Atkinson at 75: Behind-the-scenes at Villa with Big Ron
As Ron Atkinson celebrates his 75th birthday, programme editor Rob Bishop recalls some amusing moments in the company of the former Villa boss.
"I was going to buy Collymore. Now I'm going to buy cauliflower!"
Even in his darkest moment as Villa manager, Ron Atkinson was still the master of the one-liner.
It was the day after Villa had surrendered a 3-1 lead against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park to leave themselves in deep trouble near the foot of the table.
Big Ron had been sacked, yet he still managed an original sign-off quip when asked in a TV interview what he intended to do next.
There was an element of truth to his witty reply, too.
He genuinely had been looking at Stan Collymore, then with Nottingham Forest, as the answer to a depressing run which had yielded just one Premiership point from nine games.
In the event, Ron's successor Brian Little signed Stan the Man from Liverpool for a club record £7m two-and-a-half years later and it didn't work out as successfully as we had hoped.
But Ron no doubt reflected for some time after his departure about how things might have turned out differently if he had taken the plunge in 1994 and signed Collymore, who was scoring for fun for Forest while Villa were struggling.
As it was, Atkinson's sacking brought the curtain down on one of the most colourful episodes in Villa's post-war history.
Never before had the claret and blue faithful greeted a managerial appointment with the euphoria which accompanied Ron's arrival from Sheffield Wednesday in June 1991.
It was such big news that the Birmingham Mail produced a 32-page special edition called "Welcome Back Big Ron" to mark the return of a man who had been on Villa's books as a youngster.
Indeed, club statistician Frank Holt clearly recalls Ron and his brother Graham playing alongside each other for Villa's reserves.
A month or so after Ron's arrival from Hillsborough, Villa headed to Germany on a pre-season tour and I accompanied them on behalf of the Birmingham Mail, along with five national reporters.
My tabloid pals returned after just one day to pursue David Platt's transfer to Italians Bari, leaving me on my own in Hanover with a hire car I inherited from the Daily Mail's Ray Matts, who sadly died several years ago.
Having faced the host club and Polish side Gornik in the Hanover Tournament, Villa's third match was against a non-league team near Bremen, a couple of hours' drive away.
My intention had been to travel to the match in my hire car, but Big Ron had other plans for me.
Paul Mortimer, Villa's new signing from Charlton, was due to join the team on Sunday morning, so Ron asked me to meet the new boy at the airport and take him to Villa's hotel.
In return, he said, I could travel on the team coach to the match.
Little did I expect to watch the game alongside the boss, the two of us viewing the action from a raised platform at a height of about six feet while Villa's coaching staff and substitutes stood below us on the touchline.
And I nearly fell off the platform laughing when Ron, having snapped instructions throughout the game, delivered a real gem towards the end. He had been giving full-back Kevin Gage and Danish central defender Kent Nielsen a particularly hard time, and suddenly yelled: "Gagey! Nielsen! Last 10 minutes. Give it everything you've got."
I pointed out that there were actually only five minutes left, prompting an amended instruction: "Gagey! Nielsen! Give it twice as much!"
It was during that trip that I discovered Ron has a passion for sporting trivia.
He enjoys nothing more than relaxing with a group of like-minded people and firing questions at them.
And it simply hates it if you come up with the answer too quickly.
Three years later, Villa played a friendly against one of Ron's former clubs, Atletico Madrid, in the Spanish resort of Ferrol.
Then secretary Steve Stride and I sat immediately behind Ron during the coach ride from Santiago airport and although the scenery was stunning and the weather glorious, the manager was clearly bored.
Steve and I had been talking about the possibility of Villa Park as a venue for Euro '96 and our conversation was overheard by Ron, who turned and tried to put us on the spot with his latest trivia question.
"Here's one for you," he said. "Name all the venues for the 1966 World Cup finals."
For some unknown reason, the most unlikely one came into my head first. "Well, there was White City...."
"Forget it," said Ron indignantly as he turned back to face the front of the coach. "That's the one I thought you wouldn't get!"
Big Ron wasn't in the best of moods when I called him another time.
Villa had been beaten at home by Nottingham Forest the previous night and although it was only a Zenith Data Systems Cup-tie, Ron was grumpy.
No matter how insignificant the competition, he was a manager who hated losing.
But even on an off-day, his wit was always razor sharp.
After a while, our conversation got around to individual performances in the defeat by Forest.
A young player called Bryan Small had made a rare first team appearance and although he was a lad of considerable potential he'd found the experience daunting.
So it was all the more mystifying that one morning paper had declared him Villa's Man of the Match.
Ron certainly couldn't get his head around this debatable award, and asked how his teenage left-back, who that night had operated as a makeshift midfielder, could be considered the best player in the team.
"No idea, Ron," I said. "It looked to me like he'd never played in that position before."
The reply was rather less diplomatic.
"It looked to me," said Ron, "like he'd never played football before!"
The quip was typical of a man who carved out a reputation as one of the most flamboyant managers this country has known.
A larger than life character, Ron was often known as Mr. Bojangles because of his liking for expensive jewellery and champagne.
But cut through the "flash" image and you had a genuine football man.
He knew his players, too.
That was never more evident than during Villa's 1992 pre-season trip to Germany.
After Villa had beaten Dynamo Dresden 3-0 in their second game, club officials were invited to a reception hosted by the East German club in an impressive building which housed a posh restaurant and a disco.
After an enjoyable meal and the customary speeches, we wandered through to the disco.
The place was heaving with local youngsters and it transpired that we were in Dresden's most popular nightspot.
On learning this, Ron made a prediction. "I'll bet you any money it won't be long before some of our lads come through that door," he said, reeling off the names of those players he expected to have slipped away from the team's hotel in the countryside just outside Dresden.
About 10 minutes later, central defender Shaun Teale appeared, closely followed by the club's summer signing Ray Houghton and half a dozen other players.
As soon as they saw the manager and chairman Doug Ellis they froze, but fair play to them. They came over for a beer before being advised it would be in their best interests to return to the hotel.
Even then, new signing Houghton persuaded the not-so-deadly Doug to hand over a few deutschmarks for the taxi fare.
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