Of all the characters in English football, ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson wasn’t the likeliest contender to try his hand at managing on the continent, perma-tan aside. In truth, the controversial figure was more Frank Butcher than Frank Rijkaard, but nevertheless found himself managing one of Spain’s biggest clubs.
Hold on….Ron Atkinson was Atletico Madrid Manager???
— John (@Amaru365) May 1, 2013
In fact, Atkinson had been lined up as the next Atlético de Madrid boss immediately following his time at Manchester United, but club politics meant his move to Spain was delayed until after a brief return to West Bromwich Albion, where he had made his name.
When he did arrive in the Spanish capital, it was under the direction of notorious ex-club president, Jesús Gil. With that, a disastrous relationship had begun.
To say the two had a clash of egos would be the understatement of the century; it was like Henry VIII hiring Kanye West to work on a project with him, and the result was just as stormy.
On the field, things actually went really well. Atkinson utilised talents such as Paulo Futre and Donato to take the club as high as second in La Liga, overseeing an attractive brand of attacking football while doing so. Los Rojiblancos undeservedly lost 2-1 away to city rivals Real, in what would have been a famous scalp for the Liverpool-born coach.
Off the field, though – cue surprised faces – Ron’s Spanish adventure was a little less idyllic than he might have envisaged. So turbulent, in fact, that he only lasted three months in the role.
The now-disgraced 78-year-old claimed in 2013 that
“[Gil] 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!”
But that’s hard to believe taking into account quotes from the time.
For his part, Atkinson pointed to Gil’s infamous trigger-happy nature and claimed to have been the latest in the list of nonsensical sackings, even accusing the Spaniard of firing a former manager for not smiling in a team photo. The fact that the Englishman took the job despite seemingly having heard that is either a demonstration of his confidence of the attractiveness of a compensation package.
Gil fired back with accusations that Big Ron was only ever in it for the money and lifestyle, claiming he was more interested in a car the club gave him than results. He even alleged that the manager left the players in a hotel under curfew on New Year’s Eve while he went out partying.
The most serious reason Gil gave for the dismissal, however – and an interesting precursor to the scandal that led to Atkinson resigning from TV commentary in disgrace, after calling Marcel Desailly a “f****** lazy, thick n*****” – concerned his treatment of the players.
The president stated:
“The were things that couldn’t be tolerated any longer. I saw with my own eyes Donato crying his eyes out because Atkinson had called him a ‘negro de mierda’ in the Barcelona game, although the translator had sweetened the phrase actually used.”
This shocking allegation would certainly be cause enough to fire anybody if true. Players such as Carlton Palmer defended Atkinson following the Desailly affair, with many members of football’s community refusing to believe he was racist, but this claim contradicts that.
Indeed, the larger than life gaffer was no stranger to unsavoury remarks. At Sheffield Wednesday, where he went upon returning to England, he remarked:
“Women should be in the discotheque, the boutique and the kitchen, but not in football”
It’s unlikely the whole truth will ever be made clear to the public, but it’s debatable whether we really need to know; it’s probably best written off as a distasteful clash between two distasteful personalities.