2006: Madonna was at number one, tweets were something reserved for birds and not rich lunatics, and Peterborough United didn’t have a pot to piss in. So, our soul was sold to that nice man Rupert Murdoch to humiliate the club in front of the nation, in the form of a fly on the wall documentary following our beloved club. I’ve watched all 5 bloody hours of ‘Big Ron Manager’ (which some kind/twisted individual has uploaded to youtube) so you don’t have to, and regurgitated it into this series. I regret this already…
We’re introduced to this ‘unique experiment’ by the dulcet tones of voiceover Jeff Stelling as the camera pans around the one and only: Ron Atkinson, who will be acting as Peterborough United’s ‘footballing troubleshooter’ for the remainder of the 2005-06 campaign. The elephant in the room is slaughtered straight away: at the time, Atkinson had been off the TV screens of Britain for 2 years after he inadvertently dropped the N-bomb on Marcel Desailly live on air. Atkinson apologised again for the comment and added ‘I’m not a racist, you can see I’ve worked with any number of black players in my time’; ah, thankfully the classic, cliched defence to bigotry sounds nothing like that comment, he’s kosher is our Ron!
Anyway, Ron’s chauffeur driven Merc is hurtling down the A1 and I’m already cringing. In a horrifically staged phone call set to ‘Mr Brightside’, Barry Fry (or “Basil Brush”, as he bizarrely refers to himself) tells Ron ‘I’m in the shit mate, got a new manager in and no money, ‘elp!!’. Atkinson chuckles (GREAT ACTING RON!) and tells Fry he’s turning the car round. By the power of editing, the two cu- sorry, ‘characters’ liaise in Fry’s office, as we learn of the ‘fackin’ millions’ he’s invested down the years, and how ‘me new fackin’ manager has got no experience’. The picture is being painted bleakly.
We’re soon introduced to said “new fackin’ manager” Steve ‘Bleo’ Bleasdale, who’d taken over from Mark Wright 3 games prior to filming beginning. (It must be noted that Wright was dismissed for alleged racism on the training ground. The void this created was essentially filled by a man responsible for definite racism on national TV. Tremendous). Bleasdale is revealed to be a passionate man, if not a tactical whizz-kid. ‘You put the same fucking effort in as me or you fuck off’ is the first line he utters in the series as the cameras capture a typical training session. This passion has done the trick so far as Posh sit nicely in a play off spot, partly down to Bleo who had masterminded 2 wins for the side by this stage.
Bleasdale and Atkinson are introduced to each other for the first time, and the rookie Posh boss seems receptive to his new troubleshooter. ‘As long as I’m not eating my dinner and going on the sun beds with Ron, I’m happy’ giggled Bleo. It was quite clear, Bleo didn’t want too much interference… And with that, it was time to get down to business: match day against Notts County. Atkinson would merely observe this match with Fry-aptly it was a trip to the oldest professional football ground in the country given that two dinosaurs were in attendance. Local treasure Edwin Overland described the action, as Posh took the lead through Danny Crow to the delight of his manager and chairman. ‘that’s Danny Crow, only 19, he’s fucking magic he is!’ an excitable Baz told Ron (Crow would never play above League 2 level again, and currently turns out for the titans of Mildenhall Town). Posh were well and truly in dreamland when James Quinn (no, not that one) doubled the lead and sent an elated Bleo sprinting down the touchline, much to the annoyance of the home faithful. Steve felt this was an appropriate time to offer a supporter outside after the match, which even a PR novice like me can probably work out isn’t too great for your image.
Posh held on to claim another 3 points, and a positive atmosphere emanated from my TV screen. Atkinson was positively gushing about the passing style of play on offer, the quality of some of the young players and our prospects of promotion. Bleasdale was clearly also content with how things were going. This seems like it will be an uplifting fairytale about an iconic football manager helping a promising young manager to a hard fought promotion… I can barely wait to see how this ends!
