After serving as a co-commentator at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, Ron Atkinson had his sights set on bettering the third place finish of the previous season for his Manchester United side. United’s last trophy had been in 1977 when they won the FA Cup and the supporters were desperate for glory.
Norman Whiteside had made his mark for Northern Ireland in Spain, aged just seventeen. He would strengthen the attack alongside Frank Stapleton and because of this, Garry Birtles was allowed to return to Nottingham Forest after a disappointing spell since his arrival in 1980.
A new face at the club was Dutchman Arnold Muhren, who had starred for Ipswich Town during their successful period under manager Bobby Robson. His boss had departed to take the England job, and a lot of talent left Portman Road not long after. Muhren would add skill, composure and experience to United’s midfield.
United flew quickly out of the blocks as the season started with two 3-0 wins and six different scorers, including Whiteside who netted away to Nottingham Forest. Now established as captain, Bryan Robson followed on from his scoring exploits at the World Cup with three goals in the opening four games. However, the third match was a 3-1 loss to his club West Bromwich Albion to clip United’s wings a little.
Third place in 1981/82 of course opened the door to European competition for Atkinson. However it was short-lived. Against a strong Valencia, a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford was followed by a 2-1 loss in Spain. United’s UEFA Cup adventure was over by September. To complete an eventful month, a young Peter Beardsley joined from Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps, as United occupied second spot behind Liverpool.
October saw more ups and downs for Atkinson. Liverpool suffered two defeats, tumbling to fifth, passing the lead over to Manchester United. When the two sides met on October 16th at Anfield, a 0-0 draw kept the Manchester club top of the pile.
West Ham had stepped forward as challengers. Their 3-1 win over Liverpool really made people sit up and take notice. When they beat Manchester United by the same score at the end of October, they moved into second place. The inconsistency at the top was incredible, a win for West Brom would have seen them become leaders. Instead, they lost 6-1 at Ipswich.
As the clocks went back, the First Division was as dramatic as ever. Liverpool hammered neighbours Everton 5-0, while United lost again, this time away at Brighton by a single goal. Just when it looked like Atkinson had found the magic formula, his side dropped points in games they were expected to win.
Newly promoted Watford who beat United in the FA Cup 3rd round in January 1982, were enjoying life in the First Division. By the end of November Graham Taylor’s men were second after an incredible 4-2 win away to Arsenal. They had already beaten Sunderland 8-0 in September and the week before the Arsenal win, handed Brighton a 4-1 loss. Next up in the league at Vicarage Road? Manchester United.
Before the trip to Watford, Southampton were the visitors for a League Cup (known then as the Milk Cup) fourth round tie. Progress had been made against Bournemouth and Bradford City. Just over 28,000 attended as Gordon McQueen and Whiteside gave United a 2-0 victory and a quarter-final appointment with Nottingham Forest in January at Old Trafford.
Whiteside was having an excellent season and he proved his worth again against Watford with the only goal. This win took United to second and closer to Liverpool who had lost 1-0 away to Norwich City. But two 0-0 draws and a heavy 3-0 defeat away to Coventry to finish off the month of December saw the gap at the top grow, as Liverpool thrashed Manchester City 5-2. After the games on New Year’s Day, champions Liverpool were eight points clear of second placed Manchester United.
The other challengers were dropping points too, with early pacesetters West Ham now 13 points behind Liverpool. The gap between first and second extended to ten points as United recorded their third 0-0 draw in five matches, this time at home to West Brom. With the FA Cup 3rd round next, and the Milk Cup clash with Nottingham Forest not long after, perhaps the cups could provide some joy.
Although at home, facing West Ham and then Nottingham Forest in both cups were not easy assignments by any means. Each side had tasted cup success in recent years and had proven to be tough opponents for Manchester United in league meetings.
To Atkinson’s delight, both matches ended in wins and clean sheets. West Ham didn’t pose too many problems, the game finished 2-0. But the victory over Forest was even better. Goals from Coppell, Robson and a double from McQueen confirmed a comprehensive 4-0 victory. Technically United were fighting on three fronts, although they needed Liverpool to drop points and to find their own level of consistency to be able to catch them.
In February, Atkinson’s team only played two league games as all eyes were on their cup exploits. A 1-1 draw away at Ipswich left them 12 points behind leaders Liverpool, so attention turned to the first leg of the Milk Cup semi-final away to Arsenal. Their hosts were not enjoying a positive league campaign, cup football was their escape route and only opportunity for silverware.
Manchester United delivered their best performance so far under Atkinson, as they blew Arsenal away. Non-stop attacking football, with Steve Coppell on the wing a constant menace that The Gunners couldn’t deal with. Already 2-0 up at half-time through Whiteside and Stapleton, Coppell scored twice to put United 4 goals clear. Two goals from Arsenal in the last seven minutes took a little bit of shine off the performance but United were favourites to reach Wembley.
Three days later and Derby County were beaten at The Baseball Ground, with Whiteside once again netting a vital goal. The following Wednesday saw the second leg at Old Trafford against Arsenal, and the chance to seal their passage to Wembley. United took the lead through Coppell and, despite an equaliser from Raphael Meade, Kevin Moran gave United a 2-1 win and 6-3 on aggregate. The club’s first ever League Cup final place was secured.
Their opponents in the final? Liverpool. Their next league game? Liverpool.
United knew if they had any chance of the title, they had to beat their great rivals. Liverpool were a machine though, they just couldn’t be stopped and continued to grow their lead. When they arrived at Old Trafford on February 26th, they were fifteen points clear, having played one game more. A 1-1 draw left United with an almost impossible task of winning the title. Their game in hand was up next, away at Stoke. A 1-0 loss felt like confirmation that the league was gone.
Ten days later, in the FA Cup quarter-final, a tense tie against Everton looked to be heading for a replay. As the match went deep into injury time, Stapleton sent a packed Old Trafford delirious with a late winner. They were into another semi-final, and again Arsenal were standing in their way of Wembley.
Before that, it was time to concentrate on Liverpool and the Milk Cup final. With captain Robson injured and Liverpool marching to the title, United were understandably seen as the underdogs. But under Atkinson, they were a side that could raise itself for the big occasion. Liverpool in a Wembley final didn’t come much bigger.
To add some extra intrigue to the story, Liverpool manager Bob Paisley had announced in August 1982 that he was going to retire at the end of the season. After being knocked out of the FA Cup in February to Brighton, this was going to be Paisley’s last visit to Wembley as Liverpool boss.
Four days before the final, United had warmed up with a 2-1 home win over West Ham while Liverpool needed two goals from Ian Rush to get a point at Brighton. Although United had closed the gap by two points, in the league Liverpool were imperious, not tasting defeat since December. Both league meetings between the two sides had ended in draws.
Liverpool were the holders of the Milk Cup, and were going for a third consecutive triumph after beating West Ham in 1981 and Tottenham the year before. This was United’s first ever final in the competition, their last Wembley visit had been the 3-2 FA Cup loss to Arsenal in 1979.
Did Atkinson have the solution to stop Liverpool? Would Liverpool keep up their incredible run in the League Cup?