Big Ron as a Baggie: when West Brom almost won the league

ron atkinson west brom

While ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson is undoubtedly best known for his high-profile stint as Manchester United boss between July 1981 and November 1986, the truth is his spell in charge at Old Trafford only accounted for less than twenty percent of his managerial career in total.

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Starting at Kettering Town in 1971, and finishing up at the City Ground, Nottingham, in 1999, Atkinson took in such diverse surroundings as Cambridge United, Atletico Madrid, Sheffield Wednesday (twice), Coventry City and Aston Villa, and although the five years he spent at United indeed constituted his longest unbroken spell at any one club, it was actually at West Bromwich Albion where he first made a real mark in the managerial stakes.

In early 1978, Atkinson had been in charge of Cambridge United for a little over three years. Promotion to the Third Division had been achieved in the spring of 1977, and with the U’s going well at the top of the table once again, a second successive promotion looked on the cards.

Then a vacancy at the Hawthorns arose. Johnny Giles at been in charge of the Baggies until the previous April and he had done sterling work in getting the club promoted and then established in the First Division before leaving to take charge of Shamrock Rovers. He was replaced by Ronnie Allen who carried on Giles’ good work and the club was sitting pretty in the top five of the First Division as Christmas 1977 approached.

It was then that Allen was approached to become the manager of the Saudi Arabian national side and thus a vacancy arose and a chance for Atkinson. Despite not having managed above Third Division level, Atkinson was entrusted with the role and officially took over in January 1978.

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Staying at the Hawthorns for the next three-and-a-half seasons, Atkinson was to preside over a team that earnt a reputation for free-flowing attacking football and could even lay claim to being a contender for the title of ‘everyone’s second-favourite team’. In the four seasons, or partial seasons, that saw Atkinson strutting his stuff in the Midlands, qualification for European football was achieved three times and the top four cracked twice.

Writing in his autobiography many years later, Atkinson conceded that the West Brom job was unique in all his career in that it was the only one he took on with the club in a good position. Ordinarily, of course, a vacancy only arises when a club has hit on bad times or is going through a bad patch, but Atkinson was to find the West Bromwich Albion he walked into in early 1978 in pretty fine fettle.

This, he contended, brought about different challenges from normal. West Brom hadn’t changed either of their last two managers through any sense of dissatisfaction or failure, and so now the challenge was there for Atkinson to maintain, and even build upon, the progress made by his predecessors.

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Inheriting a couple of fleet-footed forwards in Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Atkinson set about doing nothing more than tinkering with Albion’s style of play. Preferring to step up the tempo slightly from Giles’ and Allen’s sides, Atkinson had the team play the ball into Regis and Cunningham’s feet with the instruction to get forward and run at defences as much as possible.

Atkinson soon returned to his old stomping ground at Cambridge United, where he made a bid to sign right-back Brendan Batson. For a derisory £28,000, he was able to snap up Batson, who alongside Regis and Cunningham, became known by the triumvirate moniker, ‘The Three Degrees’ due to all three players being black-skinned, as was the all-female musical group of that name.

Looking back now with the benefit of forty years of so-called social progress, it is perhaps not a label that would be deemed suitable in the current climate, but back in 1978, there was no malice intended in the bestowing of the nickname. Indeed, West Brom (and Atkinson) were seen as pioneers in as much that the club was among the first to build a side around such high-profile and skillful black players.

That 1977-78 season saw West Bromwich Albion embark on an FA Cup run that almost culminated with an appearance at Wembley for the showpiece final. The third round had already been safely negotiated before Atkinson’s arrival, and then further victories over Manchester United, Derby County and Nottingham Forest set up a Highbury semi-final clash with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town.

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In a classic match played before a gate of over 50,000, West Brom just fell short at the last hurdle as they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat. It was a shattering disappointment but the side recovered sufficiently to finish sixth in the table and so qualify for Europe for the first time in almost a decade.

The following season, 1978-79, was a glorious campaign for Atkinson and the Baggies that constituted a real charge for the title, and it is still spoken about by West Brom fans to this day.

