“For me it’s always been three teams where the Euro Cup 2012 is concerned – Spain, Holland and Germany,” says Ron Atkinson, who played over 400 games for Oxford United in the late 50s before enjoying spells as manager at Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa. He went on to become a football pundit on television. “I had a feeling for Germany during the semi-finals. But that was not to be. Italy, a very spirited team, held them out even though they didn’t have much rest before the match.”
According to Big Ron, as he’s popularly known, Spain stands a real chance of winning against the Italians tonight “as they have seven of the best mid-fielders.” Why doesn’t England figure anywhere? “England doesn’t have the talent or the flair,” says the plain-speaking Ron. “We haven’t got great forwards. We just have Wayne Rooney, who couldn’t play in the first two games.”
Big Ron, whose career peaked when he won the FA Cup as manager of Manchester United in 1983 and 1985, is a UAE veteran. “I first came out here in 1990,” he says. “I’ve been here about 20 times since. I even played football here once in Abu Dhabi in 1978. There was no stadium then as they have now. There’s been a lot of changes since.”
Where the local teams are concerned Big Ron feels there is scope for them to develop. “There have obviously been big investments in the game here,” he says. “Some really big names are here – Maradona is one of the biggest!
“I don’t see why UAE can’t do it, given the amount of money they are pouring into it. Keep doing that and keep developing the young players and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the World Cup. See, Qatar is hosting the World Cup in 2022. I don’t see any reason why Abu Dhabi or Dubai can’t do it in future.”
But Big Ron advises UAE to look at the larger picture. “My advice to the local clubs is that bringing in foreign players and coaches is good, but basically they’ve got to try and get the local boys, eventually the homegrown talent,” he says. “I don’t know what the school system is football-wise, but that’s usually the best place to catch them. In England it was the inter-school competitions that brought talents to the fore.”
The beauty of school football is that it gives everybody a chance to play, says Ron. Coaches can then pick the best ones to go to the football academy. “I am not sure the way it is done now in England, just sending boys to academies, is the best way (to build up talent),” he says. “I’d rather see them play among themselves. Earlier, in England and Scotland, we had what was called street football. I think it was great way for players to develop naturally. They would just get a ball and form teams and play off against each other. Inevitably, the best player was always the dribbler. I think it’s still the best way.”
Where the club teams are concerned, Ron feels Manchester City is the one going all the way to the top. “Manchester United won’t be far away though,’ he says. “I expect Chelsea to be strong enough too. But Man City are going to be very hard to catch.”
Surprisingly, Ron is not too enthusiastic about team sports in the Olympics. “I think it is the athletics that is emblematic of the Games,” he opines bluntly. “I don’t think golf should be in Olympics. Team sports like hockey are okay, but including things like dancing is going too far, if you ask me! I wouldn’t be too surprised to see darts being in competition in the Olympics soon!
“You think of Olympic heroes like Carl Lewis or Edwin Moses, great Olympians. Athletics is what it should be about. The rest are just also-rans. We are making a big fuss about England putting in a team again for the Olympics after being disbanded in 1974 when the distinction between amateurs and professionals was abolished. To me, that’s defeating the purpose of the Olympics. If you have to have an Olympic football team, it has to be composed of young players, not professionals. It would give them the opportunity to come up.”
So, how did his famous quips on television inlcuding ‘Hollywood ball’ (an ambitious pass launching an attack), popularly known as ‘Ronisms’ come about? “Ah!” he laughs. “I just say what I have to say, I don’t make them up! The first time I remember it coming about was when I described the only trick I had in football when I used to play – the ‘step over’. I nicknamed it the ‘lollipop’. And it caught on! After that whenever I said anything like that they just caught on, I guess.”
And so it goes…
Catch the Euro Cup final with Big Ron at 9 pm today at the Ibn Batutta Gate hotel where the match is being shown live.