In a bygone era of football, it was commonplace for up-and-coming football managers to cut their teeth in non-league or the lower reaches of the Football League before they had their chance at the top end of the English pyramid.
While it was not the route that every manager took to get to the top, it was far more prevalent than it is today.
Managers such as Graham Taylor and Howard Wilkinson had their humble beginnings in the 1970s at Fourth Division Lincoln City and non-league Boston United respectively before going on to manage England – albeit with the latter in a caretaker capacity.
In today’s game, Chris Wilder of Sheffield United seems somewhat of a rarity. Having begun his managerial career with non-league Alfreton Town before masterminding the Blades’ rise from League One to the Premier League.
However, unless there is a shift in mentality at the highest level of football, it is perhaps difficult to imagine Wilder being given an opportunity at one of the ‘big six’ for his stellar efforts at Bramall Lane.
One man who was able to make that progression from non-league management to the highest level of the game was former Manchester United and Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson.
Having played the entirety of his professional playing career for Oxford United and been a key figure in their meritocratic rise from the Southern League to the Second Division, the now-81-year-old retired manager began his coaching journey with Kettering Town.
Speaking exclusively to The Football Pink, Ron recounted: “I hadn’t retired actually, I was still playing and I was still captain of the team but at one stage I had a spell where I thought, for the first time ever, I wouldn’t mind a change – which I’d never had before, I’d never felt that.
“I got offered about four jobs when I was still playing. One was manager at Reading, Bournemouth came in, Crewe and then this guy who I knew from Kettering, he asked me – a guy named John Nash who was very big businessman.
“I thought that I didn’t fancy that and he turned around and he said, ‘Come and meet me’. So, I went to meet him and he made me what was, at the time, a great offer which would’ve put me on a par with any manager outside of the top league and on a par with some that were in it – that was that.
“I met him in Bedford and I remember coming back from there and ringing my father – I had to ring him on one of those red telephone kiosks – I remember ringing him and asking him what he thought, he said, ‘Well, I tell you what, if you don’t have a go you’ll never know.’
“So, I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to have a go’ and I fancied it then, that’s what really started it.”
From taking the reins with Kettering in 1971, Atkinson would spend three years with the Poppies until his departure from the club in ’74. Despite putting in solid foundations to his managerial career, it would be another seven years until Ron would move to Old Trafford.
Speaking on his journey through the football pyramid to the top of the game, Atkinson recognised that it was a sign of the times in which he was beginning his management career in.
He explained: “That was the way, in those days, most of the managers that eventually took over in jobs started. Virtually every manager that competed at the higher level had all started off down there.
“I still believe it was the best way, I always believed I learnt more in the first six months of management than I did virtually in the whole of my playing career. Vis-a-vis, you’ve got to look after everybody’s problems and obviously, you’ve got to be successful.
“We were fortunate, I mean, we got two championships at Kettering which, nowadays, I mean, Harrogate have just gone in the league, we’d have been automatically into the Football League ‘cause it was a very progressive and ambitious club at the time.
“Then I went to Cambridge who, at the time, were bottom of the Fourth Division and when I left were just about to go into the Second Division as it was at the time. Although you went and worked there, you still had to achieve things to come to people’s notice.”
Of course, not every manager that had cut their teeth in non-league and had enjoyed a degree of success would have a divine right to get a chance at a First or Second Division club. As in any career or walk of life, it is important to stand out from the crowd.
Ron had enjoyed success with Kettering over three years and then in four years with Cambridge, Atkinson again proved his ability as a football manager by building a team which gained promotion to the Second Division at the end of the 1977/78 season.
Over his time managing in the lower reaches of the game, he had formulated his ethos which boiled down to two points.
“I had two basic principles which I stuck with all my career in management,” Ron stated. “First of all, nobody could ever play badly for me. That was always a proviso. Providing they were always attempting to do what their job was.
“Alright, they may not have been top of the tree every week or 8/10 but if you’re a defender and you’re attempting to defend, you couldn’t play badly for me.
“Every time I went into a club, I’d say, ‘I will treat you the way I would want to be treated as a player’ and that’s not to say, ‘You can have all your own way’ but at least I think if you worked on that premise and you’re fair with them, you were quite a way through.
“That was just my own thoughts. When I was a player I used to think a lot about the game and you maybe look at things and think, ‘If I was the manager, I’d be looking to try and do this and do that or I’d do things slightly different’.”
In January 1978, Ron was rewarded for the groundwork that he had put in in the lower leagues as he moved from Cambridge to First Division West Bromwich Albion.
At the end of his first full season in charge of the Baggies, the club finished third in the top flight and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup – a competition which Atkinson would get much more acquainted with over the duration of his career.
A tenth-place finish in the First Division and a first-round exit from the UEFA Cup would follow the season after. However, in the 1980/81 campaign, the Baggies finished fourth in the top flight – a feat which they have not come close to bettering since.
That summer, though, Dave Sexton was sacked by Manchester United after finishing eighth in the First Division. The North West club had endured a five-year spell barren of any form of silverware.
The job for the incoming manager at Old Trafford was clear – to get the Red Devils challenging for the title and winning trophies on a regular basis. The man to do that job was to be Atkinson.
Ron recalled: “I mean, when I went to United, people tended to forget that they’d only had a couple of finishes in the top four since ’68 when they won the European Cup.
“So, my brief, I said to Martin Edwards, ‘We’ve got to become a European side again.’
“I mean, I’d left West Brom and we were in Europe virtually every year. Manchester United were always synonymous with European football and I said we’ve got to get back and be regulars in Europe, which is what we did.”
