Brendon Batson: The Third Degree - My fury at Big Ron Atkinson for his racist slur
Brendon Batson has released his autobiography, The Third Degree, written by Chris Lepkowski. Today we bring you part two of a three part serialisation.
Ron Atkinson was an important person in my playing career.
He’d been player-manager with Kettering Town and such was his profile that when Cambridge sacked the manager some of the boys were running a book of who our next manager would be. Ron’s name didn’t once come up.
I knew nothing about Ron but it was clear he was an absolute whirlwind, with a personality to match. He was hands-on from the start, he was very loud and the one thing we all noticed as players straight away was the ambition he so clearly had.
On a personal basis I always felt I could play at a higher level and Ron was able to tap into that, even though we had our differences for a long time at Cambridge. There were times we didn’t speak for weeks, but my respect for him was immense.
The other thing he never did was treat me differently. Ron could poke fun about anything and within a football environment he was part of that banter that you get around football clubs. I remember one example at West Brom where we had a dinner for John Wile’s testimonial at a hotel in Birmingham.
As is often the case a group of the lads were stood around, with Ron in among us. We were making jokes, chatting to each other, making fun of Tony Godden’s shirt or Ally Robertson’s hair, that kind of thing as you do after a few drinks.
The next thing we know this guy has walked in and started asking for autographs, which was fine. But while he was doing this some of the jokes continued. At this point this guy made a comment that Cyrille clearly took exception to – I have no idea what it was.
With that Ron grabbed this bloke and practically threw him out of the room. And yet, when Ron made me captain at Cambridge and signed me for West Brom, little did I know how much my feeling of warmth, immense respect and genuine affection was to be challenged.
On April 20, 2004, everything changed between Ron and I.
It was during his ITV commentary of the Monaco versus Chelsea Champions League match that Ron made an unforgivable comment about Chelsea player Marcel Desailly. Believing the microphone to be switched off, he said: “…he (Desailly) is what is known in some schools as a ******* lazy, thick ******.”
It was a comment that was picked up on overseas’ feeds. Viewers in the UK were, I’m told, unaware of what he’d said until it leaked out.
Cecily and I were on our way back from Grenada with a stop-off in Barbados. We were in a restaurant watching Monaco play Chelsea. A good friend of mine used to work for British Airways and would look after my car while I was away.
When I saw him the next morning as I picked my car up the first thing I asked him was how that particular game had finished.
And he immediately said: “Have you heard about Ron’s comments?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I drove home and within 20 minutes of me getting back to Walsall I had a call from the Daily Mirror, asking me if I wanted to make any comments about Ron.
At this point I still wasn’t sure what Ron had actually said, other than been told something anecdotally. The one that really set me off was a call from John Goodbody of The Times. He gave me a phone number and asked me to call the PR people of ITV to find out exactly what had happened and then to get back to him, which I did.
I was shocked when I heard the transcript. I immediately rang Ron but didn’t get a response, so I called John Goodbody back and told him of my shock, hurt, disappointment and surprise. Those are feelings I still have to this day.
I actually managed to get hold of him the next day.
What Ron then said has stuck with me since. He said: “To be fair Batman, I thought the microphone was off.”
I don’t swear often, but I can recall my reply: “Ron that’s even ******* worse. Are you telling me you’d have said that if the microphone was off – so the impression you’re giving me is that you’d have used that kind of language anyway?”
I was furious.
The problem with Ron is that he thought he could make a joke about anything and get away with it. You also have to remember that by 2004 Ron was known to a wider audience more for his brilliant analysis as a TV pundit, than he was as a football manager as he had been during the 1970s through to the early 1990s.
I think Ron became somewhat blasé and got carried away with his celebrity status.
It still hurts me now when I think about it. I cannot quite understand what made Ron say what he did and one of the worst things is that he never apologised for the comments.
People could draw their own conclusions based on what they heard but the hurtful aspects of Ron’s comments was his excuse that he got caught with the microphone switched on, and the lack of apology. That’s what really upset me.
You have deeds, you have actions, and you can say you have words. I’m not saying Ron was supportive of black footballers exclusively, more so he was supportive of good footballers.
He didn’t sign me because I was a black player, he signed me because he felt I could bring value to his team.
The fact that his West Brom side, a bloody good and flamboyant team, just so happened to be represented by three black footballers was purely a matter of recruitment.
Myself, Cyrille and Laurie hadn’t been signed because we were black, nor was it a conscious decision to sign three non-white footballers – we were brought in because the managers, coaches and scouts actually rated us.
It was hardly joined-up thinking.
That we were pitched together was coincidental, almost accidental. But, whether Ron appreciated this or not, it did enhance his reputation. He was as part of the narrative as Laurie, Cyrille and I were.
That Desailly comment was also against the grain of some of his other work. Ron was extremely supportive of Kick It Out, the campaign set-up to combat racism within football.
Ron also jumped in to manage the black team in Lenny Cantello’s Blacks vs Whites testimonial game. He didn’t have to do those things, he didn’t have to attend those dinners supporting anti-racism campaigns and yet he did.
I honestly think Ron got ahead of himself and put himself in a position where he felt he could say what he wanted…and finally he got caught out by that bravado.
He could back up that bravado because he was a brilliant analyst, he was good with his words and was liked by the watching public.
Some people might level the whole notion that it’s a generational thing, but I disagree with that.
My own personal view is that we’ve all had to become more aware about language and how we conduct ourselves.
But what Ron said on TV that night could not be interpreted in any other way, nor is it an excuse to say he was of an older generation for whom such language was once acceptable. We all have to evolve and modify our behaviour to fit in with change around us. When you know you’ve made a cock-up, you should apologise. If Desailly has had a bad game, he’s had a bad game.
But once you bring skin colour and a lazy cliché around colour into it, you’ve crossed the line. Ron had been part of people like myself overcoming that.
I wouldn’t say we kissed and made up, but we let bygones be bygones due to some circumstances that brought us together when Cecily was at the QE hospital. Ron was good friends with the Italian tenor Renato Pagliari, who was on the same recovery ward as my wife following her operation. I didn’t know Renato’s wife but she spotted me and must have told Bobbo (Ron’s driver) that she saw me and that Cecily was unwell.
A day or so later I received a call from Ron and he said: “Batman, I’ve just heard; I’m phoning to see how things are and can I do anything?” I think at that point everything just fell away from me in terms of any anger that I had towards Ron.
We’d had words, we’d not spoken for a while, so he didn’t have to call me, but I appreciated that he did reach out to me. Since then, we’ve done a few events together, I’ve seen him at various lunches or dinners – we travelled together to Jim Smith’s funeral.
We don’t go out socially, but then that’s not unusual, although we did speak a lot during Covid as I did with other people.
We’re on good terms now.
n To buy a copy of Brendon Batson’s autobiography, The Third Degree, written with Chris Lepkowski, visit https://www.curtis-sport.com/online-store/The-Third- Degree-Brendon-Batson- Autobiography-p581364376