Tim Sherwood: Mark Atkins was unsung hero of Premiership-winning side
TIM Sherwood played alongside some of the finest players of his generation for Blackburn Rovers, Tottenham Hotspur and England.
But when asked who was the most under-rated of his team-mates over the years, the captain of Rovers’ 1994-95 Premiership-winning side has no hesitation in naming his midfield partner from that historic season.
“Mark Atkins, without question,” snaps Sherwood, who was speaking to the Lancashire Telegraph about his memories of arguably the greatest triumph in the Ewood Park outfit’s 139-year history.
“Let alone under-rated, when people ask me who is the best player I’ve ever played with, he is right up there.
“People might not know him as well, but he was a great player.”
Atkins was an unknown 19-year-old when he first arrived at Rovers from Scunthorpe in June 1988.
But the right back turned midfielder went on to make 314 appearances for the club, scoring 39 goals, including six in 1994-95 as the top flight crown returned to Blackburn for the first time in 81 years.
Atkins was part of the Rovers side which won promotion in 1992 – with his tireless performance in the play-off final Wembley win over Leicester living long in the memory – and the one which reached the summit of English football three years later.
But while Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton may have grabbed the headlines, Sherwood insists the role that Atkins, having won his place back in the team following a long-term injury to David Batty, played in the remarkable success should not be underestimated.
“He was very, very unsung but he was highly regarded by the players in the team,” said Sherwood.
“And he had to be good to stay in the team. He was one of the real old guards and to stay in the team, right until the end, he showed what a great player he was.
“He had a great football brain and he had a great appreciation of where his midfield partner was at the time.
“We didn’t play with a holding midfield player and it was a case of, if I went forward, he would stay back and vice versa.
“He had a good understanding of when to fill up holes and where to be on the pitch and he was technically very, very good.
“He was also a great finisher and he scored really important goals.
“He was a great team player.”
Sherwood and Atkins have both gone into management since their playing careers ended. But whereas Atkins has been the boss of non-league Matlock Town since 2008, Sherwood’s first and so far only senior manager’s job came under the intense media glare at Tottenham.
After five years on the coaching staff at White Hart Lane the 45-year-old was appointed as the Premier League outfit’s new head coach in December after Andre Villas-Boas was sacked.
Sherwood led Spurs to sixth place and into the Europa League after winning 59 per cent of the 22 league matches he took charge of, the highest win percentage of any boss in the club’s Premier League era.
But he left the club two days after last season ended and he is now on the lookout for a new job after turning down the position as head coach at West Brom, who subsequently appointed another former Rovers player, Alan Irvine.
“I’m just waiting for the right opportunity,” says Sherwood.
“I had the opportunity to go to West Brom but I didn’t think it was right for me so I’m just waiting now to see if the right opportunity comes along.
“There’s no panic, I’ve just got to wait for the right one and hopefully I’ll have a career in management.”
But wherever Sherwood goes next he will once again heed the lessons he learned under Kenny Dalglish, the legendary manager who led Rovers to the Premiership title, and his trusted assistant, the late Ray Harford.
“Kenny was very much one of the boys but you knew when it was time to get down to work,” remembers Sherwood.
“You knew when he was the boss and he could be a bad cop. Then Ray would step in and be a calming influence.
“Ray Harford was very good for Kenny, he took both the sessions, the boys liked him and he had a good manner about him.
“They both knew what they wanted and the way we were coached every man knew their job on the field and that is very, very important.
“They didn’t try to confuse it too much, they kept it nice and simple for everyone to understand and they knew what they wanted, and the players were able to adapt to the way they wanted us to play.”