Big Ron and His Doomed Spell at Atlético Madrid

Big Ron and His Doomed Spell at Atlético Madrid

The phone rang and startled Ron Atkinson. Who on earth would be ringing at such an ungodly hour? Exhausted and agitated, following one of the worst days in his football life, Ron answered. ‘Big Ron’, as he was affectionately known, had just been sacked as manager of Manchester United - after five years at the helm – when he was contacted by Francisco Javier Castedo, president of Atlético Madrid. He was phoning Atkinson directly to offer him the job as head coach of Los Rojos Blancos. It was 6th November 1986 and the scars were still visible from a tormented last few months in charge at Old Trafford. Atkinson’s final game in charge was a disastrous 4-1 League Cup exit to Southampton and his rancorous dismissal came after weeks of intense speculation over his future. The Atlético president offered a dismayed and disillusioned Atkinson an immediate escape route and the opportunity to build a new life in the glorious sunshine of the Spanish capital.

Ron had been managing in English football for 15 years and was more than willing to accept a new challenge. Ron was to take up his new position at Atlético at the end of the season and, with that on the horizon, he rebuffed other job offers in favour of carrying out his television duties. During the intervening period, however, Castedo sadly passed away and Atkinson’s job offer was put on hold as the Atlético held an election to decide on a successor.

The new president was a man who, over the years, gained a reputation as one of the most volatile and ruthless operators in football, Jesús Gil y Gil. His sixteen chaotic years as the head honcho of Atlético began in the summer of 1987, when Gil campaigned to become president on the promise that he would bring superstar names and trophy-laden years to Madrid’s second club. Gil had in tow Paulo Futre, the ludicrously talented 21-year-old from Montijo, Portugal. Gil won the election by 5,000 votes, thanks in no small part to the fact that Futre had just put in a Man of the Match performance to lead Porto to European Cup success over Bayern Munich.

Gil was not overly-enthused about the idea of Big Ron coming in to captain his ship. He instead opted for César Luis Menotti, who had won the 1978 World Cup with Argentina and coached Barcelona. His pedigree and stature in the game were unquestionable and towered above Big Ron’s, in Gil’s eyes at least. However, in a foretelling incident, Gil rapidly lost patience with Menotti and sacked him after just a matter of months. Atkinson, meanwhile, had already found other employment much closer to home in the West Midlands, with West Bromich Albion. Atkinson had started a rebuilding process at the Hawthorns impressively and was discussing a contract extension with chairman John Silk – when Gil reoffered him the Atlético post.

Still open to experiencing a new league and culture, Ron packed his bags and arrived at the Vicente Calderon with the club in desperate need of a messiah. Of course he didn’t know it at the time, but Ron was strolling straight into a position that would become the most poisoned chalice in European football. Given the extraordinarily explosive personality of Gil, perhaps Atkinson’s spell at Madrid was doomed before it began, but Big Ron wasn’t one to be fazed by the sternest of examinations. He did, after all, propel Manchester United from a dark chapter in the club’s history to double FA Cup-winning glory.

Big Ron had just about seen it all and done it all in football by 1988, but not even his wealth of experience would prepare him for an astonishingly turbulent 96 days at the helm of Atlético Madrid. Atkinson received advice from Terry Venables – who had a successful spell in charge of Barcelona – to help overcome the language barrier, while his assistant, Colin Addison, also had a decent grasp of the language. There was no serene passage, no warm welcome; it was straight down to business once he arrived. Atlético, second bottom in La Liga, teetered precariously over the Spanish footballing abyss and Big Ron was charged with the task of hauling them out of the depths of despair.

On October 16th 1988, Atkinson completed his first day as Atleti’s manager. His arrival seemingly marked a swift upturn in fortunes, with his new side thrashing Espanyol 6-1 at the Vicente Calderon in a breathless encounter. Riding the crest of a new and exciting wave, Big Ron backed up his first win with successive victories against Elche and Valencia but, symbolic of his whirlwind adventure at the club, he failed to win his next two, losing 2-0 to Osasuna and drawing a blank in a 0-0 draw with Sporting Gijón. The inconsistent first few weeks did little to convince the trigger-happy Gil, but Atkinson’s man-management prowess shone through as he rallied the troops and bounced back with another two victories over Real Sociedad and Real Betis. It was the victory over Los Verdi Blancos that represented the zenith of Atkinson’s time in Spain. A 6-2 victory, with Atleti playing a spectacular brand of attacking football, Ron’s Rojos dominated from first whistle to last. Baltazar was in typically devastating form. The prolific Brazilian striker scored a hat-trick as Futre bagged two in a performance of class, intensity and attacking superiority.

That emphatic triumph prompted a dramatic surge in optimism ahead of a derby showdown with Real at the Santiago Bernabéu. It was undoubtedly a challenge of unparalleled magnitude for Ron during his time in Spain, as he attempted to halt the table-topping dominance of Atleti’s neighbouring nemesis. However, in an unfortunately similar reflection on Atkinson’s tenure as a whole, Los Blancos ran out 2-1 winners thanks to a 97th-minute Martín Vazquez goal fraught with controversy. The goal came directly from a free-kick that never should have been given (according to Atkinson) and the pill was particularly bitter after watching his side miss a handful of presentable scoring opportunities.

The game was typically tempestuous, with an incident between Real keeper Buyo and Futre remembered as the main flashpoint of the game. Rushing out of his box to stop Futre latching onto a long ball, the keeper ran across the Atleti attacker and hurled himself into the air theatrically before rolling about laughably on the pitch along with the Portuguese player. And just as Futre was unable to stop Real from claiming three points, Big Ron was powerless in stopping Gil from sharpening his axe. After the game, Marca newspaper reported Gil saying he felt ‘nauseous’ after the derby defeat and that Real could ‘stick their title where the sun don’t shine’. Colourful words from a colourful personality. Unfortunately, for Atkinson, Gil was a man who sought release in sacking managers. He did regularly, and he did it ruthlessly, and Ron was not spared the property magnate’s ruthless streak. A 3-1 home loss to Barcelona deepened the malaise and relations between Gil and Atkinson became irreparably tense. Ron was sacked in January, a mere 96 days after assuming first-team responsibilities. Embittered by the discordant and sudden fashion of his departure, Ron left his Spanish soap opera a bruised man and returned to England to manage Sheffield Wednesday. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Gil appointed Addison as head coach and he lasted two months longer than his predecessor.

In the end, Atkinson had fallen victim to a fiery temperament running a football club and perhaps there was nothing more he could have done to please Gil. Despite only being in charge three months, Atkinson had catapulted Atlético from second-bottom to second-place but it was insufficient in the eyes of the brash Gil. Big Ron has since recollected fondly on his time in Spain, expressing regret that he never returned, especially as he failed to take up offers of management from Valencia and Sevilla. Ron’s time at Atlético was a drop in the ocean as far as Gil’s sixteen-year regime is concerned, but it is still one of the most bizarrely abrupt yet eventful managerial reigns from an Englishman abroad. It just wasn’t meant to be for Big Ron in Spain.

Words by Matthew Gault
Illustration by Noah MacMillan