Retro: Sheffield Wednesday’s ups and downs with Big Ron in charge

Wednseday fans at Wembley
Wednseday fans at Wembley
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In his 1988 book Big Ron A Different Ball Game, the flamboyant, suntanned TV smoothie Ron Atkinson states that in June 1991 he faced a management decision that had a deep emotional impact on his life.

To be truthful, he says, he doubts whether he has ever dealt with a greater or demanding dilemma in all his years in football.

Wednesday's Nigel Pearson lifts cup

Wednesday's Nigel Pearson lifts cup

Ron had just celebrated the most successful season in Sheffield Wednesday’s modern history – promotion back to the old First Division and winning the League Cup. This was the club’s first major trophy in 56 years. After a season like that he firmly believed the club was destined for even further glory. He admitted the Wednesday job was arguably the best he had ever held.

Amid all this euphoria he was asked to take the job of Aston Villa manager – a job he had always wanted.

Being lined up for the Villa job was a headline story that broke unexpectedly on Friday morning of May 31, 1991, just hours before Ron was due in Sheffield for an open-top bus parade of the city to celebrate Wednesday’s successes.

During all the emotion of that day, Ron enthusiastically promised he would stay with Wednesday. Standing on Sheffield Town Hall balcony, above a sea of around 10,000 supporters chanting his name, he said: “I must have been barmy to think of leaving here.”

A deafening roar greeted Ron and his Owls players as they showed off the spoils of their glory season. A city tour by bus followed where a further 30,000 fans lined the route of the victory parade.

Over the following few days Ron made up his mind to leave the Owls and admits that making a pledge that Friday was a massive mistake.

Wednesday would not allow him to go by mutual consent, so his only option was to resign and in his book he says: “No bull, it was the hardest decision I have ever taken”.

Naturally, when his resignation was announced on Wednesday, June 5, 1991, there was a sense of amazement and intense ill feeling from Owls supporters who were convinced they had been appallingly let down. Some even screamed betrayal.

Besides wanting to manage the team he supported as a boy, the other reason Ron gave for leaving was not the cash but an insistence to remain living in the Midlands. He cited the daily 200-mile round trip from his home in Worcester to Sheffield was having an adverse effect on his home life.

Forgetting all that, Ron left Owls fans with some pretty good memories and let’s relive just a few of them today.

Ron was born in Liverpool on March 18, 1939 but his family moved during his early childhood to Birmingham. He played for the Lea village school football team, then, when he found work with a BSA Tools, turned out for the firm’s football team.

Aston Villa scouts spotted him and he signed as a part-time professional in 1956, although he was released three years later. Whilst working as a sales representative for a building firm, he signed for Headington United, who later became Oxford United, entering the Football League in 1962.

Eventually turning professional, Ron, playing as a wing half, became known as ‘The Tank’. He made 384 appearances, scored 14 goals and left in 1971.

After playing for a short period with Whitney Town, he began his managerial career, first as a player-manager with non-league Kettering Town. Success there led to his first league manager’s job with Cambridge United, where he stayed from 1974 to 1978.

Moves followed to West Bromwich Albion, 1978-1981, Manchester United, 1981-1986, West Bromwich Albion for a second time, 1987-1988, and Atletico Madrid 1988-1989.

A move to Hillsborough was secured on February 15 and Ron took over from Peter Eustace, signing a contract to the end of the season.

Owls chairman Bert Mc Gee said: “We are pleased that Ron is at Hillsborough. He is a proven man and we are looking forward to him working here.”

Owls had in fact tried to sign Ron in September 1975 when they were struggling in the Third Division but Cambridge refused Wednesday permission to speak to their manager.

Always a colourful character, Ron had the image of a gold bracelet Champagne Charlie football manager, with a nickname of ‘Big Flash’. Yet sometimes that wasn’t true of the man who was down to earth, extremely hard-working, well respected and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

At the end of the 1988-1989 season Wednesday finished 15th and Ron signed a new contract on May 17. Fresh signings included exciting players such as Carlton Palmer, John Sheridan and Roland Nilsson.

Unfortunately, it was a disappointing story in the 1989-1990 season as the Owls were relegated on the final day when Forest put them down.

Other clubs tempted Ron to leave Hillsborough and Villa even made an approach for him during June 1990 but that was turned down. He wanted to steer Wednesday back to the First Division and the following 1990-1991 season was to be a glory year.

With players like David Hirst, John Harkes and Phil King in the squad some say this period was a reflection back to the halcyon years of the 1960s.

On April 21, 1991, the Owls beat Manchester United in the Rumbelows Cup Final at Wembley, John Sheridan scoring a magnificent goal from outside the penalty area.

Reporting on the game, The Star’s Tony Pritchett said of Wednesday: “Indisputably the better team – with a bigger heart, the greater ambition, the fiercer hunger for glory and the support of the more fanatical crowd – won the Rumbelows Cup at Wembley.”

Ron expressed the fear that his team might freeze. Instead they were red hot from first kick to last and if the final was no classic, so what?

Football is all about winning and the goal that won it was a classic to remember down the years.

Comedian Stan Boardman, a friend of Ron’s, was invited on the team coach between the hotel and Wembley to help relax the players and it obviously worked.

The TV experts made Wednesday’s splendid skipper Nigel Pearson the man of the match and he played magnificently, blotting out Mark Hughes.

Many said Wednesday won because 30,000 people from Sheffield simply willed that this was the way it should be. Defeat was never in their thoughts.

The last time the Owls had won a major trophy was the FA Cup in 1935.

At the end of the season Wednesday finished third in the old Second Division with 82 points and secured promotion back to the First Division. They had won 22 games, drew 16 and lost 8 with 80 goals for and 51 against.

An outrageous fluke on the opening day of the 1991-1992 season was that Wednesday played Ron’s new team Villa at Hillsborough.

A number of people suggested that perhaps the Football League computer had a mischievous mind of its own.