1996 is, all things considered, the most perfect year in English football’s recent history: Euro ‘96 and all that, Alan Shearer heading home for £15m, Ruud Gullit coining “sexy football”, Beckham scoring from the halfway line, Championship Manager 2, Gianfranco Zola, Ali Dia.
Amid all of that excellence, and egged on by the narrative-fuelled Sky Sports, sit two immaculate set pieces of football broadcasting. Both are notorious enough for any thirtysomething to know most of the lyrics, but if Kevin Keegan’s “I will love it” meltdown was the ubiquitous Wonderwall, then Ron Atkinson facing the music as his Coventry City slipped into the relegation zone was the superior Don’t Look Back in Anger.
Both took place at the business end of a chaotic season at the top and bottom of the FA Carling Premiership. A month before a self-combusting Keegan challenged Alex Ferguson to “go to Middlesbrough and get something”, another under-pressure manager was about to ensure his own segment on an episode of Premier League Years with an unnecessarily grave-sounding Georgie Thompson voiceover.
Meanwhile, Coventry’s most famous fan – with all due respect to Amanda Redman and Westlife’s Brian McFadden – was approaching the peak of his broadcasting powers. Less than 18 months earlier, the Independent published “a couch potato’s guide to football punditry”, in which Richard Keys was detailed thus:
“Has yet to describe a game he is attending as average, let alone poor, but likeable and knowledgeable. Hairy.”
Richard Keys presenting Sky Sports in 1993. You've got to love that jacket.. pic.twitter.com/LA1jM6Je5X
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) May 27, 2014
Keys – not quite yet the post-millennium leviathan “Keysey” – came with an avuncular face that vaguely recalled Bungle from Rainbow and suit jackets made from packets of the least desirable Opal Fruit flavours. By the time he was lured to BSkyB to front their football revolution, he had long since emerged from his late-80s cocoon of ITV breakfast franchise TV-am, where he had somehow failed to charm Mariah Carey:
Sky Sports’ Super Sunday and the studio-based Monday Night Football were the perfect showcases for the lavishness of the Premier League’s newly-created televisual product, and Keys was there right from the start, laying the groundwork for becoming a Sky Sports cornerstone over the course of the next two decades.
The 1995/96 season represents an accurate snapshot of the closing stages of the Proper Football Man era. All 20 Premier League clubs had a British manager, before the likes of Colin Todd, Frank Clark and Joe Royle were finally displaced by mysterious foreigners with their “pasta” and “ideas”.
Indeed, all 20 British managers could rely on 20 British captains – Townsend, Sherwood, Pearson, Vinnie Jones – to snarl at referees and give the lads a bit of stick. 25% of the kits were manufactured by Umbro and – rather than today’s obscure online poker grief-holes – the shirt sponsors were all comfortingly tangible things like beer and computers.
The median point in all of this was probably Coventry City – kit made by Pony, Peugeot on the front, and a captain named Brian leading a team of the finest British cloggers, punctuated by the pace of Peter Ndlovu and Isaias, the first Brazilian in the Premier League.
And Ron Atkinson. Handed the task of overseeing Coventry’s near-perennial escape from the drop (this was their 29th consecutive season in the top flight, and their 16th relegation battle), Big Ron represented the ultimate caricature of the pre-Wenger English football manager.
Having racked up 25 years in the management game, taking in Kettering, West Brom (twice), Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Aston Villa et al – Atkinson was now at the stage of his career where he could simply stand around and let his hyperactive player-coach Gordon Strachan do all the heavy lifting.
But, with six games without a win – part of a run of only one victory in 13 – the buck stopped abruptly with him.
A 1-0 defeat to Southampton at the Dell – secured by a 2nd-minute header from goal machine Jason Dodd – saw the Sky Blues leapfrogged and left in the relegation zone with seven games to play. Big Ron, though, still had the most durable tool in the Proper Football Man’s armoury: FRONTING UP.
