Recalling Ron Atkinson’s ridiculous 90-day soap opera at Atletico Madrid

Ron Atkinson as manager of Aston Villa in 1993

In 1588, the Spanish Armada departed for England, hell-bent on destroying the English fleet and laying a pathway for a Spanish invasion of mainland England. Yet it was all but totally destroyed.

Exactly 400 years later, in 1988, England’s very own armada landed on the shores of Spain. In fact, it landed right in the capital.

Ron Atkinson, the former Manchester United manager, had been appointed manager of Atletico Madrid, the first Englishman to become manager of the club since Fred Pentland in 1932.

Just like the armada, Atkinson’s time in Madrid was a disaster. It was defined by a clash of two gargantuan personalities, kickstarted one of the most tumultuous managerial hot seats in modern European history and resulted in one of the most extraordinary interviews in footballing TV history.

Which, of course, happened at the European Figure Skating championships. Oh, and the person who replaced Atkinson after just over 90 days? His assistant. Welcome to the mad story of Big Ron in Madrid.

Departure for Madrid

By November 1986, Manchester United had grown tired of Atkinson. Things had stagnated and a poor start to the 1986 season was the final straw.

He was frustrated when it happened. United post-Matt Busby were tumultuous, and he was the first to bring some stability back near the top of the table.

“Obviously I’m a bit disappointed,” said Atkinson, putting it mildly. “Things have gone against us so I suppose it was inevitable this would eventually happen.”

Atkinson briefly returned to West Brom, but bigger things were on the cards for him when Atletico Madrid came calling.

They were a club in turmoil. They had not won the league since 1977, nor the Copa del Rey since 1985 and so Atkinson was chosen to change all that.

Why? Well, he was simply the next name on the list.

He had been due to takeover not long after being sacked at United. Spain was having something of a British revolution, with Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables out in Barcelona and Welshman John Toshack winning the Copa del Rey with Real Sociedad in 1987.

Atkinson was handpicked by Vincente Calderon himself, the legendary then-president whose name was even given to the club’s old stadium.

But Calderon died before the deal could be confirmed, sending the appointment up in the air. Out of the chaos of the new election marched Jesus Gil, a figure so volatile, so divisive, and so revoltingly racist that he made Atkinson seem like a social justice warrior.

He didn’t want the Englishman anywhere near his team, opting instead for World Cup-winning Argentine manager Cesar Luis Menotti.

But Menotti was sacked after less than a year. As was his replacement, ex-player Jose Ufarte.

With the list of potential candidates only getting shorter, Gil came to the man who should have been appointed two years prior and in October 1988, Atkinson finally landed in Madrid, sunglasses on, suncream at the ready.

Little did he know he would have been better off packing a fire extinguisher.

A quick layover

Let us be frank for a moment: Jesus Gil was a mad man.

He was totally manic, making snap judgments on who to hire and fire, who to sign and sell, and what direction the club should be going in. At one point he even closed the youth academy in 1992 because it didn’t make money, which saw players like Raul switch to Real Madrid.

A far-right, Francoist populist, as Mayor of Marbella he employed ex-military for his police forces and even set up his own private guard.

At one point he even had his own TV show, the one constant of which was that it was presented by him in a hot tub alongside scantily-clad women.

So when Atkinson won his first game against, beating Espanyol 6-1, Gil probably thought he was a genius for appointing a master, and Atkinson probably thought this Spain lark was an easy gig.

Both were seriously mistaken.

As a coach in Madrid, Atkinson did well. He won six, drew three, and lost two of his 11 matches in charge.

• • • •

Atletico Madrid manager DIego Simeone

READ: Diego’s decade: 10 iconic games that define Simeone’s 10 years at Atletico

• • • •

But as a personality, he clashed hugely with Gil in a way that ultimately cost him his job.

Living in a 5-star hotel, on £250,000 a year, Atkinson told Gil he wanted to go back to England in between matches to handle stuff before he bought a home in Madrid.

Gil, already fuming with Atkinson after a 2-1 loss to Real Madrid, told him there was no chance he was going home.

Atkinson, of course, went anyway.

Return ticket

What happened next was extraordinary. When he landed back in England, for whatever reason Atkinson found himself at the European Figure Skating Championships at the NEC in Birmingham in 1989. Nope, we have no idea either.

It resulted in one of the most bizarre interviews ever, played out live on Midweek Sports, as Atkinson revealed he was pretty sure he had just been sacked.

“Well at this moment in time no one at the club has actually said that [Atkinson had been sacked], but I’ve got a fair idea that I might not have a job at the moment,” he told journalist Nick Owens.

He explained that his long-time assistant Colin Addison had been offered his job the minute he had touched down in England.

“I honestly wish I knew [why things had gone wrong]. I’ve always worked on the premise that by and large managers are judged by results and by no stretch of the imagination can anyone say we’ve had a bad time.”

Then Owens revealed live to Atkinson the news that the club believed he hadn’t been taking the task seriously enough. His facial expression changed for just a second from quite serious, to a scheming, boyish smirk, before his steely gaze returned.

“I’ve seen all sorts of things coming out from Madrid, but until somebody actually tells me directly what the problems were I’m going to reserve judgment.”

But the illusion of composure vanished from Atkinson’s face as soon as Owens suggested that some people might believe he had messed up a dream job.

His eyes became lasers, and they were targeted directly at the journalist in front of him and anyone else who might have something to say against him.

“No, you’re saying I’ve messed it up, Nick. Going from the bottom of the league to third position… if that had happened anywhere else in the world, I’d be looked upon as something of a useful football manager.

His face was now visibly angry.

“Oh, I’m stirred I’ll tell you. I’m right annoyed, that’s for sure….” he stopped himself mid-sentence to prevent something he might regret.

“But I’ll keep my cool a little,” he said, regaining composure.

“I’m going back to Madrid tomorrow and I’m going to talk to the president and see exactly… well as I said I’ve seen a lot of reports second-hand what’s supposed to have happened and what hasn’t happened.”

It was all finished off with a brilliant line from Owens.

“Well, with Ron supposedly frozen out in Madrid, let’s return to the ice rink here at the NEC.”

That’s the good stuff. Chef’s kiss.

In-flight entertainment

Atkinson returned to Madrid, where it was confirmed by Gil that he had lost his job and his assistant had taken over.

“He [Gil] was a mad man,” Atkinson has since said. “He asked Colin to take the job after me and then got rid of him at half-time in a semi-final.”

That was true, with Addison not making it to the end of the season before Gil had had enough.

He wasn’t the last manager sacked by Gil either. In total, from Atkinson in 1988 to Simeone’s appointment in 2011, 36 different Atletico Madrid managers were sacked from what became the hottest seat in European football.

Atkinson himself summed up the whole thing nicely.

“It was like being in a soap opera,” he said.

It’s a shame the telenovela Atkinson y Gil never got past the pilot.

By Patrick Ryan

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