However, the task was perhaps different than the one which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces today. As has been established, the beautiful game was a different beast at that stage.
The Premier League was around a decade from being birthed and the top flight was not awash with television money; a manager could not simply draw up a list of targets to be handed to a director of football to go and spend big on.
Furthermore, scouting networks were nowhere near to the same degree in terms of their size and thoroughness as they are in today’s game. Player recruitment was an art, with perhaps the most important skill being wheeling and dealing.
“First year I bought about four or five senior players, but in those days you didn’t just buy them – you had to wheel and deal. To bring people in, sometimes we had to move people out to finance the deals,” Atkinson told The Football Pink.
“When I bought Robson, the chairman – Martin Edwards – who was always very supportive, turned around and said, ‘If it’s going to cost that, then I want half of that back by Christmas.’
“So, I had to move one or two of the squad players out to finance it. For instance, we had a great chance to buy Gary Lineker when he was at Leicester and we thought we had the deal sealed after we won the cup final in ’85.
“But there was £600,000 and the chairman said, ‘Well, if we’re going to buy him, then we’re going have to sell one of the strikers first.’
“I had an agreement with Lineker’s agent that he’d stay at Leicester for a little bit longer until we did our business, but Howard Kendall got wind and stepped in and took him to Everton.
“Now, you’d just go, ‘woof’ and take him, then sell in your own time.”
Over Atkinson’s five years with the Red Devils, the club never finished outside of the top four, this was as many top-four finishes in the First Division as Manchester United had achieved in the 16 years prior to Ron’s arrival.
Alongside the impressive league record, United had won two FA Cups, the Community Shield and reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup during Ron’s tenure. Atkinson had been more successful than any Manchester United manager since Matt Busby.
In 1986, it was a rocky start to the season which brought the now-81-year-old retired manager’s time at Old Trafford to an end, with the club sat in the bottom four of the First Division. However, Atkinson felt that it was at least partly to do with the lack of title success.
“Well, I think everyone was thinking, ‘They haven’t won the league, they haven’t won the league.’ I went in the first week I was there and somebody said, ‘We haven’t won the league for 15 years.’ So, I said, ‘I’ve only been here a week!’
“In that period, I think apart from one year, the winners of our championship were invariably the European champions. I mean, you had Villa, you had Forest, you had Liverpool about three times, so, the teams at the top were top pedigree.”
Atkinson was not finished as a manager at the top of his game, though. He returned to West Brom who had, by that time, dropped into the Second Division and were struggling in the league. Having kept the Baggies up, in 1988, Ron switched the Midlands for Spain.
Atlético Madrid was the destination, however, the move outside of England would be short-lived due to a difficult relationship with the then-owner of Atlético, Jesús Gil.
“I think we lost two out of 17 or something like that and we were second in the league, two points behind Real Madrid,” he said.
“I came home one weekend and technically, nobody ever told me I was finished. It was weird really, I can appreciate now what’s going on in England with some of the worse owners because I think the president went through 23 managers or something.
“I think I was the longest-serving out of the lot! It was weird really, but it was a great experience. The players were brilliant, I loved my time there.”
Spain was then swapped for Sheffield, as he moved to the steel city’s club of a blue persuasion initially on a short-term basis. Having enjoyed his initial spell with the Owls, Sheffield Wednesday would be guided by Atkinson for a two-and-a-half-year period.
In 1991, Ron returned to a gargantuan of English football – perhaps more so in those days than some would argue today – as he took the reins of his boyhood club, Aston Villa.
“I enjoyed Sheffield Wednesday and I got the opportunity to manage Villa – which I’d had three or four times before,” he explained.
“I’d always wanted to do that, I’d been a kid there, I’d supported them as a boy and I thought, ‘If I don’t go this time then it’s never going to happen again.’
“I don’t think people realise quite how big a club Villa is. Villa could be right up there, if they got the team, of course. From a crowd point of view, from a stadium point of view, training ground, everything – they’ve got some great facilities.
“They’ve got a great crowd and a great history. People talk about Newcastle being a big club, well Newcastle have got nothing like the history of Aston Villa.”
Atkinson spent almost three and a half years at Villa Park and was able to finish runner-up in the inaugural season of the Premier League and win the League Cup in 1994. After his time with the Villans, Ron had a spell with Coventry City, returned to Sheffield Wednesday and then called time on his management career after being relegated from the Premier League with Nottingham Forest.
After over 20 years have passed since Ron retired from management, he has seen drastic changes in the game which he began playing during the ‘50s. However, the former manager believes that some values which may have been lost could be the way forward.
“I think sometimes, the daft thing is you can buy players for £30m, well, you can buy a small town for £30m. They go, ‘It’s only £30m’,” he said.
“It would be nice to think somewhere, I don’t know whether it would do, but if anything came out of this pandemic it might be that, from an economy point of view, clubs and everybody started to be a bit more realistic. It might be that they have to develop more of their own players.
“Another thing I’d like to see, I’d like to see more – I mentioned when we were coming through – I’d like to see a lot more younger managers being given the opportunities.
“It’s like Eddie Howe, now, could Eddie Howe move to somewhere bigger? Say, would he have been a good fit at Tottenham or somewhere like that? I’d like to see one or two lads like that given a chance. Sean Dyche, for argument’s sake, has carried the flag for ages and he hasn’t really done too much wrong.”
In any and every walk of life, change is inevitable. Very often, what has been before can be buried by the sands of time and forgotten, however, perhaps the only way to move forward is if you look back for inspiration first.