25 years ago: ‘Injustice’ of relegation still rankles with Atkinson 25 years on

As Ron Atkinson leaned on the roof of the home dugout in front of the main stand at Hillsborough, the devastation at being relegated for the first time was etched all over his face.

Ron Atkinson.

Sheffield Wednesday, needing just a point at home to Nottingham Forest to guarantee their top-flight status, had just lost 3-0.

Tears were flowing in the stands as it became clear a rumour that Derby County had equalised late on against Luton, a goal that would have kept the Owls up, was false. The Owls were down.

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A quarter of a century on from that day in S6, the sense of injustice clearly still rankles with the 76-year-old as he takes a trip down memory lane with The Yorkshire Post.

“We went down with 43 points from 38 games,” recalls the former Hillsborough chief.

“I maintain to this day that we were the best team to ever get relegated.

“No one can change my mind on that.

“With six games to go, we were 2-1 up against Spurs and had we won that we’d have been not far off the European places.

“Unfortunately, Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) was brilliant that day, Gary Lineker got a couple of goals and we lost.

“Things just went downhill from there. But relegation still wasn’t in our minds. Then, Luton started winning games from nowhere and we were, suddenly, deep in trouble.”

Even allowing for Lineker and Gascoigne condemning Wednesday to defeat on March 31 that year, Wednesday still finished the Spurs game with 40 points, a tally that, in most years, is enough to guarantee safety.

A trio of defeats then saw the Owls slump to fourth bottom only for a 2-1 win at Charlton Athletic in the club’s penultimate game to look to have moved Atkinson’s men clear of trouble.

Luton’s own win at home to Crystal Palace, however, that same afternoon meant three points separated the two clubs in the battle to avoid joining already-relegated duo, Millwall and Charlton, in Division Two.

Forest, back at Hillsborough for the first time since the previous year’s horror that saw 96 Liverpool fans lose their lives before the FA Cup semi-final, went ahead inside nine minutes through Stuart Pearce’s free-kick.

David Hirst fired against a post for the hosts but Pearce added a second just after the hour mark.

By now, Wednesday were looking bedraggled and there was no surprise when Nigel Jemson made it 3-0 seven minutes from time.

Luton were 3-2 ahead by then but a huge cheer shortly before the end at Hillsborough suggested that Derby had equalised at the Baseball Ground.

Atkinson, taking his cue from the 29,762 crowd, clenched his fists in the belief that his side had, indeed, been given a last-gasp reprieve.

Cruelly, however, the rumour of a third goal by the Rams proved to be false and Wednesday were down.

At the final whistle, Brian Clough, the Forest manager, told the press: “I can think of 25 other managers I would rather see in his position. I feel sorry for Ron but he knows the score.”

Support immediately came from the boardroom, as Dave Richards, chairman for just a couple of months, made it clear he saw the former Manchester United chief as the right man to lead the club out of Division Two.

Atkinson would justify that thinking by guiding the Owls back into the top flight in glorious fashion just 12 months later as the holders of the League Cup

“I remember an hour and a half after the season ended,” he recalls today, “we had to go to the Player of the Year dinner. That was difficult.

“Mind, it wasn’t as bad as what happened next.

“We’d booked to go away for a week to Marbella after the season ended. And who were the first people we bumped into in Marbella? Only the entire Luton team. We could have done without that.”