At Deserter we’re of the opinion that work too often gets in the way of life and holds you back from doing more interesting and fulfilling things, like sitting on a sea wall eating a pastel de nata. But it would be wrong of us not to acknowledge that, every so often, it can throw up something fun or out of the ordinary. Or indeed quite, quite surreal.
20-odd years ago I had a gig running the websites of a minor UK broadcaster, where we were encouraged to do our own thing. This, it turned out, did not include publishing the strapline ‘This is Bravo – Get Ready to Shit the Bed’, which got me into trouble with the suits on the fifth floor, who demanded that the entire website – despite being freely available on something called the Internet – be printed out for an editorial review.
One item in this weighty tome caught the attention of the channel head, who saw in it potential for some on-air shorts. The feature in question was Big Ron Talks Balls, a football column in which an exaggerated version of ex-football manager and top pundit, Ron Atkinson, combined being both a ‘straight-talker’ and a language-mangler to give us his colourful and unreconstructed insights into upcoming football fixtures. It had started life as a World Cup ’98 preview, with things like:
You can expect a Brazil team with your Ronaldos to make an impression early doors. And backed up by your Denilsons getting forward off the back, they’ll be one of the favourites to get their hands up the skirt of the French, if you like.
Scotland may give someone a right going over during this tournament, that’s for certain. They’re not afraid of giving it a bit of the old Humpty Dumpty, to be fair, and when it comes to heart, grit and balls, I won’t say that they’re the best in the world, but there’s none better.
You hear them everywhere these days, but phrases like ‘to be fair’, ‘early doors’ and ‘giving it a bit of Humpty’ were all first given a run out on national TV by the real Big Ron. And we couldn’t get enough of it.
We worked up the idea and took it to the channel boss, along with a couple of choices for actors who might play the big man. He listened patiently and then asked, simply, ‘Why don’t you get Ron Atkinson to do it?’. I’ve had a lot of managers in my time and the best ones all have the same thing in common: The ability to help you remove your own obstacles.
And so, a fortnight later, we headed to Birmingham for lunch. Lunch with Ron Atkinson, the double FA Cup-winning ex-manager of Manchester United, not to mention his legendary spells as boss at West Brom (twice) and at Aston Villa, who had finished in second place in the inaugural Premier League season under his stewardship. Now, Ron was the UK’s top football pundit, a big match ITV regular, confident, flamboyant and the dispenser of beloved Atkinisms, known as ‘Ronglish’.
There were three of us: Me, Simon the promo producer and the hip, young writer behind the Big Ron column, Dirty South. We were to meet Ron in his favourite town centre restaurant, where I was to make the pitch and persuade him to sign for us… It was time to be brave like lambs and gamble all our eggs.
The train from Euston had been booked for that mid-morning sweetspot that meant it wasn’t quite worth going in to the office, but that the pubs would be open on our arrival, around noon. Textbook. A couple of doors down from the restaurant was a traditional Victorian boozer and we ducked in for a nerve-settler.
‘Well this is it, boys,’ I said, channelling my inner Ron, ‘Keep your eyes in your head and don’t piss your pants in front of goal, if you like.’
‘If we don’t lose we’ve got a decent chance of winning this,’ said Dirty South.
‘Or it could be a draw,’ said Simon.
‘Either way, we’ll come back in here for a pint after, so it’s all coming up golden roses.’
Little did I know that, to the delight of the pub’s regulars, we’d be accompanied by the great man himself.
Ron was already at the table when we arrived in the restaurant, looking tanned and tucking into a G&T, perhaps determined to get the most out of the expenses budget. He rose, welcomed us warmly in his familiar flat-vowelled West Midlands accent and introduced us to his wife, Maggie, who’d come along to check we weren’t a bunch of charlatans.
‘I know what you TV people are like,’ he said, with a twinkle. ‘Trouble.’
I took this as a cue to order a bottle of wine as we chose our food. Dirty South was disappointed that the Pommes Aligot (cheesy mash) was off the menu.
‘Oh, man,’ he said. ‘I love cheesy mash.’
‘Me, too,’ said Ron. ‘Fortunately for me, Maggie makes the best cheesy mash in the Midlands, don’t you, sweet?’
‘The key is in the whipping,’ she confided, and Dirty South fell a little bit in love.
When the food had arrived and everyone had stopped wittering on about cheesy mash, I let Ron have the pitch: We film you in various locations talking about football, scripted by us, as a larger than life parody of yourself. Not taking the mick, including you in the joke. All in the name of a bit of fun.
‘And what sort of things will you bastards – present company excepted – have me saying?’ said Ron.
‘Your thoughts on foreign imports,’ I said, ‘The role of diet in modern football…’
‘How you operate in the transfer market,’ chipped in Dirty South, ‘You know, like sealing the Dean Saunders deal over a Little Chef set meal for two.’ Ron chuckled.
‘To be fair, the best deal I ever did was swapping a sit-down lawn mower for Carlton Palmer,’ he said, and I caught Dirty South’s eye as we laughed. Now we were cooking. ‘Right,’ said Ron, ‘how about another bottle of the old vino?’
I motioned to the waitress and Ron began to sing into his mobile phone, as if it was a microphone: ‘Sweet cherry wine, so very fine, drink it right down, pass it all around…’
This was all going very well. If the deal wasn’t already sealed by the second bottle of wine, it felt like a certainty by the time we got around to coffee and brandies. Ron was regaling us with candid stories from his football past, encouraged by Dirty South’s matching encyclopedic knowledge of obscure footballers. These scripts, it felt, were writing themselves.
I didn’t want it to end and suddenly thought, why should it?
‘Fancy a pint, Ron?’ I said, ‘We know a little place nearby.’
‘Belting,’ said Ron.