Fresh from the victory over County, Posh are at their Castor training ground preparing for Bleasdale’s fifth match at the helm, with the new troubleshooter present. Ron’s first observation is a fair one: no specialist goalkeeper coach on the staff is a major issue, one we hear about for bloody ages as Ron bangs on to any sod who’ll listen. It’s time for Ron to come face to face with Steve on a normal working day, and the topic of conversation is the upcoming visit of Bristol Rovers. Jeff Stelling prepares the viewers for what we’re about to hear: ‘priceless insider knowledge from Ron’. Brilliant! Now we’re talking! Has Ron overheard a conversation in a pub or been tipped off by an old friend over a shock new Rovers tactic? Not quite… “The lads they have up front, Agogo and…. Urrrmmmm… Richard Walker, I had them at Villa. They’ll cause you problems” Ron triumphantly claimed. Bleo quickly replies, clearly a tad confused by this statement; “yeah, we know. They’ve scored 31 goals this season”. Atkinson may as well have announced the sky is blue.
Match day comes around quickly, and the cracks are starting to appear. The Pirates race into a two goal lead and shockingly, Stelling’s narration paints Ron as an omniscient being who walks among us, blaming the goals on a lack of ‘keeper coaching. The fact Bristol Rovers are very very good and the stand-in goalkeeper Lee Harrison is very very bad is totally irrelevant. The atmosphere in the days following the eventual 2-1 defeat is a somber one; Barry Fry decides to give the players a piece of his mind at the training ground, whilst Ron and a quiet Bleo watch on. This is just before Atkinson elects to *NARRATIVE ALERT* use his football contacts to get hold of his former West Brom goalkeeper Tony Godden to amend the goalkeeper coach situation. The fact the Godden had already had multiple spells at London Road as a player and a coach is neither here nor there, it’s the Atkinson effect that got him back!!
Bleasdale’s reign at Posh was still being measured in weeks at this stage, but it looked like he was already clutching at straws coming up with new ideas. He announces to his squad that he’ll be emulating Chelsea’s young new manager Jose Mourinho: taking them to a local factory to teach them a lesson, or something. Young defender Sean St Ledger is among those who are less than impressed with the idea; “A factory? fucking waste of time if you ask me” the Brummie mumbles to the camera. “I’ll have to wear goggles! Goggles, d’ya know what I mean?” Yes Sean, I am aware of the concept, thank you very much. Anyway, we’re soon transported to the north of the city-the Brotherhood factory, to be precise-as Bleasdale looked like he was supervising a day trip from a care home recently placed under special measures. Some players such as Dave Farrell and Paul Carden listened intently to a diligent worker describing his job, but the majority had found their way to the company’s office and began irritating every single person on the payroll.
During a nutritious post-trip meal at the bowling alley on New Road, Bleo tried to make a strained comparison between the Brotherhood team and Posh themselves, emphasising how one component failing there is an equivalent to one player failing here… I think. However, the offer of saturated fat and E-numbers in front of every player meant that what could have been a poetic metaphor fell on deaf ears.
Back to the conventional training venue the following day, and Ron is there again! As he will become part of the furniture over the next few months, he starts to get to know some of the playing staff. It is here where friction begins to build between Atkinson and Bleasdale; the former Manchester United manager was floating the idea of changing the pre-match schedule with Dean Holden when he is overheard by Steve, who calls Ron over for a chat. We’re only given a brief outline of the discussion before the cameras are asked to leave, as the clearly disgruntled Posh manager feels that Atkinson has overstepped the mark and revokes Atkinson’s right to be present in the changing room pre-match. It’s a bit frosty.
We cut forward a few days to the visit of Stockport County, where Ron dobs Steve’s actions in to Barry Fry, who threatened to sack his manager immediately if the terms Sky and Fry had agreed on were not upheld. Atkinson, to his credit, calmed Baz down and persuaded him to not rock the boat before a match. With good reason too, as Posh claim an important win over the Hatters thanks to a Dean Holden header and substitute Ryan Semple’s goal (tactical genius that). Their grip on the play offs was tightening…
With episode 1 drawing to a close, the tension between Bleasdale and Atkinson is addressed. In the most extreme example of good cop-bad cop in history, Joan Hill and Barry Fry attempt to calm the situation down. Bleo- who’s lost his voice by this stage- is reluctant to have Atkinson in the changing room, citing the potential to confuse players as the source of his concern. Fry, like all good bosses listened to his employee’s concerns, talked out a potential solution and against all odds a compromise is reached:
Steve’s concerns are dismissed. Fry gets his way and Atkinson is allowed back in.
I can’t wait for episode 2, me.
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