So close, no matter how far: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part six)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

October 1983. A time where protests against nuclear disarmament were rife as paranoia about a nuclear war hung over. A month where Boy George was one of the most famous people in the country as his group Culture Club topped the charts with Karma Chameleon. And a period where Manchester United tried once again to topple the dominant force at the top of the league.

Manager Ron Atkinson had credit in the bank after the previous season’s FA Cup win and a couple of third place finishes in his first two seasons at the club. Now it was time for his Manchester United side to go and win the league. And as the clocks changed, Halloween arrived and Billy Joel sang Uptown Girl, United sat pretty as league leaders.

Their European adventure would also continue into 1984 after a 4-1 aggregate win over Bulgarian side Spartak Varna sealed a quarter-final spot in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. But in typical fashion, on Bonfire Night, United lost. Despite a goal from skipper Bryan Robson, a 2-1 loss at home to Aston Villa, thanks to two goals from Peter Withe, saw Liverpool go top of the table the next day when they beat Everton 3-0. The Toffees responded four days later by signing Andy Gray from Wolves.

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A 4-1 win over Watford in the middle of November kept United just a point behind Liverpool but captain Robson had to deal with the disappointment of England’s failure to reach Euro 84, which was confirmed just days before the Watford game. United then had a tough away game at West Ham, with a 1-1 draw leaving both sides behind Liverpool.

The month came to an end with another 1-1 draw as Mark Hughes scored on his full debut away to Third Division Oxford United in the Milk Cup. The week after in the replay at Old Trafford, the sides drew 1-1 again meaning a second replay was needed twelve days later.

Once again United’s inconsistency was causing an issue. December had begun with a 1-0 home loss to Everton but a win at Ipswich was followed by an impressive 4-2 victory at Old Trafford over Tottenham Hotspur in front of a live BBC TV audience on a Friday evening. But three days later, in a major upset at the Manor Ground, Oxford beat United 2-1 in the second replay, eliminating Atkinson’s team from the tournament.

After a Boxing Day draw away to Coventry, the very next day United threw away a 3-1 lead to draw at home against struggling Notts County. It was a missed opportunity to close the gap on Liverpool who drew 2-2 at home to Leicester. After both sides recorded 1-0 wins on New Year’s Eve, the stage was set for Liverpool versus Manchester United at Anfield on Monday 2nd January to start 1984 with a bang.

The game didn’t live up to the hype, which after a busy Christmas and New Year period shouldn’t have been a surprise. Craig Johnston gave the home side the lead just after the half hour mark as United tried to patch up the defence with Gordon McQueen leaving the field injured just before. He was joined on the side lines by Liverpool’s number seven Kenny Dalglish who would be out for weeks after a clash with Kevin Moran. Fingers were pointed at Moran during and after the match.

The bad-tempered contest looked to be heading for a home win until on-loan Garth Crooks set up Norman Whiteside to rescue a point for the visitors. West Ham couldn’t capitalise as they drew with Notts County. Meanwhile Nottingham Forest were creeping up the table under Brian Clough and getting closer to the top three.

Looking back at Atkinson’s two previous seasons, it was difficult to see much of a difference during the 1983/84 season. Liverpool were the measuring stick while teams like West Ham, Southampton and Forest were in the mix. Manchester United were capable of some big results but were still losing games they have should have won or throwing away leads to draw matches they dominated. Of the four league defeats, three were at Old Trafford. Why after two and a half years did the same problems still exist?

After a Milk Cup exit to a side lower down the football pyramid, United were drawn away to Bournemouth of the third tier as they began their defence of the FA Cup. Struggling in the league, The Cherries had appointed former player and coach Harry Redknapp as manager in October in the hope of avoiding the drop. On January 6th 1984, Redknapp and his side delivered the story of that season’s competition with a result that was talked about for years.

