Is ITV's former pundit an idiot, a racist, or both? Al Needham wonders whether that is what matters most about a pundit's fall from grace, or whether his fate tells us how far we have come and how far we have to go

In the end, after all the finger-pointing, hair-shirt wearing, editorials and think-pieces, the only truly shocking thing about what Ron Atkinson said was that, for pretty much the first time in his public life, he came out with a phrase that came frighteningly close to plain English. He didn’t describe Marcel Desailly as “totally nigmatic with his workrate, to be enocular”. He refrained from mentioning that the Chelsea defender had been “giving it big lips all game”. He didn’t even advocate giving minorities the full gun, or bunging them in the mixer.

What he said was... well; you know what he said, because for a couple of days in April the media deemed it more important than Iraq, the European referendum and even the contents of Rebecca Loos’s inbox. With one comment picked up by an abandoned microphone in Monaco, Ron – the former gaudy hunk of gold in the crown of ITV Sport, now known in some schools as a fucking ignorant orange bigot – put the ultimate reducer on his income, losing his TV contract, his column in the Guardian and four sponsorship deals

We already had our doubts about the man. The Italia 90 quarter-final where he described a Cameroon player on-air as “absolutely brainless” then stated off-air that “I’ll only get into trouble if his mother’s back home watching the game sitting up a tree”. His whispered notoriety in the football world for casual racism. Describing Cyrille Regis in Wolves kit as “looking like a bruised banana”, and his appearance that very night on Room 101, where he displayed attitudes to women not seen on BBC2 since the last Newsnight feature on the Taliban (thankfully for all concerned, Roger Mellie had already selected “the blacks” in last month’s issue of Viz). But this was the real deal. Ron – cuddly, avuncular, larger-than-life Ron – had dropped the N-bomb, the term coined by rednecks who are too stupid and slack-jawed to be able to pronounce “negro”.

The following day, while Photoshopped images of Ron hanging out with the Klan zipped around the internet, came the fallout of said bomb, the highlight of which was his live appearance on Sky News. At the beginning, sporting an expression of sheepish peni­tence, he claimed: “I was talking to myself,” although listening to the remark on the internet proves that he was in conversation with Clive Tyldesley (and even if he was talking to himself, he must be suffering a level of tinnitus usually attained by Who roadies). Then he almost lost his rag again when he got tired of the prodding and snapped: “How many times do I have to tell you? I was totally out of order. I don’t think we need to go down that line. I’m one of those who has worked harder and longer with black players than anybody.”

Ah, yes. Ron and his legions of supporters in the media have taken great pains to point out that while his words are inexcusable, his deeds – namely, his laudable managerial record with black players – are far more important. Back in the 1970s, you see, all gentlemen of colour who weren’t in the 1970 Brazil squad were seen as rubbish at football, until Ron, the Great Emancipator, gave them 40 acres of grass and a ball. Ron is “a caring man” according to his colleague Tyldesley. “Gen­uine and generous and, above all, fun-loving. Mischief and mirth are his hobbies. He is an optimist. Live life to the full and to hell with the consequences.” Simon Barnes of the Times even went so far as to urge Tony Blair to reward him for his integrationalist policies. “Arise Sir Ron, knight of the new society, hero of the fight against racism, a man who staked his job and his reputation on the belief that black folk are as good as white folk.”

Before the empty column of Trafalgar Square is filled with a statue of Ron sat in an armchair wearing a stovepipe hat is commissioned, however, it’s worth remembering that Laurie Cunningham and Regis had already been signed to West Brom by previous man­ager Johnny Giles and that Atkinson’s reputation pretty much rests upon his signing of Brendon Batson and forming – cringe – the “Three Degrees”. Yes, he helped smash the myth that black players were all flair and no grit by championing Remi Moses, but Brian Clough was doing the same thing with Viv Anderson. And as Justin Fashanu would have told you, Cloughie was far from right-on.