The exact sequence of what then unfolded is tricky to piece back together from the YouTube video scrapyard, but what follows is a reasonable guess at the gently escalating TV tension. With Atkinson plugged in and ready to go, standing in front of what looks like a weights machine for some reason, Keys got stuck straight in early doors:
KEYS: Ron, you said before the game you’d get out of it what you deserve – you got NOTHING. Where now for yourself and Coventry?
Perhaps not expecting such an immediate onslaught from Mr Coventry City himself, Big Ron desperately gets his bat in the way of Keys’ opening delivery:
RON: Well, I don’t…I think anybody would have to think that we deserved something from the game.
Keysey steps things up a little, reminding Atkinson of his unholy current trinity of the result, the fixture list and the league table – counting each of them out individually on the digits of a famously hirsute hand.
KEYS: Ron, the bottom line is you’ve LOST, you’re running out of TIME, you’re BELOW the drop line – where next for Coventry City, how can you get out of it?
Atkinson quickly rummages in his mental locker for a response, and opts to go full flippant.
RON: Tottenham on Sunday…Saturday, that’s next. That’s next.
Years later, and with slightly less than zero self-awareness, Keys recalled his strategy that night. “Big Ron, bit chippy, bit smart, overly clever for a team that had just been beaten and were in big trouble – I just kept chipping away.”
That’s Richard Keys – a man now accustomed to “big trouble” – calling someone a bit easy to wind up and a bit too big for their boots. Anyway, on we go.
KEYS: But you HAVE to show surely, don’t you, a little bit more than there was evident tonight…?
Big Ron is once again non-committal, which forces Keys to bring in his right-hand man. Andy Gray, former barnstorming centre-forward and now super-earnest Sky Sports pointer-out of the obvious, has his own conflict of interest here – he had briefly been Atkinson’s assistant at Villa before his TV calling came.
KEYS: Sorry to interrupt you – I’m sitting next to Andy, Ron, who disagrees with you…he felt you deserved to get NOTHING out of it tonight.
Andy Gray visibly gulps and has a little nervous fiddle with his biro, as Keysey ushers him gently under the bus. Atkinson sort of peers at him from behind the giant wall of TV screens, as if he’s on trial for some dreadful crime in a dystopian future where Richard Keys is judge, jury and executioner.
It’s time for Big Ron to fight back…
RON: You may say that – we don’t think so y’know Richard.
…here it comes…
RON: I’M SORRY [Big Ron is not sorry], you can sit there and look and play with all your silly machines AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE…
Those last eighteen words there are comfortably the equal of anything that the exasperated, hoarse Keegan would produce on air a few weeks later.
This wasn’t just a rallying cry for all Proper Football Men, as Sky’s stranglehold on vacuous football discourse began to take hold, but a prophetic one. For 1996’s “silly machines”, read today’s football analytics boom, Owen Coyle’s dismissal of tactics writer “Zonal Whoever” in 2011, Tim Sherwood’s belief that “players only call themselves No. 10s because they can’t score goals” and Sean Dyche’s ongoing war against the fraudulent European managers who simply make their players “run harder” and that’s it.
Back to 1996, though, and this was a football world struggling to come to terms with the prospect of a man in a TV studio rewinding all the errors and playing them back in slow motion until everyone had been taught a thorough retrospective lesson. The Monday Night Football slot – as it still does today – had the luxury of a whole hour to dissect the weekend’s pivotal moments, with an unprecedented focus on tactics, systems and gameplans.
Simply knowing who and (just about) when his team were playing next in the Premier League wasn’t going to cut it for Big Ron after another defeat, because Andy Gray was going to get his big electronic pen out and draw all over a screen. Gray recalls:
“The huge great touch screen we used that drew and highlighted everything was a fantastic device. My basic experience with that machine was that I walked in on Monday at two o’clock, the producer said, ‘That’s it. We’re using it tonight’, and I had an hour fiddling about with it before I was using it in front of millions of viewers.”
But all that bollocks apparently meant nothing up against Big Ron’s quarter-century of know-how:
RON (contd): …I’m manager of a football team – I’m an experienced manager – yeah, if the boys haven’t done enough, I’ll whip ‘em. I ain’t whipping them for that tonight.
