Ron Atkinson: Legendary Laurie Cunningham and that Old Trafford win for West Brom

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Ron Atkinson has launched his new book The Manager, which is being serialised on this week. Today, he recalls some of the great days in his first spell at Albion.

We faced Valencia in November 1978. They were a fabulous side with Rainer Bonhof and Mario Kempes and for the first 20 minutes in the Mestalla they battered us.

Dario Felman scored for Valencia, but somehow we managed to stay on our feet and gradually we dragged ourselves back into the match.

By the time it was half an hour old, Laurie Cunningham was ripping them apart.

This was the night that Laurie sold himself to Real Madrid. They would have looked at him, they would have watched him and been mesmerised by what they saw.

We drew 1–1 and it was December by the time of the return at the Hawthorns. It was the start of what was to be one of the longest, hardest winters this country had known and as I watched Valencia train with their players in gloves and mufflers I was pretty confident West Brom would be going through.

We beat them 2–0. Tony Brown scored twice, one an early penalty, the other from a cross supplied by Laurie. West Bromwich Albion were on fire but outside it was getting colder and colder.

We should have won the league that year and we would have won it but for the winter, which had turned into a long, deep freeze. Politically, it became known as the Winter of Discontent.

In football, it did for West Brom's chances of becoming champions.


Two degrees were there, I just added number three

West Brom were the only club that when I took over were doing OK.

The foundations had been laid by John Giles, who had won West Brom promotion and established them in the First Division. The man I replaced was Ronnie Allen, who as a player had captained them to the FA Cup and second place in the league behind Wolves in 1954.

But he had left The Hawthorns to accept a job managing the Saudi Arabian national side, which opened the door for me.


The one to the dressing room led into a poky space and the Smethwick End was open terracing but it was a club heading upwards. The changes I made at first were relatively minor.

Under John Giles, West Brom had developed a slow, patient build-up to their play, but they had a couple of fast forwards coming through in Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, and I wanted the ball played quickly to their feet.

The only signing I made was Brendon Batson.

At the time, West Brom's right-back was a lad called Paddy Mulligan and, although I'd never thought of Brendon as a top-flight footballer, when I looked at Mulligan I thought to myself, 'Brendon can do all of this and he's miles quicker.'

When I made my move to Cambridge for him, I made sure I did it on a Thursday. Reg Smart, the vice-chairman, was the power at the Abbey Stadium and I knew what he did on a Thursday. It would be golf and then out on the razzle. He most certainly would not be in his office.

I rang the chairman, David Rushton, who was definitely the weaker of the two. I offered him £25,000 for Batson. Rushton hummed and harred until I said, 'It's £28,000 but it has to be done today.'

He agreed and I phoned Brendon, who was having a do at his house.

When I offered him West Brom, he thought I was having him on but I said, 'No, I'm not, but I want you at The Hawthorns to have your medical today.' Brendon got himself across to Birmingham immediately and the deal was done.

The next day I got a ferocious phone call from Reg Smart.

Amid all the invective the phrase: 'You know he's worth ten times that, you b******,' kept being repeated.

Had Reg not taken himself off to Newmarket golf course, we would still probably have done a deal but the figure would have been nearer £150,000.

It was an expensive round.

The way we were playing in December 1978 West Brom would have beaten any team in Europe. In that month we won five matches and had the other two, against Everton and Southampton, postponed because of snow.

The games everyone remembers now are the ones at Highbury and Old Trafford. That match at Old Trafford is probably West Brom's most celebrated game since they won the FA Cup in 1968 and at the end even the Manchester United fans gave the team a standing ovation.

When I went to manage United 18 months later, that game was the first thing people wanted to talk about. It is a contest so ingrained in West Brom's DNA that last year they staged a dinner to celebrate that one match.

It was the strangest game. We played beautiful, dominant football and yet United managed to score three times in the first half.

The Manager is available to buy now.

To this day I don't quite know how.

Right on the stroke of half-time, 3-2 down, we knocked a long ball down the middle, Len Cantello flicked it on. At that moment I thought I heard the half-time whistle and spun round to go back to the dressing room. When I looked up I saw Tony Brown take the ball round the keeper, Gary Bailey, and put it in the net.

I just assumed it had been disallowed. Once we were in the dressing room I told them, 'You only have to keep playing like that and you'll equalise and, once you've done that, you'll win the game.'

Tony Brown looked at me quizzically and said, 'But gaffer, I have just equalised.' 'Well it won't be that hard to equalise then,' I said. I honestly thought there had been a whistle blown.

Just 38 and at the top of my game with Albion

At the age of 38, I was a top-flight football manager, in charge of West Bromwich Albion.

My last game at Cambridge had been against Bradford in January 1978 and we thrashed them 4–1.

Gary Newbon, who was to become head of sport at Central Television and was already a good friend, acted as a broker in the deal.

Before beating Bradford, our previous game, funnily enough, had been at Oxford on the Wednesday night and the following day I was due to meet the West Brom delegation, the chairman Bert Millichip and the vice-chairman Tom Silk, in the Randolph Hotel.

We'd won at the Manor Ground and I'd gone out with a few of my old mates; waking up on Thursday morning it dawned on me I had no suit for the interview.

I phoned a friend of mine who owned a clothes shop and said, 'You'd better get me a suit.'

It fitted and so did the job, although we agreed to keep it quiet until the weekend. I still had to go to The Hawthorns for a formal interview for a job I and everyone else at West Brom already knew I had. When I arrived at the ground I was met by Sid Lucas, one of the old directors, who looked at me conspiratorially and said, 'Come and see what we've got for you.'

He led the way to a blue Jaguar, a 3.4. "Rather better than what you're driving at the moment," he added with a grin.

"Not really, Sid. I've got one of those but it's a 4.2."

Tony Brown was a fanatical Manchester United fan and he scored twice that day. When the team bus pulled up at Old Trafford, he got out wearing a red shirt.

I turned to him and said, 'are you playing for us or supporting them?' Some of the football we played in that match was untouchable. Gary Bailey was United's man of the match and some of the saves he made, especially from Cyrille Regis, were astonishing.

Without him, we might have scored anything between eight and 10. What we had, and what defenders all over the world hate, is pace.

Cyrille was as quick as anyone who has ever played the game and Laurie wasn't far behind. Bryan Robson used to say to me, 'We need to hold the ball up to give the midfield a chance to join the attack.' I replied, 'You had better get up the pitch, then Robbo, because they ain't waiting.'

We had more than just pace. Derek Statham and Len Cantello were superb, underrated footballers. Cantello was Bryan Robson's hero, a man he adored playing alongside.

People used to tell me that Tony Godden in goal was a bit of a weak link but he played more than 250 games on the bounce under several different managers so, if he had a weakness, he kept it pretty well disguised. We beat Arsenal 2–1 and Manchester United 5–3.

n Ron Atkinson: The Manager is available from – the retail price is £20 but it is currently available for £17.99 on the website.


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