Preston North End take on West Bromwich Albion this weekend and the Baggies’ former defender Brendon Batson, who played a pivotal role in the development of the Kick It Out campaign to tackle racism and discrimination in football, tells TONY DEWHURST that it took him a long time to forgive Ron Atkinson, his football mentor and manager at the Hawthorns, for a racist comment. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Kick It Out.
What clearly hurt Brendon Batson the most is that Ron Atkinson did more than most to help forge the careers of many black footballers – at a time when racism was rampant in football.
Batson was one of those players.
So, when Atkinson made an off-camera racist comment about Chelsea defender Marcus Desailly during TV commentary duties, it stung to his core.
“I was hugely hurt by the words Ron used,” said Batson, the former deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
“When I played in the seventies and eighties, there was racism on the pitch, on the terraces and in society and Ron was the one who helped change my attitude towards reacting to that shocking abuse, helping me to try and overcome it.
“Ron was really good for me – but it took a long time to get over what he had said.
“I forgave him, but there will always be a part of me that thinks,‘How could you, Ron’?”
In Atkinson’s autobiography, The Manager, he admits the language he used to describe Desailly after a Champions League game – on which he had been commentating – was indefensible.
The irony is not lost on Batson, who added: “Ron did a lot of really good stuff in support of the black cause.
“He was one of the few managers who came to the Kick It Out 10th anniversary dinner.
“And a lot of black players got to know Ron as a result of Kick It Out and became friends with him.
“Ron didn’t sign black players because of their colour, he signed them because they were very good footballers.
“Many black players said: “How must you have felt after hearing that from Ron’?
“But Ron, sadly, will be defined by those broadcast comments, not what he achieved as a manager.
“Yet I think this is the measure of the man – when my wife fell ill the first call I got from a football person was from Ron.
“When I think what my wife and family went through, what Ron said is of no significance to me now.”
When Ron Atkinson arrived at Cambridge United, a struggling Fourth Division club, Batson recalled a rookie manager with an infectious attitude.
Atkinson made his young defender captain at the Abbey Stadium, Batson embracing his union for the first time as a players’ delegate for the Professional Footballers’ Association.
“We had a big clash of personalities, we argued and had differences of opinion, just like managers and players do each day,” he said.
“Ron, though, had that innate ability to improve a player beyond recognition and that’s a gift.”
Then, when Atkinson took charge at West Bromwich Albion, and launched the careers of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, Batson became his first signing at The Hawthorns.
“Ron was the most influential person during my playing career,” he said.
“He gave me my football education.
“However, Ron has had to pay a big price for what he said.
“He was great as a TV pundit, very insightful, but he was the architect of his downfall.
“You can’t justify it under any circumstances.”
Recently, Batson, Atkinson and several of his old West Bromwich Albion team-mates gathered at The Hawthorns to celebrate a famous First Division encounter with Manchester United, WBA winning 5-3 at Old Trafford 40 years ago this December.
Batson said: “It was an amazing match to play in and Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown equalised seconds before half-time in front of the Stretford End, to make it 3-3.
Laurie Cunningham edged West Bromwich Albion ahead before turning provider for Cyrille Regis, who produced a sublime finish.
“Ron said that Laurie was so light and delicate in that game that he could have run on snow without leaving footprints,” said Batson.
“The fifth goal typified Cyrille, running away, arms aloft with that big, beaming smile on his face.
“And that’s how I will remember my great friend Cyrille Regis.”
A statue to honour the three West Bromwich Albion footballers – nicknamed The Three Degrees – who blazed a trail for black footballers, will be unveiled next year.
Organisers said it can now be finished after receiving £38,000 from the PFA.
The tribute is set to stand in West Bromwich town centre and the unveiling will coincide with the 41st anniversary of the trio playing together for the Baggies for the first time in March 1978.
PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor said: “The PFA has been determined to get this important tribute to the ‘Three Degrees’ over the line and mark their great contribution to football.”
Regis died earlier this year and Cunningham, one of the first black footballers to play for England and the first British footballer to star for Real Madrid, was killed in a car accident in 1989.
“Cyrille’s death hit me very hard, so I think I’ll have mixed emotions when they unveil it because two of my mates, Laurie and Cyrille, will not be there,” added Batson.
“I’m probably not looking forward to it because Cyrille’s death is still raw.
“Cyrille was such an unassuming and dignified man and his passing was a great shock.
“It was a great loss that so many have felt.”
Batson is rightly proud of his continued association with the PFA and how the union has grown and prospered under Gordon Taylor’s guiding hand.
“Gordon Taylor and Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, are the two best administrators in football,” he said.
“I’ve been lucky, meeting people who have shaped me, on and off the pitch.
“I was the first black player on the PFA committee and the first black deputy chief executive and that was down to Gordon’s guidance.
“And because of Gordon’s unstinting work, the PFA is now one of the strongest player associations in the world.”