Big Ron rides in: Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United (part one)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

Martin Buchan slowly climbs the famous steps, his limbs aching after giving everything for his team. The captain of Manchester United lifts the FA Cup aloft for Wembley Stadium and the watching millions around the world to see.

Not only have they stopped Liverpool from winning the treble, Manchester United have won a major trophy after a long wait. Just as manager Tommy Docherty promised they would the year before, following a shock defeat in the 1976 final to Second Division Southampton.

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The positivity around the players and supporters is extremely high. Playing attacking football and urged on home and away by a frenzied support, Manchester United are on the verge of something special. May 21st, 1977 feels like a huge turning point for a club that spent a season in the second tier in 1974/75.

But behind the scenes, the cracks were already wide open. The board of directors were aware of a delicate situation and it was only going to end one way. Not long after the cup win over Liverpool the story went public. Manager Docherty was having an affair with the wife of the club’s physio. He had already ruffled the board’s feathers with his brash personality and outspoken opinions. The decision was taken. He was sacked.

After his impressive spells at Chelsea and QPR, Dave Sexton arrived to replace the flamboyant Docherty. Seen as a ground-breaking coach, Sexton was the polar opposite of his predecessor. A safe pair of hands that wouldn’t court controversy and would hopefully take the club to the next level based on the technical side of the game.

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As supporters quickly discovered, he certainly was different from Docherty. The swashbuckling football was replaced with a slower paced, possession based game. United came 10th in Sexton’s first season, the optimism of May 1977 had disappeared.

Only an appearance in the FA Cup final could paper over the cracks of another disappointment in 1978/79 as United came ninth. Being the losing side in a dramatic final was no consolation, as United came from 2-0 down to Arsenal with five minutes to play to level the game.

However, one minute after equalising and with extra time beckoning, Alan Sunderland latched on to a Liam Brady cross to win the game 3-2 for the North London side. It wouldn’t be the last time that Sunderland would haunt Manchester United.

United headed into the last season of the decade with very little to smile about. The dull football was now considered normal but the record signing of Ray Wilkins from Chelsea appeared to be a statement of intent and also support for Sexton.

Results were far more promising and United closed in on Liverpool. But a huge 6-0 defeat at Ipswich Town in March was followed by two 0-0 draws. United needed their momentum back and to hope that Liverpool would falter. A run of eight wins in nine matches put United back in contention. But it wasn’t to be. A last day defeat away at Leeds coincided with their Merseyside rivals beating Aston Villa 4-1. The title was Liverpool’s.

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So after finishing 2nd and just two points behind the champions the previous season, supporters expected a title challenge and perhaps a cup, as the 1980s got into full swing. It wasn’t to be. As the curtain came down on the 1980/81 campaign, to describe the mood at Old Trafford as sombre would be an understatement. United came 8th, and that was only thanks to a run of seven consecutive wins to finish the dismal season.

Early exits in all cup competitions, the combination of poor results and turgid football, left the board of directors with a decision to make. Five days after the last game, a 1-0 win over Norwich City, Sexton was relieved of his duties.

The club needed to reset things, to get the fans back onside, and to try and get United closer to the top teams. Sexton was always described as a nice man, but he was so different from Docherty and the club had lost its swagger. United were not exciting to watch anymore. They needed a manager with a big personality, who would play good football and make United a force again.

The newspapers linked the successful managers of the era to the job. Brian Clough was a league title and double European Cup winning manager. Bobby Robson had led Ipswich to cup glory at home and abroad with entertaining football. Ron Saunders took Aston Villa to the title in 1981 by pipping Ipswich in April.

The story goes that Lawrie McMenemy was the closest to taking the job. The man behind the FA Cup win over United in 1976, McMenemy had taken Southampton out of the Second Division and into Europe. How close did he come to getting the gig? It depends on who tells the story, but finally he ruled himself out and United’s young chairman Martin Edwards needed a plan B.

Down in the West Midlands, West Bromwich Albion were causing a stir. Under Ron Atkinson, they were playing exciting football and putting pressure on teams at the top. In 1978 they beat United 5-3 at Old Trafford in a game labelled “match of the century”. They finished 1980/81 in fourth place and there was no sign of their momentum slowing down with a place in Europe confirmed for the following season.

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Atkinson was the media’s dream. With his self-confidence and charisma, “Big Ron” was always quick to give the press a comment or two. He might not have been close to the top of the original list, but in the summer of 1981, he was chosen to awaken Old Trafford’s sleeping giant. Due to the previous season’s poor showing, no European football was available to Atkinson. It didn’t deter him, and he took the job.

To make his task more difficult, top scorer Joe Jordan departed for AC Milan, leaving the team without its target man. Atkinson was delighted when the club paid Arsenal £950,000 for Frank Stapleton to fill the void left by Jordan. The new manager also offered a second chance to Garry Birtles, who after arriving in a big money move from Nottingham Forest, had struggled in attack.

The supporters started to feel more upbeat as the dark clouds of the last few seasons started to disperse, and the larger-than-life new manager set about trying to make United contenders again. The signing of the highly rated Stapleton helped the mood.

The first league game of the new era came at Highfield Road against Coventry City, a team that finished just three points from the relegation places in 1980/81. But within eleven minutes Atkinson had things to ponder as the home side took the lead through Steve Whitton. Lou Macari, who was signed by Docherty eight years before restored parity just before half-time for the away side.

The equaliser didn’t make much difference as three minutes after the break, future Atkinson signing Peter Bodak scored what proved to be the winning goal for Coventry. A 2-1 loss was not the start that the club or its new boss was looking for.

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Two days later Atkinson was officially introduced to the Old Trafford crowd as Nottingham Forest came to town. The 0-0 draw didn’t do anything to excite the support and things would only get worse at the next home game.

On the back of an incredible previous season, which saw them win the UEFA Cup, finish 2nd and go far in the FA Cup, Ipswich Town were a difficult opponent for the struggling Manchester United. And they were not going to pass up the chance to bloody United’s nose either.

A beautiful pass by Arnold Muhren sent Alan Brazil into the United area. He held off the defender to score past Gary Bailey in front of the Stretford End. Both players would later be wooed by Atkinson to Old Trafford. United’s leveller came via Frank Stapleton’s first goal for the club. After chasing a long ball from Martin Buchan, Stapleton got away from the Ipswich defence and lifted the ball over Paul Cooper to make it 1-1.

But it was a bitter sweet afternoon for United’s new number nine. He tried to clear a corner but could only flick it on into his own six yard box. Ipswich’s John Wark arrived to score past Bailey and give his side a 2-1 win.

The Atkinson effect wasn’t translating into results as United searched for their first win of the season. Another goal from Stapleton came in a 1-1 draw away at league champions Aston Villa, a result which was more than credible but still left United winless after four league games.

A spark was needed from somewhere, some new blood that could shake things up and pull United out of this gloomy spell.

Atkinson knew where to look for that…