tell you they were some of the most memorable and enjoyable seasons in recent memory. Then ask them to name some of their favourite games from that era and several matches will undoubtedly come up in conversation.
The second leg of the Cup Winners Cup tie in 1984 with Barcelona when United overturned a two goal deficit, the 1983 FA Cup Final victory over Brighton, the epic semi final clashes with Liverpool in 1985, the subsequent final and “that goal” from Norman Whiteside against Everton – the list goes on.
But it was Atkinson’s failure to deliver the league title to Old Trafford for the first time since 1967 that was to be his downfall, especially on the back of some serious spending in the transfer market.
Three successive European campaigns, which was only ended by the Heysel ban of 1985, two FA Cup wins and not finishing below fourth in his entire time at the club just wasn’t enough for an ambitious United board and Atkinson was to be relieved of his duties in November 1986.
But leaving United was by no means the end of Atkinson’s managerial career; in fact he went from strength-to-strength. Beating United in the 1991 League Cup final at Wembley with Sheffield Wednesday after a spell at Atletico Madrid, and almost coming back to haunt the Reds by chasing them right to the finishing line in 1992 with an Aston Villa side who very nearly pipped United to their first league title in 26 years. He also guided Villa to a League Cup final success over United at Wembley in 1994.
Though for many it will be his time in charge at Old Trafford for which he will always be remembered it was a job which, even this most brash and self confident of men, thought was beyond his grasp. When asked if he’d always known that he would eventually manage Manchester United one day, he replied: “No, I didn’t, I always thought I’d end up at Real Madrid.”