Sideshow Ron: Peterborough United and Big Ron Manager
Things are looking pretty good at Peterborough United at the moment. Posh fans will be counting their blessings as they prepare to take on their Director of Football Barry Fry’s former club Birmingham City this weekend. It wasn’t so long ago that Fry was at the centre of a rather eccentric departure from the normality of life in the lower leagues. In the latest of his articles delving into the past of various Football League clubs, Rob Doolan recalls what came before the heady days of goals galore under Darren and Darragh.
In late 2005, some 18 months after his disgraceful comments about what “some schools” would call Marcel Desailly torpedoed his career as a highly paid TV pundit, ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson was looking to rehabilitate himself and get back into football. After a couple of failed attempts on the chat show circuit, he decided the best approach would be to remind everyone that he used to be a half-decent manager.
And so the ‘Big Ron Manager’ concept was born. Sky cameras would follow Ron in his capacity as a ‘football troubleshooter’, descending on a struggling Football League club to offer the benefit of his 47 years’ experience in the game. The first club targeted was Swindon Town, managed by one-time Nigerian international Iffy Onuora, with the potential to exploit the tension arising from Ron’s racist remarks in May 2004 all too distastefully apparent. Unsurprisingly, Onuora was uncomfortable with the situation. Just weeks into filming at the County Ground he nixed the project, feeling that Atkinson was becoming more involved in team affairs than he had been led to expect.
Undeterred, Sky and Big Ron went looking for another club willing to give the man with the tan a platform. They found one in the shape of League Two side Peterborough United, owned by Atkinson’s old mate Barry Fry – never one to shy away from publicity. Fry’s enthusiasm for the cameras went beyond the desire for exposure. Peterborough received £100,000 for granting Sky access to the dressing room, and that was money that Posh couldn’t afford to turn down. The club was in dire financial straits. Fry had remortgaged his house, cashed in his pension and even placed the deeds of his mother-in-law’s home in the bank in order to secure an overdraft in his attempts to keep Posh afloat. Big Ron Manager provided the chance to raise funds in an innovative way.
The managerial hotseat at Peterborough had been thrown into turmoil just prior to Ron’s arrival. England’s Italia ’90 star Mark Wright had been shown the door for gross misconduct (ironically amid another racism row). This left inexperienced coach Steve Bleasdale in charge as caretaker boss. Despite being a rookie, the gruff Liverpudlian enjoyed a fine start, winning five of his first seven games. When Atkinson headed to London Road in early 2006, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of ‘trouble’ in need of shooting. With 13 games remaining, Posh were looking good for a play-off spot.
Although Bleasdale had no say in Big Ron’s appointment – the money was too important – he cautiously welcomed him, with Fry giving assurances that the newcomer wouldn’t interfere. Atkinson himself echoed these promises, vowing that “no one’s coming in to stab anyone in the back” and insisting his motives were simply to show “how hard it is at the lower levels and how hard people have to work”. What was the worst that could happen?
The answer, as if you didn’t know, was a lot. The presence of Atkinson and the cameras utterly derailed the Posh promotion push. When the show was finally broadcast at the start of the following season, it played like, in the words of one Peterborough fan, “a football version of This is Spinal Tap”. The club was portrayed as a laughing stock. Naturally, Big Ron was more hands-on than had been made out (there wouldn’t have been much of a programme if he hadn’t been), and he and the highly-strung Bleasdale were soon clashing at every turn. Results tanked and the team lost 10 of their last 13 games, finishing outside the play-offs in 9th.
