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Ian Atkins interview

Ian Atkins, the European Director of Scouting for Sunderland, is best known for his service as a player and then manager with a host of clubs including Shrewsbury, Ipswich, Birmingham, Colchester, Northampton and Oxford United.

Total Football editor Mark Roach talked to him about his career, his high points, low points, and his current role.

You started your career with Shrewsbury and went on to play nearly 300 games for them over seven years, how did you feel when you finally moved on?

Sad. Shrewsbury Town gave me everthing, a start in professional football, first as a apprentice and then as a professional. I had eight fantastic years there in probably the best years in their history, two promotions, Fourth Division to Third Division and Third Division to Second Division for the first time in the club's history. There were some fantastic cup runs, reaching the sixth round of the FA Cup and wins against many First Division sides on the way, including Manchester City and Ipswich Town. They moulded my career, especially managers Alan Durban and Ritchie Barker during that period.

What were the main highlights of your playing career?

Playing as many games as I did, winning promotions with Shrewsbury, then playing in the First Division with Sunderland, winning the Division 1 Championship, playing in the European Cup Winners Cup final against Rapid Vienna, an FA Cup final and Charity Shield games against Manchester United, and getting to the first play-off final with Ipswich all stand out.

And the low points?

When I joined Birmingham City, my home town club, they fell into financial problems, sold players and we got relegated, that was sad for me as I was a local lad.

You have managed several clubs – what do you think you learned most during your time as a manager?

To be realistic in targets for each individual clubs in relation to the budget I was given when other people were not especially, when competing against bigger clubs and larger budgets. Each player was different and had to be handled differently. To build a good team spirit with a good work ethic, these same principles have never changed since year dot.

Who is the best player to have ever played under you and why?

I bought many young players through and worked with Mark Kinsella, Martin Grainger, Danny Granville, John Filan, Dean Whitehead, Dexter Blackstock and Scott Sinclair, but the best talent out of them all was Jason Dozzell (Northampton). I played with Jason at Ipswich and could not beleive I managed to pursuade him to come to Northampton from Spurs, he was an incredible talent.

What are some of your best memories from your time as a manager?

There are many. Getting to Wembley twice with Northampton, and gaining promotion against the odds especially as the club were in administration. Managing to keep Carlisle in the league with a budget of just £300,000 when they had ownership problems, that was a incredible acheivement. And at Torquay, with five games to go and six points adrift, we managed to win four and draw one of our last five games to stay in the league. They are just a few.

What are your thoughts now looking back at what happened - including your suspension - at the end of your time as manager of Oxford United?

Sadness. We had worked so hard to knock £900,000 off the budget from a team who had got relegated two years on the trot. I took over with Oxford in the bottom three in Division 2. I did not spend a penny on transfers and in 18 months turned them into a promotion team, winnning 29 out of the first 30 league games and beating Premiership Charlton in the Cup. My contract was up in the summmer which created insecurity and during that period I had three or four clubs asking for my services. I chose Bristol Rovers over clubs from a higher division because I thought they were a big club with potential to get to the Championship, with a great fan base, but it was a big mistake. I was gutted to leave Oxford.

You had nearly five years as manager at Northampton and two and a half years at Oxford, but things did not go as well for you at Bristol Rovers and Torquay. How did it feel to have had some success as a manager, followed by your experiences with those two clubs?

Northampton was fantastic. The club were in receivership during that period and we built a fantastic team on nothing, with great spirt and togetherness and with players who put their bodies on the line. To get to Wembley twice was incredible, the stadium was full every week, the team I rebuilt was better than the one that got to Wembley twice and should have got to the Championship, but sadly we parted.

Oxford is a fantstic club but supporters do not know what goes on in the inside and the problems I had, even though we were successful. They have a great fan base and are a Championship club.

Bristol Rovers did go well to a point. I took over after they had finished in the bottom four of the Second Division four year on the trot. In my first year we only lost 12 games in the league, got to the area final of LDV Trophy and I gave Scott Sinclair his first team debut, eventually selling him to Chelsea for £1m. The board was split and I was caught in the middle. It is a fantastic club with great fans, but I wish I had never gone there.

Torquay is also a great little club. I joined to help Chairman Mike Bateson. To stay in the league was incredible. Mike then offered me a contract for two years, which I did not realy want, because I knew he might be selling the club, which he did. Before the new owners came in we won or drew 11 out of the first 12 games and were in the top seven and in a play off position. The new owners came in and wanted to cut everything, they wanted me to stay as Director of Football which I refused. They went on to get relegated which was tragic.

When you left Torquay what were your main aims for the future at that point?

To stay in football. I have never been egotistic enough to say I only want to be a manager. I love all aspects of football. It has been my life and a wonderful living, which I always appreciate, so I was open to anything.

What does you role at Sunderland involve?

One thing that did interest me was going abroad and building up knowledge and a contacts base in Europe and beyond. Mick Brown, who was the chief scout at the time five years ago, called me out of the blue to see if I would be interested in setting up a scouting network abroad which I have. It helped because it was Sunderland, a club which I captained and love. We now have several people who work for the club who live in Europe and I go regularly watch games, and I have built up a fantastic contact base. I initially thought I would give it two years, but I love the work I do and have been doing it for five years.

How did the role working on player work permits come about and what has that experience been like?

Through the LMA. It has been a great experience, especially with the work I do at Sunderland.

What does the future hold for Ian Atkins?

Football has been my life and I appreciate the rewards it has brought me, but who knows in football, you never say never. At the moment I am with a fantastic club and enjoying every minute of the job I do.

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