But the speculation of pundits (this writer included) means nothing in comparison to the reaction of black players. Anderson, the man who broke England’s col­our bar, said he would never dream of branding him as a racist. Batson declared him a “supporter of the black cause”, which brings to mind alarming images of Ron raising his jewel-encrusted fist outside the South African embassy whenever Manchester United played in London. “I’ve known Ron since I was 16, I’ve been on holiday with his family, my children have been sick on him,” said Carlton Palmer. “No way is he a racist.”

Compare the above with the reaction of Ian Wright, however. “Lazy nigger? That’s like a plantation vibe. What’s that all about? What really gets me is that I have heard his interviews about this and he says that he has taken his mike off and his headphones off before he says it. Does that make it any better?”

It’s worth remembering that the older pros are the second generation of the Windrush, who are willing to forgive because at least they were given the chance to play in an era when the National Front were recruiting supporters at grounds, monkey chants were heard on Match of the Day every week and workplace racism was dismissed as a harmless bit of fun. And that Wright is from the next generation who won’t forgive because they know they have earned the right to play on their own merits and refuse to take the abuse their parents suffered. Who’s right on Ron? I guess they all are.

In the most surreal moment of the week, the Observer set up a summit between Ron and Michael Eboda of the New Nation, in order to heal the wound. “Don’t forget, I was brought up... look, I’ve had pairs of shoes that have been nigger brown, that’s what they used to say,” says Ron. Then, there’s a conversation about the hip-hop usage of the word “Nigga” and why some homosexuals call themselves “Queer”, which would have made an excellent out-take for Brass Eye.

Finally, Ron asks the editor of the black community’s leading publication to tell him if he actually is a racist. “No, you don’t see colour when you are giving a person a job… but you come from an era when certain things were acceptable… I think that in the instant that you used the term ‘Nigger’ you were a racist.” Sadly, they didn’t go on to break out the guitars and sing The Ink is Black, but at least something vaguely resembling a line was drawn under the affair.

So what now? Ron’s career might be in tatters at the moment, but – yes! – it’s early doors. Being a “character” (or “an easily-caricatured two-dimensional cliche-monger of the highest order”, depending on your point of view), Ron is an absolutely indispensable vehicle for selling football to the fledgling middle-class fan who actually takes an interest in the car adverts on ITV’s sports coverage and reads newspapers such as the Guard­ian. He’s always good for a “water-cooler moment” in the office and, when you think about it, he’s just like Ron Manager in The Fast Show, isn’t he?

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Ron should consider himself lucky that he worked in the UK and was given the opportunity to resign. To paraphrase Linford Christie, Ron would have met career death on the “r” of the “ger” if he had come out with what he said in America. His nearest broadcasting equivalent, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, was canned for his on-air beliefs that the superiority of black athletes had some­thing to do with the breeding techniques of slave owners. Rush Limbaugh lost his job on an NFL pre-game show when he criticised a black quarterback and claimed that he was being hyped up by a liberal media. While being unbelievably crass, neither statement was as offensive as Atkinson’s.

It would be easy to say that Ron Atkinson opened a can of worms marked “racism” last month, but we all know he merely pulled back the cling-film on a Tupperware container of wiggly bigotry. The best thing to come out of the fall of “Bigot Ron” (©the Sun) was a sense of perspective on past and present. Nobody is calling Patrick Vieira, Sylvain Wiltord and Sol Camp­bell “Mis-Teeq”. Arsenal are renowned for having the best team in the country, not the team with all the black players, and when women make cooing noises at Thierry Henry, men generally understand. No one bats an eyelid when a black player manages to play 90 minutes in Grimsby on a Wednesday night in January, and racism is officially bad according to the Sun.

Ron seems to be making an effort to understand why he’s let down so many people and he isn’t pitching himself as a crusader against the forces of political correctness (or at least someone is advising him not to). That’s why you can safely expect him to get his feet back under the table by the time Germany 2006 rolls round. Whether he can keep them out of his mouth will be another matter entirely.

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month

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