Here he brings out all the classic sub-categories of Fronting Up: namely, the Siege Mentality, the age-old art of Deflecting Attention From the Players, plus the one-off trick of Ignoring the Fact You Conceded a Goal to Jason Dodd.
That might not be enough to keep Keys at bay, though. Big Ron needs another angle. Bingo. Suddenly, he senses an opportunity. A rhetorical question is directed at Unidentified Off-Camera Sky Sports Guy, the final participant in this wonderful live production:
RON (contd): Who won the Man of the Match award?
Ron’s face, faux-inquisitive, but very obviously in possession of the answer, turns to Unidentified Off-Camera Sky Sports Guy for humbling confirmation.
Back in the studio, Keys wearily looks to camera – a moment you have to admit is quite superbly delivered – and concedes that, sigh, Southampton goalkeeper Dave Beasant won the Man of the Match award.
RON: [Leaning in to slam it home] OH SORRY [again, not sorry, Big Ron is absolutely not sorry] so we must have played NOT BAD then…
Somehow, Atkinson’s won it at the death. He’s kept it tight for 89 minutes and then snatched a last-gasp winner.
RON: Thank you very much lads, seeyalater!
Atkinson’s extricated himself from the interrogation, with some aplomb too, and leaves on his terms.
But there’s a final twist in store for the poor Unidentified Off-Camera Sky Sports Guy (later identified by Keys as one Geoffrey Shreeves, but it remains unconfirmed), who must take the brunt of Big Ron’s mic drop. Or, rather, his headphone chuck. Atkinson, despite clawing moral victory from the jaws of interview defeat, tries to finish with a breezy flourish.
The look of horror, as the headphones fly into (presumably) the face of (allegedly) Geoff Shreeves, is as immediate as his genuine gesture of apology. The look of utter shame and deflation as he departs suggests he knows he’s thrown it all away at the last.
The fallout from that night was thus: Coventry scraped together 11 points from the remaining 21, staying up on goal difference with a 0-0 draw against Leeds on the final day. Atkinson moved upstairs to allow Strachan to take charge, but Coventry would finally slip out of the top flight after 34 years, perhaps never to resurface.
As for Keys, his trajectory wasn’t too dissimilar. For another 15 years, though, he continued to become part of the Sky furniture, allowing him the untouchable platform from which to laugh uncontrollably, live on air, at women’s football…
…and to remind the Faroe Islands of their place in world football…
…before finally falling on his sword in a sexism storm, which apparently boiled down to:
Meanwhile, that broadcast from The Dell should have been our abiding memory of Ron Atkinson’s footballing existence. Sadly, he eclipsed that by 1) standing in the wrong dugout for the first game of his last job in management, suffering the indignity of being laughed at by young Arsenal striker Fabian Caballero, a man still known only for laughing at Ron Atkinson for standing in the wrong dugout.
Atkinson’s parallel co-commentary career – during which he introduced the concept of “Ronglish” as a temporary bolt-on to the English football lexicon – persisted until 2004, at which point he pressed the self-destruct button in the Monaco Incident, when he used a racial slur in appraising a Champions League semi-final performance by Chelsea’s Marcel Desailly.
What looked at the time like merely a beleaguered manager getting a mild TV grilling now seems, in hindsight, as something of a turning point. The following season saw the installment of two Continental managers – Arsene Wenger and Ruud Gullit – Coventry’s kit contract went to Le Coq Sportif, and the foreign influx was sparked into life.
“Keysey”, meanwhile, now thumps the drum for Qatar and still claims ownership of the Monday Night Football concept, as Sky continue to somehow move on without him.
WC 2022 starts 6 years today! Join us for the real MNF on #beINSports for the very best weekend analysis. .
— Richard Keys (@richardajkeys) November 21, 2016
Football coverage might be a little less confrontational than when Atkinson and Keegan lost their little battles in the spring of 1996, but those silly machines have ultimately won the war.