Robson, Remi and Ron Reunited: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part two)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

As the final days of the summer of 1981 arrived, tensions on the streets of England were still rife after riots in different cities. It was the summer of the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana and Ian Botham’s incredible performance for England in The Ashes against Australia. Tainted Love by Soft Cell was the big song on the dancefloor, with bands like UB40 and The Specials providing the soundtrack for the frustrated inner city youth.

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Manchester’s two teams started the season a little differently. At Maine Road, the blue half were unbeaten with two wins and two draws, while Manchester United were struggling with two points from four games. New manager Ron Atkinson had yet to have the expected impact.

On Saturday 19th September, City lost for the first time away to Birmingham. On the same day, Big Ron got rolling. Garry Birtles scored the only goal as United finally recorded their first win under their new manager. The victory over Swansea by a single goal was not too decisive, but it got Atkinson a win. It had taken five games, but they were off and running. That day a new signing came off the bench to make his first appearance.

Remi Moses, the highly rated midfielder arrived from Atkinson’s former club West Bromwich Albion. A Manchester lad, Moses was a hard tackling and energetic warrior who Atkinson knew well. His arrival was also part of a bigger deal, that would change the course of United’s history.

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Another win followed, a 2-0 victory away at Middlesbrough with Birtles again on the scoresheet. A 0-0 draw against Arsenal at Highbury, then a 1-0 home win over Leeds continued the momentum. United were now harder to break down, as four consecutive clean sheets proved. Stapleton and Birtles were linking up well too.

The day after the Leeds game, the announcement was official. Atkinson had his main target and West Brom were another player light. Big Ron even conceded he would have taken the whole team from The Hawthorns to Old Trafford if he could. The British transfer fee was broken as United agreed to pay Atkinson’s old club £1.5 million for Bryan Robson. United’s midfield was now full of talent and experience.

On October 3rd before a crowd of nearly 47,000, Atkinson and chairman Martin Edwards sat down at a tiny table on the Old Trafford pitch, as Robson “signed” his contract. This publicity stunt looks cheesy today, but it created an incredible atmosphere in the stands.

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By 4.45 pm United were celebrating a 5-0 hammering of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Sammy McIlroy, who probably feared for his place, scored three, with Birtles and Stapleton again among the goals. Another win, another clean sheet and a new star player.

When United arrived at Anfield on October 24th they had only conceded one goal in the previous eight games. Hosts Liverpool had drawn half of their league games, including a 3-3 draw at Brighton in the previous match. As the rain fell, both Liverpool and Manchester United were fully committed in this first meeting of the season between the two great rivals.

Robson shot wide when through on goal, but moments later a goal came. Stapleton’s header caused problems and Kevin Moran, the tough Irish defender put the rebound into the net to put the visitors ahead. Chances came and went. Graeme Souness hit the post for Liverpool with a shot from outside of the area, while his goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar looked uncertain as United searched for a second.

The second half continued at the same pace, with tackles flying in on the wet surface. Liverpool substitute Ronnie Whelan chased the ball into the United box. Moran was behind him and slightly touched him in the back. Probably due to the conditions, Whelan tumbled over.

It was a soft penalty decision, made by referee George Courtney, a man who would become a pantomime villain throughout the 80s and early 90s for Manchester United’s support. Terry McDermott stepped up and blasted the ball down the middle of the goal, as United keeper Gary Bailey dived to his right. 1-1 with fifteen minutes to go.

Neither side wanted a point. Alan Hansen saved Liverpool when he blocked a Steve Coppell shot on the line. When Birtles was denied by Grobbelaar with two minutes to go, a draw looked on the cards.

With seconds remaining, United left-back Arthur Albiston picked up the ball and headed forward. He played a one-two with Stapleton to take him into the penalty area. He changed feet to leave a defender in his wake and then shot into the bottom corner to seal the win. Atkinson had his most important victory to date.

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But there was also disappointment in October when United lost 1-0 to Tottenham in the away leg of the League Cup, then known as the Milk Cup. Just days after the Liverpool win, Spurs recorded a win by the same score at Old Trafford in the second leg to eliminate United.

Two more league wins came though, including a first goal for Robson as United hammered Sunderland 5-1 to go top of the league. But a 3-1 loss to bogey side Tottenham and then two weeks later, a 3-2 defeat at Southampton showed some frailties that Atkinson thought he had ironed out. Swansea City went top of the league but as 1981 drew to a close, it was Manchester City in first place.

1982 did not start well for Atkinson’s men. The FA Cup third round loss to Second Division Watford was painful. Graham Taylor’s side were promoted at the end of the season but this result was still a huge shock and left United with just the league to play for.

January ended with a 2-0 loss away to Swansea. Southampton took over at the top with a one point lead over United. However, Ipswich were in third and had three games in hand. In fifth place, a resurgent Liverpool had won their four league games in January to sit ominously behind the leading pack.

The first weekend of February saw Liverpool destroy Ipswich 4-0 at Anfield and United win 4-1 over champions Aston Villa, who were struggling in the league but making progress in the European Cup. Their manager Ron Saunders resigned just days after the loss at Old Trafford. Swansea’s incredible rise continued throughout the month and United ended the month six points off the top, but with two games in hand.

Atkinson’s United were still in with a chance of league glory in what was developing into an exciting title race. Southampton and Swansea were the surprise packages, Ipswich continued from the success of the previous season and Liverpool were waiting to pounce at any opportunity. The experience of title and cup wins gave Liverpool the edge that the others didn’t have.

United had started to struggle in front of goal. Stapleton hadn’t scored since January and after the 4-1 win over Villa, they didn’t score more than one goal in a game for the next six weeks. Before the 3-1 away win at Notts County, a terrible 1-0 loss at home to Coventry City threw their title challenge off course. United finished March in fifth place as Southampton continued to set the pace.

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Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford for a huge game on April 7th. United’s previous two games had ended 0-0 as their woes in front of goal carried into April. Liverpool had won their last five matches to overtake United in the table. A goal in the 63rd minute by Craig Johnstone proved to be enough to give Liverpool the win and send United further behind. Liverpool were now top of the league.

Three days later, Liverpool were back in Manchester and humiliated City by five goals to nil. United were away to Everton, but they could only draw 3-3 on Merseyside. A 2-1 defeat ten days later at Ipswich seemed to put United out of the race. Liverpool had won every league game in April. They had timed their run to perfection.

United’s last six games saw five wins but only nine goals. Once again their goalscoring touch was missing. The first game of this sequence saw the debut of youngster Norman Whiteside, a strong Belfast born forward who looked older than his sixteen years. He would score the final goal of the season as Old Trafford closed the curtain on 1981/82 with a 2-0 win over Stoke City.

The haul of sixteen points from a possible eighteen saw United finish comfortably in third. Liverpool were champions and nine points ahead. Ipswich came second, five points in front of United. 22 wins from 42 games saw United with 78 points and a place in the UEFA Cup.

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Although the league position was a huge improvement from the previous year, it felt like a missed opportunity. Only 59 league goals and six 0-0 draws highlighted the lack of firepower. They only played three cup games all season, each one ended in a 1-0 loss. United’s defence was the tightest in the First Division, with just 29 goals against, so there were huge positives.

As the World Cup in Spain approached, could Atkinson find the solution to take United to the top and dethrone Liverpool?