Ron Atkinson: My Sheffield Wednesday team of ‘91 were better than Premier League champions Leicester City + the anger of leaving Owls for a second time

  • The signings I made at Sheffield Wednesday were my best ever
  • John Sheridan was as good as Glenn Hoddle
  • I felt I had to join Aston Villa
  • I wasn’t hurt by snub from Dave Richards, I was angry
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Ron Atkinson looks a little weary and at 77 years old, you can forgive him.

The iconic manager from what, despite not being that long ago, is now considered a bygone era in English football, is promoting a new book, The Manager, about his life in the top job and it is perhaps an indicator as to his relevance in the game’s past here that he has, indeed, got a packed schedule.

Other than the mild tiredness, though, not much has changed about the ‘Big Ron’ that people know or knew.

He doesn’t appear as flash as his champagne-guzzling, cigar-smoking caricature; no giant gold rings or chunky bracelets, though the Autumn tan and a Louis Vuitton pouch, which holds the diary that’s keeping him away from the cosy armchair many his age would covet, represents a sign that Atkinson still enjoys the finer things in life.

Sitting in the bar of a hotel just outside Birmingham, he opens his designer bag and flicks through the dates to tell me where he’s been and that Sheffield is on his list of book signings, later this month.

Just then, the weariness begins to fade and Atkinson lights up, as if the mere mention of the Steel City flicked a projector of memories.

Ron Atkinson catches up with the Sheffield Wednesday news

Ron Atkinson catches up with the Sheffield Wednesday news

Atkinson never called it ‘home’, indeed in his latest book he frequently refers to it as ‘Rome’, due to the two cities’ rolling terrain, but you pick up immediately the affinity he has with Sheffield and one aspect in particular...Sheffield Wednesday.

“I loved the club, the fans were terrific, great fans and I had quite a good rapport with them,” he says.

The grin widens when talk then shifts to that League Cup success over his old club, Manchester United at Wembley. It’s not just the winning of silverware, though. Atkinson genuinely loved that team he had assembled at Hillsborough and almost gushes as he speaks about the players.

“My best signings en bloc were at Wednesday,” he reveals. “I signed Roland Nilsson, Phil King, John Sheridan, Carlton (Palmer), Dalian (Atkinson), Danny Wilson, Paul Williams ... overall the signings I made at Wednesday, I can’t remember any of them not being a success. They all played very well for the club.”

Sheffield Wednesday Manager, Ron Atkinson, with his new signing Roland Nilsson - 8th November 1989

Sheffield Wednesday Manager, Ron Atkinson, with his new signing Roland Nilsson - 8th November 1989

Atkinson, of course, infamously left Wednesday in 1991 after winning that cup and promotion back to the top flight. When asked, in a theoretical sense what might have happened had he stayed - as he had agreed to in the first place before changing his mind - Atkinson offered a bold assessment of the team he left behind.

“Trevor Francis (his replacement) got Waddle in,” he reflects. “They only needed one more of that ilk and at that time we’d have attracted very good players to Wednesday. I maybe could have got that player. Who knows? The team I left behind were a better side than the Leicester team that won the Premier League last year, I’d say that. To be fair to Trevor, they did well after I left, so they were left in a good way.”

What’s remarkable about that statement is that Atkinson’s team could be described as a Second Division side.

They had been relegated in the season after he took over, and although he brought them back up, a large part Atkinson’s time then had been spent in the second tier.

Rumbelows Cup - Sheffield Wednesday v Manchester United - 21st April 1991
Nigel Pearson gives a gentle pat of congratulation to his boss Ron Atkinson

Rumbelows Cup - Sheffield Wednesday v Manchester United - 21st April 1991 Nigel Pearson gives a gentle pat of congratulation to his boss Ron Atkinson

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He recalls being stunned by relegation, which he felt almost sneaked up on them, then glows at the memory of the standing ovation he says he and the squad received at a Player of the Year function the night they had gone down.

“We had a little talk,” he says. “I just said to the players that we have to stick together; Fergie wanted Roland Nilsson at Man United but I said ‘let’s give it one more year because I think you are good enough to be in the top three in the top division, let alone the second.’ The funny thing was I wasn’t as sure of them in the Second Division, If we had been in the top division I would have put us down for the top six, but in a funny way I wasn’t sure about the lower division.

“We passed well and played but in all fairness, early on some of our football was unbelievable and we’d have won the league had we not been involved in the League Cup.”

One player among that squad appears to stand out for Atkinson.

Dave Richards and Ron Atkinson after Sheffield Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991

Dave Richards and Ron Atkinson after Sheffield Wednesday won the League Cup in 1991

John Sheridan is arguably a little under-rated outside of Sheffield and maybe the Republic of Ireland, but his old boss places the midfielder’s ability alongside that of one of England’s most gifted in that position.

“People laugh when I say this but John Sheridan is one of the best midfielders I’ve ever seen. I actually put him on a comparison with Glenn Hoddle and people laugh but I’ll tell you, Sheridan, and I’ve had great midfielders in my career, he could have played in any of my teams and been a good player in them.”

Despite the affection Atkinson held for those players and fans, in early June 1991 he was gone; off to Aston Villa, the only team, as he states in the book, that he would consider himself a supporter of.

On the day of an open top bus parade through Sheffield to celebrate a remarkable season that had yielded promotion and a trophy, after rumours had spread that the manager would be leaving, Atkinson sat in front of the press and told the footballing world that he would remain at Hillsborough, that the fans had helped him make up his mind.

That was on the Friday. By Monday, after a phone call from then Villa secretary Steve Stride offering ‘vastly improved terms’ Atkinson contacted Wednesday chairman Dave Richards and told him he was resigning.

“I had to do it,” Atkinson says. “People will look at that and think it was about the money, but I had turned Villa down three times already in my managerial career. I couldn’t again.

“I lived near the training ground, I wouldn’t be commuting or staying in Hallam Tower Hotel and the fact they had come back again showed how much they wanted me and that made my mind up.

“I couldn’t say I regretted it but I probably should have just gone in the first place.”

Six-and-a-half years later, after almost winning the league at Villa, then becoming manager and Director of Football at Coventry City, Atkinson was back at Hillsborough, with Wednesday struggling.

In his reflection, the mood becomes darker.

From bright-eyed memories of 1991, then a more sorrowful tone in describing his departure, Atkinson then showed that the manner of his final exit still stings.

Having kept Wednesday in the Premier League when at one point they looked destined for the drop, a new contract was expected. It arrived with an offer of less money than he was already on.

After a failure to get hold of an answer from Richards before going on holiday, Atkinson, while in Barbados, read that Danny Wilson had been given the job. “I wasn’t hurt, I was angry,” he says.

So did he feel it was revenge for 1991?

“A lot of people said to me that was a tit-for-tat job,” he adds. “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I spoke to Dave Richards two or three years later. He said, ‘you didn’t want to sign’. I said, ‘really?’ I had always got on alright with him but something weird happened.

“I do think there were a couple of directors that might have taken your attitude, what you said (revenge), that might have happened. Funnily enough I don’t think it was directors who were there when I was there first of all.”

Ron Atkinson will be signing copies of The Manager at Waterstones Meadowhall (11am) and at the city centre store (1.30pm) on October 29.

Ron Atkinson pictured at the press conference where he decided to stay at Sheffield Wednesday - 31 May 1991

Ron Atkinson pictured at the press conference where he decided to stay at Sheffield Wednesday - 31 May 1991

Ron Atkinson takes charge at Hillsborough again

Ron Atkinson takes charge at Hillsborough again