The month of March in 1983 was more than noteworthy for Manchester United and their manager Ron Atkinson.
The club took a financial hit by letting Peter Beardsley return to Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada on a free transfer. He made a single appearance against Bournemouth, in the Milk Cup (League Cup). He hadn’t yet shown the potential that would persuade Liverpool to pay Newcastle United just under two million pounds for him in 1987.
Atkinson also brought in a player that he knew well from his time at West Brom. Laurie Cunningham left West Brom for Real Madrid but after a disappointing time in Spain, Atkinson took him on loan with the view to signing him on a permanent deal.
March 26th, 1983 marked the first Wembley trip for Manchester United since the heart-breaking last minute loss to Arsenal in the 1979 FA Cup final. The occasion this time was the Milk Cup final and their opponents were holders and league champions Liverpool.
In the league, Liverpool were way ahead of United and looked to be heading for a second successive title. Both league encounters had ended as draws, but on their day Manchester United could beat anyone. Their downfall under manager Ron Atkinson continued to be games they were expected to win.
One major factor for United was captain Bryan Robson. Since signing in October 1981 he had emerged as the team’s leader, just as Atkinson expected him to be. However, for this game, he was not available, ruled out through injury. Different fitness problems would blight Robson’s career and would cost him, United and England.
In his place, Atkinson restored Ray Wilkins as captain. The cultured midfielder was ahead of his time and was sadly labelled “the crab” by Atkinson because of his tendency to pass and move sideways. Atkinson claimed he made the comment to rile Wilkins, in a form of motivation.
United arrived at Wembley on the back of a win, their opponents had laboured to two draws. Were Liverpool becoming complacent as they got closer to the title? United, kitted out in their white away shirts, sensed an opportunity. It took twelve minutes for them to strike.
Norman Whiteside’s breakout season had included some important goals and when he controlled Gordon McQueen’s long ball and turned Alan Hansen to put United ahead, he became the youngest player to score in a League Cup final. At seventeen, Whiteside continued to defy his age.
Liverpool fought back and went close through Ronnie Whelan, Ian Rush and Graeme Souness then forced a succession of corners. United held firm and were still in front at the interval. Liverpool came back out and Alan Kennedy warmed Gary Bailey’s fingers from distance. United appeared happy to sit deep and hit on the break but fresh worries appeared. After a 50/50 challenge with fellow Scotsman Kenny Dalglish, McQueen appeared to be injured from the fall.
To make matters worse, his defensive partner Kevin Moran went down shortly after. Although McQueen could carry on, Moran couldn’t and was replaced by Lou Macari. Six minutes later their resolve was broken. Kennedy who had already threatened from distance, picked up the ball from Sammy Lee’s pass and advanced on the left. He then unleashed a powerful shot from about 25 yards that bounced in front of Bailey and into the net.
Fifteen minutes to play and with the scores level, United were rocked. McQueen was struggling more and more, and there was only one substitute permitted at the time so he decided to fight on but instead as a striker, with Stapleton dropping back alongside Macari in what could only be described as a makeshift defence.
The 90th minute arrived and what followed was a highly controversial moment that United supporters of a certain vintage find difficult to forget, and made referee George Courtney forever unpopular with them, to say the very least.
Macari carried the ball from the back and played the ball over the Liverpool defence, with McQueen timing his run to break the offside trap. Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar raced out of goal and took down the big United defender. The new laws of the game stated that an action like this would be a sending off. Courtney booked Grobbelaar and Liverpool escaped.
Normal time ended and United’s players tried to rally themselves for another thirty minutes. The pattern of the second half continued with Liverpool on attack and United defending stoutly. Then in the 98th minute, Liverpool’s number five Whelan tried a shot that was blocked at the corner of the area. The ball came back to him and he instantly curled the ball past Bailey. It proved to be the winner and United had to watch as Liverpool collected yet more silverware.
Jimmy Hill reviewed the McQueen incident after the game on the BBC, and the United defender was very humble and stated he was happy that Grobbelaar stayed on the field. His supporters didn’t share this opinion. United had to lift themselves, with the FA Cup still possible.
The return of Robson was good news as he scored in a 1-1 draw at home to Southampton, but the title was as good as gone. Knowing they needed a miracle to catch their rivals from Anfield, United took to the field for the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park on 16th April against Arsenal as favourites to lift the trophy. Their Milk Cup demolition of Arsenal was still fresh in the memory.
Again wearing their white away shirts, the atmosphere was crackling with tension and expectation from all four corners of the old traditional ground. On the pitch, the situation was at boiling point too with some raw open wounds among the Arsenal players after the Milk Cup elimination, with United’s Remi Moses a target, following incidents in the previous two meetings.
The first half was tense with very few chances and the two midfields battling for power. Then with nine minutes to go before the break, Arsenal drew first blood.
Bailey, who was the scapegoat when the two sides met in the 1979 final, was at fault for the opening goal. He came out to challenge Stewart Robson but got tangled up with his own player. Arsenal’s Vladimir Petrović took the loose ball and his close range cross was spilled by Bailey. Robson poked the ball back towards the unguarded United goal, Tony Woodcock touched it over the line to make sure, before anyone could clear.
Stewart Robson didn’t come back out for the second period, injured in a challenge with Arthur Albiston. It was his namesake in United’s colours that would make a difference. Five minutes into the second half, Arsenal’s Chris Whyte cleared the ball out of the defence but only as far as Ashley Grimes on the Manchester United left. Grimes crossed the ball back into the penalty area, Bryan Robson chested the ball down and hit a first time shot past George Wood to equalise.
With the game perfectly poised, it was United who started to ramp up the pressure without testing Wood too much. Bailey at the other end was comfortable as well, with not much of a threat coming from The Gunners. With twenty minutes to go, it was time for someone to step up and make a difference.
Gordon McQueen won a header on the halfway line and found Albiston, who knocked it forward with the outside of his left foot. Whiteside anticipated the situation faster than the Arsenal defence and hit a powerful half-volley past Wood and into the net. The supporters behind the goal went wild as United took the lead. Whiteside again in the headlines, the player for the big occasion.
Arsenal had to find something. Woodcock shot straight at Bailey, then the poor United defender Kevin Moran got injured again. This time, with five minutes to go, he suffered a blow to the head attacking a corner. Pouring with blood and on a stretcher, he defiantly gestured to the United supporters, which they loved. Young Paul McGrath came on to play alongside McQueen and see out the game. United had done it, Wembley beckoned once more.
The euphoria of the victory at Villa Park was followed by a loss three days later at Goodison Park with Everton beating United 2-0. A win by the same score over Watford, featuring a goal from Cunningham kept Liverpool’s title coronation on hold but it was only for one more week.
Liverpool clinched the league on April 30th but for United, priorities had changed with the FA Cup final against Brighton and Hove Albion to come in May. Three of the last five league games ended in defeat and Watford completed an incredible season by passing United and coming second. As in the previous season, Manchester United finished third. Again defeats to teams at the wrong end of the table and a lack of goals cost United, Liverpool were twelve points clear with an enormous goal difference.
The exciting cup runs had taken a toll on the squad with injuries to key players at the wrong time, but as United headed to Wembley again for the FA Cup final, they knew that they would be huge favourites, especially as Brighton’s relegation was confirmed in the first week of May.
After the drama and heartache of the Milk Cup final, could Manchester United finally lift a trophy or would a second season without silverware leave Ron Atkinson under pressure?