Ron's words a chilling blast from the past


During a period when this country is wrestling with its own conscience in terms of attitudes to race, the cold, hard and frankly vile words Ron Atkinson used to describe Chelsea player Marcel Desailly sent a shiver down the spine.Sideline Cut

For a man that has always been portrayed as perpetually and lovably lost in the flotsam and jetsam of the English language, Big Ron certainly cut to the quick in his savage denunciation of the French man. There was not a hint of the benign Atkinsonian ambiguity of the "he could have done better but full marks to the lad" variety. This was clinical and contemptuous.

That his comments were broadcast accidentally, moments after ITV's coverage of the Champions League semi-final in Monte Carlo, just added a sinister shade to the incident, as if Ron's carefully cultivated persona as the Del Boy Trotter of English football went dead with the studio lights.

Atkinson essentially made a private comment that was overheard by, well, several nations in the Middle East. If he chose to opine that Desailly was "a fucking, lazy, thick nigger" while reclining at home on his leather armchair, nobody could deny him his right, however terrible the meaning. But to do so in the studio of a national broadcaster, regardless of whether he was on air or not, was an unforgivable violation and stirred up memories of all the more sickening episodes of explicit racial hatred that blighted football during the Thatcher administration in England.

The incident is complicated by the fact that Desailly is one of the most thoughtful and dignified men on the European soccer landscape, multilingual and an eloquent spokesperson against racism in his native France. And Atkinson is celebrated as perhaps the lone figure of enlightenment when black English footballers were the subject of naked hatred in the Dear Old Blighty of a quarter of a century ago. But his was always a slightly patronising brand of libertarianism. It was Atkinson who labelled his black West Bromwich Albion players Brendan Batson, Cyril Regis and Laurie Cunningham "The Three Degrees", a jest that would be considered deeply politically incorrect nowadays and was arguably risque and condescending in the 1970s.

But Atkinson undeniably gave black footballers a break when other clubs would not. It seems mind-boggling to think that it wasn't until 1980 that Liverpool first fielded a black player, Howard Gale, and that John Barnes was their first high-profile black player: could such an explicitly exclusionist policy have prevailed for so long in any other industry? (Equally astonishing was Barnes's willingness to rap the lyrics ". . . and my name is John Bar-nes/When I do my stuff/ The crowd goes bananas" for the breathtakingly awful Anfield Rap single Liverpool released before an FA Cup final. This was not long after the sight of Barnes doing his stuff incited the terrace faithful to throw bananas.)

Because of his track record, Atkinson has been loyally and bravely defended, in what must be his loneliest few days in football, by several black players he used to manage. Carlton Palmer was particularly supportive in his comments, and the great Paul McGrath testified that nothing Atkinson ever did suggested he was racist.

"But he did say things like, 'Okay, we'll have a game between the whites and the coons'," recalled McGrath on Irish radio.

A few years back, I spent a couple of engaging hours with Atkinson in a posh Dublin hotel room - and not in a Rebecca Loos way, understand. The Do-Ron-Ron-Ron had just penned his memoirs and was in Dublin to talk about his life. The overpowering scent of a confident, vaguely Teutonic and not entirely disagreeable cologne guided me to his chambers and, in the flesh, Ron was not Big in the conventional sense but his personality certainly matched the scale of the sumptuous Westbury suite. He was warm, cheerful, jaw-droppingly chauvinistic and definite in his views. Perhaps he was aware of his audience but he spent a long time speaking fondly of Paul "McGraff"and genuinely seemed proud of his reputation as a guardian of black players during a period when the FA left its ethnic representatives to swim alone against the poisonous tide of racial hatred. He was, however, firmly allied to the values of his generation: a working-class child of World War Two who rose through football the old-fashioned way and held the traditional football value that players were subservient to managers. Atkinson depicted himself as the original "guv'nor" of the English game and if he was indulgent of his players from time to time, those indulgences were dictated by him.

In building his reputation with West Brom, he was oblivious to the colour of a player's skin as long as that player could do a job. Hence, the references to "whites and coons" were just efficient and thoughtless methods of herding his team into convenient training divisions. But ultimately, he would have regarded his players - whatever their ethnic backgrounds - with the cold, unerring eye of a livestock handler. On the field, they were there to do a job, as obediently and automatically as a carthorse. And it was in that vein that he judged Desailly last Tuesday evening.

Of the four pejorative words used, surely "lazy" is the one with the deepest sting, with its intonations of mulish recalcitrance and, coupled with the word "nigger", carrying uncomfortable echoes of the white attitude in the days of slave trading.

That is why the few observations of contemporaries that the word "nigger" has shed its derogatory associations by its entry to the popular Afro-American vernacular are irrelevant. Big Ron does not listen to Outkast and even if he had pitched his remarks in a perfect of impression of Samuel L Jackson, it would have made no difference. Big Ron crossed the line and excuses that he had momentarily abandoned his senses do not wash. The words were made public, and in print they probably come across as more damning than the audio revelation.

As he once said himself in relation to a forgotten football sequence, "the action replay showed it to be worse than it actually was." Big Ron is definitely not a racist in the National Front sense of the term, but even though he was probably angry and disappointed minutes after Chelsea's latest failure, he wilfully associated Desailly's perceived faults with his skin colour. Had he branded John Terry, Desailly's white defensive partner, "fucking thick and lazy", would he have been censured? Perhaps, but not to the degree where he has locked himself out of the lucrative punditry market he did so much to build up.

Needless to say, Big Ron will hardly be receiving an invitation to the Christmas bash at the Guardian, the newspaper that carried his column. And it is also difficult to see how ITV could restore him, a proven ratings earner, without insulting a sizeable percentage of its viewers. Atkinson may have his sympathisers but it is hard to say he doesn't deserve to be out in the cold.

The incident highlights the fact that non-white footballers are judged, however subconsciously, through a different prism than their white peers in the English game. The insults may no longer be audible and overt discrimination has all but disappeared but there is no mistaking the fact that it is still a white man's league.

It is a sad irony that it should be Ron Atkinson who gave voice to the quiet but still residential race bias. It could be that it will only be flushed out when those of Ron's generation have truly left the game: if the day comes when a man like Marcel Desailly gets a shot at managing a club like Liverpool, then the English game can be declared truly multicultural.