Bleasdale came across in the documentary as completely out of his depth, a cross between David Brent and Captain Mainwaring. Over the course of the show, viewers were treated to the sight of him offering to fight a Notts County fan and threatening to “chin” an official. The advice he imparted to his players consisted of such Churchillian pearlers as “when it’s a battle, you f**king battle”. It was implied that the squad had trouble accepting Bleasdale as boss following his transition from number two. The manager was shown in fierce arguments with younger players such as Sean St Ledger, Danny Crow and Fry’s son Adam, while chaos reigned in the dressing room when two of the more experienced pros, Paul Carden and Mark Arber, came to blows. St Ledger was proving a particular problem. The team’s best player and more than aware of it, he had a frosty relationship with Bleasdale even before the latter’s ascent to the manager’s office. There were reports St Ledger had been the player at the centre of the controversy that led to Wright’s dismissal and he proved a constant thorn in Bleasdale’s side.
Atkinson recognised this lack of respect and suggested instigating a new system whereby players addressed Bleasdale as “boss” or “gaffer” rather than “Bleo”, with fines in place for those who failed to do so. Other ideas that brought Big Ron into conflict with Bleasdale included bringing in a goalkeeping coach and taking QPR striker Stefan Moore on loan – neither of which the manager felt that cash-strapped Posh could afford. Instead, ‘Bleo’ opted for non-league forward Lloyd Opara – fresh from a trial with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. The gamble didn’t pay off however, with Opara only managing two goals in 11 games.
Relations became strained between manager and ‘troubleshooter’. The cameras showed Bleasdale complaining about Ron’s perceived interference. Atkinson, for his part, shot back that Bleasdale was “sensitive” and “paranoid” and insisted that he hadn’t come all this way to “hang around corridors like a lollipop”. Fry stirred the pot, seemingly on a mission to wind up and undermine his manager. When Bleasdale attempted to have Ron banned from the dressing room, Fry overruled him. Favouring Atkinson’s ideas, he told Bleasdale at one point “it’s clear to me that you have no idea what you’re doing”. Fry also began to interfere in team selection. When Bleasdale dropped St Ledger after another spat, Fry assured the youngster he’d be playing. Soon, the chairman was outright picking the team.
Things came to a head 70 minutes before a league match with Macclesfield three games before the end of the season. Humiliatingly made to stand aside while Fry gave the team talk, Bleasdale gave his own speech to the players afterwards. Bemoaning that “four or five people were picking the team”, he quit – on camera – walking out there and then. Ironically, Posh won the game 3-2. Although Bleasdale later tried to retract his resignation, Fry was having none of it and put himself in charge for the remaining games as Peterborough’s season ended with a whimper.
On being broadcast in August 2006, Big Ron Manager was lauded as trashy, riotous entertainment, but few of those featured were laughing. Peterborough’s long-suffering supporters certainly weren’t. Bleasdale was perhaps the biggest victim – he hasn’t worked for a league club since. Still incredibly bitter, he told the Daily Mirror that Atkinson had challenged his authority in front of the other players: “it got to the stage where players were trying to decide who to listen to, Ron Atkinson the great manager or the rookie manager who has just had two defeats.” While Ron walked away, he complained: “there is nothing for me”.
Atkinson gained little from the project either. The show did not mend his reputation and five years later, he largely remains a pariah in English football. St Ledger emerged slightly better from the wreckage. The player described watching his brattish behaviour on screen as “a wake-up call” that forced him to grow up and he has since forged a reputation as a solid Championship defender and Republic of Ireland international.
The real winners, perversely, were Peterborough themselves. “In stitches” as he watched the shambles unfold on Sky was one Darragh MacAnthony. As funny as he found the show however, the holiday home magnate professed to “like the passion” he saw in spades at London Road. MacAnthony had been looking to get involved in football for some time, and Big Ron Manager convinced him that Peterborough was the right club. Within weeks he’d contacted Fry and cash-strapped Posh had a wealthy new owner.
Together with manager Darren Ferguson, the Irishman helped to propel Peterborough onwards and upwards. Within three seasons they had returned to the Championship for the first time in 15 years. Despite a few hiccups along the way, that is where they currently reside, their high scoring games testament to the fact that life is rarely dull at London Road. Even the stormiest, Big Ron-shaped clouds have a silver lining. And when it’s a battle, Peterborough f**king battle.