On the short walk from the restaurant I noticed a black taxi cab crawling along beside us.
‘I think someone’s following us,’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s just my cab,’ said Ron. ‘I have him tail me wherever I go so I never need to call one.’
In the pub I was amused to watch pints stop dead on their way to mouths, as double and treble takes were made in our direction.
‘It’s the boss,’ I heard one man say.
‘I’m calling me dad,’ said another.
I got a round in while Ron had his hand warmly shaken by a stream of starry-eyed and genuinely emotional West Brom and Villa fans, keen to thank him for the good times. Someone asked Ron how he had ended up back at West Brom after Man United.
‘I was in a beach shack in Barbados,’ he recalled, ‘having a drink with Frankie Dettori, Patti Boyd and a Dr Who. The phone rang and it was my agent saying West Brom wanted me, was I interested? I put my hand over the receiver and said, “They want me back at West Brom, should I take it?” Everyone was like, “Yeah! Go for it!” so I said, “Yeah, put me down for it” and ordered a bottle of rum to celebrate.’
I forget how it came up but Ron and Maggie, it turned out, lived about 10 miles from Birmingham in a village called Barnt Green, in Worcestershire.
‘No way! I lived there for a few years when I was a kid,’ I said, and recounted playing football on the little rec there, attending youth club and falling for the vicar’s daughter, an older girl, Ann Bruce (11).
‘Well, that settles it,’ said Maggie. ‘You’re all coming back to the house and I’ll make us a big bowl of cheesy mash!’
We bade all Ron’s new friends farewell and they waved us off as we piled into his taxi that had parked outside.
‘This is really, very kind of you, Ron,’ I said. ‘I hope we’re not imposing.’
‘Kiss me baby and tell me twice,’ crooned Ron into his phone-mic, ‘That you’re the one for me…‘
Ron and Maggie’s pile, Avening, was in a part of Barnt Green unfamiliar to me – the rich part. It stood in four acres on the other side of electric double wrought iron gates, which swung open on our approach.
‘Have you ever tried black vodka?’ asked Ron. ‘I’ve got a bottle of it in my pub.’
‘You’ve got a pub?’
‘Yeah, baby, it’s in the house. Come on.’
And sure enough, one room of Ron’s gaff had been kitted out as a pub lounge, with a bar, a dartboard, optics and a jukebox. Ron poured out huge glasses of black vodka on ice and turned his attention to the music.
‘Right, this is ace,’ he said, putting on Oasis. ‘I have it up good and loud. Really give it some Humpty.’
And there we were, in Ron Atkinson’s house-pub, drinking tumblers of black vodka, with What’s The Story (Morning Glory)? playing so loudly that no one could talk. There was only one thing for it: We started to dance. I remember thinking, no one’s gonna believe this. I couldn’t believe it, and I was there.
At one point, I returned from the lavatory to find everyone had disappeared. I wandered about looking for them and eventually found Ron in the kitchen crouching down in front of the window. For a moment I thought he was unwell but I realised he was heaving with laughter.
‘Get down, quick!’ he said, when he saw me and I joined him.
‘What are we doing, Ron?’
‘Watch this,’ he said, and we peeped over the sink and out into the drive where his driver was attempting to leave. ‘Max has just opened the gates to get out but…’ In his hand Ron held a remote control and as the car started to approach the gates, Ron pressed a button and the gates closed. He turned to me, crying with laughter.
‘Every time!’ he said. Max got out of his car and pressed a button on the gates to open them. As he walked back to his car, Ron closed them again.
‘Oh, man,’ he cried, offering me the remote. ‘This is brilliant. Wanna go?’
Afterwards, we found the boys in the garden with Maggie and we joined them there to enjoy the views over the Worcestershire countryside. There we stayed, chatting and drinking and laughing. Maggie disappeared for a while and returned carrying an enormous dish on a tray.
‘Cheesy mash!’ she announced, setting the tray down on the garden table. We all helped ourselves to a bowl, to be washed down with a fine Sancerre, while Maggie issued us with golden spoons.
‘Just like being at home,’ quipped Dirty South, who often stirs his tea with a potato peeler.
The mash was, as promised, delicious. Or maybe everything tastes good eaten with a golden spoon. More wine was produced. Ron got into a story about winning the League Cup with Sheffield Wednesday. But as the light began to fade he suddenly checked his watch and said:
‘Right, let’s swing, it’s on in five minutes.’
‘What’s that, Ron?’
‘Coronation Street,’ he said, ‘Never miss an episode.’ And we joined Ron and Maggie in their opulent sitting room for an episode of Granada TV’s finest.
God knows how we ever got back to London, I can’t remember anything about it. But I’m sure we went back happy, and we certainly had a tale to tell.
Ron signed to Bravo, the shorts were filmed and were very funny. Best of all, he’d slip us the odd scoop: When he joined Nottingham Forest he got in touch to say that he was getting ready to off-load another sit-down lawn mower. A week later, he signed Carlton Palmer. For a period afterwards he’d even occasionally ring me up for a chat.
(‘Guess where I am, Andy?’
As for the story of that day, well, I might have told it more often had not Big Ron, a few years later, become persona non grata after making a racist comment about French defender, Marcel Desailly. ITV dumped him and he disappeared from our screens for a good while – and rightly so.
Is he, was he, a racist? God knows. Quite possibly. It goes with the territory, I suspect, for a no off-switch, hip-shooting product of a bygone era, when ‘comic’ racism was not only a thing but also routinely beamed into living rooms. I seem to recall he got in some more hot water still later, when he appeared on Celebrity Big Brother.
But that day, that golden spoon day, I remember a warm and funny man, on the lookout for a good time and very good company with it, even if he was one comment away from embarrassing you at any given moment. A bit like your dad at a wedding, to be fair.