United were missing key players, with young defender Graeme Hogg making his debut but accusations were made about the attitude of the more senior players. Did they take the game too lightly? A 2-0 defeat saw United tumble of out the FA Cup at the first hurdle, leaving the league and the European Cup Winners’ Cup as the only trophies to play for.

They had to pick themselves up for a title charge. After United drew away at QPR, Liverpool suffered a shock home loss to relegation haunted Wolves the following day. Then a hard fought 3-2 Old Trafford win over Southampton cut the gap at the top to two points. With Norwich next at home, United were closing in on Liverpool.

The big story before the Norwich game was the announcement that Robert Maxwell wanted to buy Manchester United. Maxwell already owned cup giantkillers Oxford plus a media empire. A price of around £10m was rumoured. Would this have an impact on the field? The next day saw a 0-0 draw, but as Liverpool also drew, nothing changed at the top.

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When the midweek fixtures saw Liverpool playing in the Milk Cup and United away to Birmingham, the door was open. And it was Nottingham Forest who went through it. United drew 2-2 and Forest’s 5-0 win just up the road at West Brom saw Clough’s team overtake United into second, three points behind Liverpool. Two points from six and Atkinson was cursing ANOTHER missed opportunity.

A 5-0 win at Luton live on TV was followed by a draw at Wolves. One step forward, two steps back. Liverpool drew 0-0 at Luton on the same day as the Wolves match too. Forest were also held. Did anyone want to take the title? Liverpool were not running away with it like last year. Was another distraction European football? All three sides had European engagements in March along with Tottenham.

Liverpool and Benfica were paired in the European Cup, while Forest and Spurs had to face Austrian opponents in the UEFA Cup. But the glamour tie was certainly in the Cup Winners’ Cup. On March 7th United would travel to Spain for a first leg showdown with Barcelona and Diego Maradona.

The weekend before, Atkinson orchestrated a 3-0 win at Villa Park which saw the gap cut to two points after the Merseyside Derby ended 1-1. With Forest now wobbling, West Ham and Southampton started a late push to try and knock Liverpool off of the top.

Manchester United walked onto the turf at the famous Camp Nou in Barcelona with 70,000 people urging the home side on. Graeme Hogg, two months on from his baptism of fire at Bournemouth was in the side and unfortunately gave Barcelona the lead after 34 minutes when he put the ball past Gary Bailey in the United goal.

United weathered the storm and looked to be heading back to Manchester with a 1-0 defeat. Then in the very last minute, Rojo made it two. With no away goal, the task was even more daunting and almost everyone wrote off United’s chances. Atkinson remained upbeat, and he publicly stated that his side were not out of it yet. Would his positivity carry through to the players?

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The three other English teams recorded first leg wins, while Scottish champions Dundee United were also having a great run in the European Cup. Would there be an all-British European Cup final in Rome?

The following weekend United bounced back by beating Leicester 2-0 but Liverpool stayed on top with a 3-1 victory against Tottenham. Liverpool’s next game was live on TV, away at Southampton on a Friday night. A 2-0 defeat blew the title race wide. Arsenal were next at Old Trafford and a win for United would see them go top of the league.

Did United have one eye on the second leg against Barcelona? If they did, it didn’t show as they raced into first place thanks to an impressive 4-0 hammering of The Gunners. Robson, Stapleton and two from Mühren did the damage in front of just under 49,000 supporters. Over in Spain, Barcelona drew 0-0 at home to Valencia. Could United take this momentum into the second leg? They were now the leagues leaders.

On Wednesday 21st March 1984 more than 58,000 fans packed into Old Trafford with hope more than expectation as Maradona and Barcelona came to town defending a 2-0 lead from the first leg in the quarter finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Manchester United captain Bryan Robson, who was attracting attention from overseas, led his team onto the pitch with their chances slim at best.

Could Robson upstage Maradona?

Was Atkinson’s positivity just bravado?

The biggest test of Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United tenure stood before him.

It was time for Big Ron to live up to the hype.