When Manchester United arrived at Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup final in May 1983, they had just finished in third place for the second successive season. Under the guidance of flamboyant manager Ron Atkinson, they had also lost 2-1 after extra-time in the League Cup final to Liverpool.
The style of play was more exciting than under the previous boss Dave Sexton. Progress was being made. What both Atkinson and the club needed was a trophy. In 1983, the FA Cup was still one of the biggest in the game, a final where the whole country was glued to the TV for hours. An event broadcast around the world.
Their opponents had just been relegated but for their big day, Brighton and Hove Albion flew to the stadium by helicopter, passing over United’s teams bus on the way to the famous old ground. Their manager was only working on a caretaker basis, but Jimmy Melia had become famous for his eccentric dress sense and a much younger girlfriend. Wembley was the perfect stage for these two charismatic managers.
Clear favourites, United were expected to win at a canter but Brighton had already taken four points from them during the season. Under no pressure at all, The Seagulls could enjoy the final and try to cause a shock. They were without captain Steve Foster though, which was considered a big loss for them.
It didn’t take long for the game to spring into life, with a goal coming in the opening fifteen minutes. United stood off Brighton who passed it around in their opponent’s half. The ball arrived at the feet of Gary Howlett who played an inviting cross into the box. Gordon Smith outjumped Kevin Moran and headed past Gary Bailey to put the underdogs ahead.
It was the only goal of the first period. Frustrated that they couldn’t break down the opposition, United also struggled with the pitch, which was in poor condition. They needed something, Atkinson had to lift his side.
Ten minutes into the second half, United’s right-back Mike Duxbury bombed forward. He exchanged passes with Alan Davies then tried a cross, which was blocked. He picked up the rebound and looked for Norman Whiteside at the near post. But Tony Grealish, Brighton’s skipper for the day got there first. Unluckily for him, he sent the ball across goal and Frank Stapleton anticipated it before anyone else, to get the equaliser at the far post.
United were sensing the opportunity now to get another, as legs started to tire on the heavy Wembley turf. Ray Wilkins made progress down the Brighton right and as he came to the edge of the penalty area, defender Graham Pearce came towards him. Wilkins moved on to his left foot and then curled a beautiful shot past Graham Moseley to put Manchester United into a 2-1 lead. The favourites had turned it around and were now leading with eighteen minutes to play.
Brighton tried to get back into the game, but the clock was ticking and it looked like their hopes were over. After a bit of sloppy United play in midfield gave The Seagulls the ball back, it took a diving header from Gordon McQueen to stop the cross. But Brighton had a corner. In an early pundit role on ITV alongside Brian Moore was Liverpool’s Graeme Souness. He correctly said that United had invited the pressure on themselves.
The corner from Jimmy Case came to the edge of the area, where Grealish controlled it before shooting. His shot was going nowhere but Gary Stevens took the ball with his left foot before hammering the ball past Bailey with his right. It was now 2-2 with only three minutes left. “I told ya, told ya, I told ya” said Souness smugly as Stevens was mobbed by his Brighton teammates. This would need extra-time.
With aching legs on a dreadful Wembley pitch and most with their socks rolled down, both sets of players were finding it difficult to muster the energy to create a chance to win the match. In the last minute and with a replay beckoning, Brighton would have their opportunity to make history.
United lost the ball again, and Case saw the run of Brighton forward Michael Robinson. The pass from Case put United’s defence on the back foot. As Robinson ran for the ball, Moran’s tired challenge was in vain and he finished on his back. Robinson then turned McQueen and was in the area with a sight at goal. He saw Gordon Smith arrive to his right and fed him the ball instead of shooting.
What happened next became even more famous because of the commentary from BBC Radio’s legendary Peter Jones. “And Smith must score!” exclaimed Jones. But he didn’t. Gordon Smith shot straight at Gary Bailey. Within seconds, the whistle blew and both sides would have to meet again on Thursday 26th May at Wembley. Smith’s miss became part of both clubs’ history, and replayed over and over.
The result of the replay made Smith’s miss more painful for him and his club. Despite Foster returning as captain, Brighton were never in the game and Manchester United made sure that they lived up to the hype this time. And it was their captain who made the difference.
Bryan Robson broke the deadlock after twenty five minutes, when Davies found him on the edge of the box and he rifled his shot past Moseley. He hadn’t just opened the scoring, the skipper had opened the floodgates. Davies was having an enormous impact and his cross was met by Whiteside, who headed home to make it 2-0 after thirty minutes. Whiteside’s incredible twelve months was continuing.
Brighton were against the ropes and fading fast, they needed to get to half-time without conceding again. They didn’t make it. Stapleton headed the ball across goal and Robson arrived unmarked to make it 3-0. Then just after the hour mark, Robson was pulled back in the area by Stevens and a penalty was given. Robson gave the ball to Arnold Mühren instead of taking it himself and the Dutchman calmly made it 4-0 to seal the win. Finally Manchester United and Atkinson had won a trophy.
A successful second season for Atkinson but he still needed to find the magic formula of consistency in the league if he could truly push Liverpool for the title. After the FA Cup win, optimism was high for the new season. United had momentum and pundits and journalists believed this could be their time at last.
This positivity continued with the Charity Shield in August. The match between the league champions and the FA Cup winners is still the traditional game before the season begins today and in 1983 it was no different. So Liverpool and Manchester United met at Wembley again. And Robson stepped up once more with both goals as United recorded a 2-0 victory.
Seven days later more than 48,000 arrived at Old Trafford, with newly promoted QPR the visitors. Two goals from Mühren and one from Stapleton gave United a 3-1 win and an ideal start. Within two days, old weaknesses were exposed.
Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were not the same side that had won their second European Cup just over three years before, but they were a still a match for anyone on their day. They came away from Old Trafford with a 2-1 win and deflated some of the early season optimism. United’s response had to be positive and away wins at Stoke and Arsenal were followed by a home win over Luton. Five games, four wins and one loss.
The next two fixtures were going to be tough. First up, away at Southampton, an exciting side that had adapted well after promotion. After that, a home game with Liverpool. On a warm September day on the South Coast, the crowd packed into The Dell and saw the home side hand United a 3-0 defeat. Despite the visitors testing Peter Shilton a couple of times, The Saints ran out comfortable winners.
The week after, Liverpool arrived at Old Trafford. More than 56,000 saw three points for Manchester United thanks to a winner from Stapleton. The perfect answer to the week before.
As September ended, West Ham were top of the league with six wins from seven games. Manchester United were second with Southampton, Ipswich and Liverpool completing the top five places. United also stuttered through in the European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Dukla Prague on away goals. A 1-1 draw in the home leg was followed by a 2-2 away result, which saw United advance.
As October began, the defence proved fragile once more, when a 3-0 lead at Norwich was lost and the game finished level. There still seemed to be some missing pieces. Was it the mentality? Was the squad too small? Was the team too reliant on one or two players?
In the summer United hadn’t signed the targets they wanted, with only Arthur Graham arriving in a cut-price deal from Leeds. Failed attempts for a striker led to United’s attack consisting of Stapleton, Whiteside and a highly-rated reserve player called Mark Hughes. Atkinson thought he was getting Charlie Nicholas from Celtic but he chose Arsenal instead.
Would this squad be able to cope with competing for four different trophies?