As former Manchester United and England legend Bryan Robson told me in a recent interview: “Manager’s are judged on the signings they make, not just on results.”
Later the same day while filming a TV interview with Ron Atkinson – the most successful manager to occupy the Old Trafford hot seat in the era between the formidable reigns of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson – I could not help wondering ‘What might have been for Big Ron if he’d been allowed a little more time?’
Atkinson, of course, was the man who took Captain Marvel to the Theatre of Dreams. One of United’s best ever signings. He also delivered two FA Cup triumphs and never finished outside the Top 4, recruiting the likes of Frank Stapleton and Remi Moses and giving Norman Whiteside his debut before his 17th birthday.
Big Ron also took United into the UEFA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, where the Reds narrowly lost out in 1984’s semi-final against Juventus. That European campaign included a 3-2 aggregate win in the quarter-finals against a Barcelona side featuring Diego Maradona.
The 3-0 second-leg triumph against Barça overturned the Catalans’ 2-0 win at Camp Nou and still ranks as arguably the greatest night ever at Old Trafford. Robson scored twice before Stapleton clinched an unforgettable victory. As Atkinson proudly recalls: “Even to this day, bearing in mind some of the things United have done since, people still say the atmosphere that night transcended anything they can remember. It was unbelievable.”
More than 30 years later, the memories are part of United folklore and the relevance of a subtle Bryan Robson tribute to Big Ron is worth taking note of when judging today’s top flight managers.