Starting the season with a 2-1 victory over FA Cup Winners, Ipswich Town, West Brom’s subsequent autumn form meant they were amongst the early season pace setters and when top-of-the-table Liverpool visited the Hawthorns for the seventh match of the fledging season, they did so with a one-hundred percent record. When Laurie Cunningham put West Brom ahead a few minutes after halftime, it seemed that West Brom were on course to cut the Anfield men’s lead down to just two points. Unfortunately for Atkinson and West Brom, Baggies’ goalkeeper, Tony Godden, gifted Liverpool an equaliser, and the four-point lead was maintained.

The season wore on and West Brom established themselves as the major challengers to a truly awesome Liverpool side – one considered amongst the best even the Anfield club has ever produced. At several points over the course of the season, West Brom hit the top spot, but try as they might, they could not pull away from Liverpool.

One particular performance that winter, a 5-3 victory at Old Trafford, has gone down in folklore as one of the best ever from the club. It was such a delivery that upon the final whistle, the home crowd rose as one to applaud West Brom off the pitch.

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That winter was a particularly severe one and much of football pretty much shut down for two months at the turn of the year. In his book, Atkinson contends that this bad weather ultimately cost him and West Brom the title. He maintains that West Brom had several weeks without a game while Liverpool kept playing due to having undersoil heating at Anfield. He states that when Liverpool and West Brom met again in the league on the third of February 1979, it was West Brom’s first game in several weeks while Liverpool had been playing regularly.

A churlish look through the record books doesn’t quite back this assertion up, however, as although the Anfield clash was only West Brom’s third league game of the calendar year, Liverpool had not yet played a single league match in 1979. Nevertheless, the 2-1 home victory sent Liverpool back to the top of the table where they were to remain for the rest of the season.

A decent run to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup was achieved that season before bowing out 2-1 on aggregate to Red Star Belgrade in March, and the fifth round of the FA Cup was also reached.

Once the title was a mathematical impossibility, some of the spirit ebbed out of the side perhaps, and the last two games were lost and with it the runners-up spot in the table.

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Although fancied to push on from the title push, the following season, 1979-80, was in fact Atkinson’s worst in the three-and-a-half years he spent at the Hawthorns. It was a season of anti-climax, with a poor start to the season followed by an improvement after Christmas leading to a final league position of no higher than tenth.

Some of the old guard moved on, and also integral to West Brom’s apparent demise was the sale of Cunningham to Real Madrid for almost a million pounds. Although Peter Barnes and Gary Owens were amongst the signings brought in by Atkinson, the loss of Cunningham was a big blow.

It was around now, though, that Bryan Robson really started to come to the boil as a player. He had been blooded as far back as 1975 by Johnny Giles but had failed to really live up to his outstanding promise. As the 1970s ticked over into the 1980s, Robson began to grow in confidence and to take games by the scruff of the neck in a way that was to become familiar under Atkinson at Manchester United. England recognition finally arrived for Robson in February 1980, and from then on he seemed to never look back.

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1980-81 was a vast improvement and although the campaign lacked a serious title challenge, a strong fourth-place finish meant that once again qualification for the UEFA Cup was secured.

Not that Atkinson would be around to see it, though.

In May 1981, Dave Sexton was fired from the post of Manchester United manager, and after Bobby Robson, Ron Saunders and Lawrie McMenemy all reportedly turned down the chance to succeed him in the Old Trafford hot seat, Atkinson was approached.

Ron Atkinson would stay a little over five years at Old Trafford, before being unceremoniously sacked in November 1986 after securing two FA Cups but being unable to deliver the league title.

After almost a year out of the game, Atkinson returned to West Brom for a second spell as manager. In what was nothing more than a marriage of convenience, the West Brom that Atkinson returned to in 1987 was a far different animal to the one he had left six years earlier. The side had been relegated in 1986 and by the autumn of 1987 were struggling at the bottom of the Second Division.

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Although relegation was avoided that season, when Atletico Madrid came calling, Atkinson didn’t hesitate and after thirteen months back at the Hawthorns, he was on his way again.

Although the manner of both his departures from West Bromwich upset some of the fans, his legacy as the manager of the exciting late 1970s side is secure.