The highest of highs: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part seven)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

It’s Wednesday 21st March 1984 and spring has just arrived. Ron Atkinson has a spring in his step too, despite facing an uphill task. Is his demeanour just for the media or does he really believe that his Manchester United side can overturn a 2-0 deficit against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona?

Kick-off for the European Cup Winner’s Cup quarter-final second leg is just moments away and Old Trafford is packed to the rafters and the noise is incredible. The supporters know that they need to play their part if something incredible is going to happen. This is a different time, the match isn’t live on TV in England and only highlights will be shown later.

Attacking the Scoreboard End first, United know they need to start well without leaving the door open for Barcelona to score an away goal, which would probably finish the tie. When a Ray Wilkins cross causes confusion in the away team’s backline, keeper Javier Urruti is stranded off his line. Norman Whiteside lobs the ball goalward but it kisses the top of the bar and goes over the roof of Urruti’s net.

With twenty three minutes on the clock Ray Wilkins lines up a corner. He plays it to the near post, looking for a red shirt to flick it on. Bernd Schuster, the classy German midfielder leaps but makes no contact, leaving United’s number six Graeme Hogg to help it on towards the far post. Skipper Bryan Robson dives to head into the goal and Old Trafford explodes with noise, United are 1-0 up.

Except from Maradona warming Gary Bailey’s hands from outside the area, Barcelona show no real threat. Half-time arrives and United still need a goal to level the tie. Five minutes into the second half and Barcelona look nervy. Schuster plays a pass across the field to Victor, who blindly looks for Urruti. Anticipating a back-pass Norman Whiteside, puts the goalkeeper under pressure and he can only play the ball out to United’s right wing.

First to the ball is local lad Remi Moses, who crosses to the penalty spot. Ray Wilkins hits a first time shot that bobbles and Urruti can’t hold it. Robson reacts quickly from about a yard out and puts the ball into the net at the Stretford End to level the tie. It’s now 2-2 on aggregate and there’s still a long way to go.

The Old Trafford crowd is now going wild. Barcelona are on the ropes and United can feel it. Two minutes later and Robson plays a ball with the outside of his foot to left-back Arthur Albiston who surges forward. He crosses to the far post where Norman Whiteside is waiting. He rises above his marker and heads it back across goal. Frank Stapleton blasts the ball into the net from close range, United are 3-0 up and ahead overall. The Irishman wheels away to celebrate as the noise becomes deafening.

Have United scored too early? Barcelona only need one goal to throw the tie back in their favour. Under Ron Atkinson, Manchester United don’t play defensive football. Robson almost grabs his third with a diving header when Urruti comes out of his goal to try and field a Whiteside centre. With rumours of bids coming from Italy, Robson is running the show.

THAT’S IT! The whistle blows and Manchester United have done it. They have beaten Barcelona by three goals to nil, with an aggregate score of 3-2 meaning they are now in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Some supporters are now on the field and they head straight to one man. They lift captain and two-goal hero Bryan Robson onto their shoulders as victory is savoured by the 58,000 people in the ground. A historic night for the club is complete.

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The next morning the back pages were dominated by United’s victory. Liverpool also recorded an excellent win away to Benfica to confirm their spot in the semi-finals of the European Cup. In the UEFA Cup, both Nottingham Forest and Tottenham Hotspur advanced too. English clubs were still leading the way in European football. As league leaders of the First Division, Manchester United were riding the crest of a wave.

With no game the following weekend, United watched title rivals Southampton lose 4-0 to QPR. The next day Liverpool and Everton drew 0-0 in the Milk Cup final. A Graeme Souness goal won the replay at Maine Road just three days later and the trophy stayed at Anfield for a fourth successive year.

Next for Liverpool was a trip to Vicarage Road to face Watford. A fixture that looked trickier than Manchester United’s match away to struggling West Brom. But what happened on Saturday 31st March 1984 shouldn’t have shocked anyone.

Liverpool efficiently beat Watford 2-0, while at The Hawthorns Manchester United fluffed their lines, losing by the same score. They could hammer Arsenal 4-0 and beat Barcelona 3-0 but Manchester United couldn’t register a goal against a side fighting the drop. Liverpool moved above United to hold a two point lead over their rivals at the top of the tree.

Birmingham City were another West Midlands side scrapping for survival and it took a Bryan Robson goal to give United all three points at Old Trafford. Had European football become a distraction for the Red Devils? Juventus were up next, but with a title race going to the wire, Atkinson needed his men to focus. Liverpool were used to juggling the different competitions, and they obliterated West Ham 6-0 on the same day to maintain their lead.

On Wednesday 11th April, again more than 58,000 filled Old Trafford for the arrival of Italian powerhouses Juventus, who boasted Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi, Zbigniew Boniek and other star names in their ranks.

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To make things more difficult United would be without Robson, Wilkins and Arnold Mühren. After only ten minutes right-back John Gidman had to go off and be replaced by Alan Davies. United were rattled. Four minutes later they were behind, after a counter attack led to Boniek feeding Rossi. His shot deflected off Graeme Hogg and Bailey was wrongfooted. 1-0 down and the Turin side had a precious away goal.

Perhaps United were naïve to push forward in great numbers so early on, but Atkinson always demanded that United played on the front foot. They needed to get back in the game and the leveller came when Arthur Albiston launched the ball into the penalty area. Norman Whiteside fought for it and when it broke loose, Davies buried the chance to make it 1-1.

The noise level rose after that but neither side could find the winning goal. With their away goal, Juventus were the favourites to progress. The three missing midfielders along with the injury to Gidman had checked United’s progress. But they were still in with a chance.

Atkinson’s walking wounded then had three days to prepare for another date with a side staring relegation in the face, Notts County. Liverpool were playing at the same time away at Stoke City and news of a goal for the home side spread around the away end. When Stoke made it 2-0 after 51 minutes, a win for United would see them back on top. They just needed to find a breakthrough.

The deadlock was finally broken with eleven minutes to go. But it was Trevor Christie with the goal for The Magpies and United couldn’t find a way back. A 1-0 loss meant that the opportunity to go above Liverpool had gone for this week. A massive missed opportunity for Atkinson, as news filtered through that Liverpool had indeed lost 2-0.

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The following week saw a similar chance disappear, as Liverpool needed a late John Wark equaliser to salvage a 3-3 draw at Filbert Street against Leicester City. United drew 0-0 with Watford at Old Trafford. Liverpool were stuttering but United couldn’t capitalise. Liverpool then swatted away West Brom 3-0 at Anfield and United beat Coventry 4-1.

The Coventry win was much needed with a midweek trip to Turin up next. Ray Wilkins scored one of the four goals, his presence against Juventus would be vital for the team, with still no Robson or Mühren. But behind the scenes his career was about to take a different direction. Rumours of Robson’s departure to Italy had started to go away, now it was Wilkins who was in the sights of the Italian sides.

Wednesday 25th April saw the four remaining English sides face their semi-final second legs, with Nottingham Forest and Liverpool holding first leg advantages, and Tottenham needing to turn over a loss against Hadjuk Split. Of the four teams involved, Forest had the biggest lead, after a 2-0 win over Anderlecht at the City Ground. Scottish champions Dundee United were also trying to reach the European Cup final with a second leg against AS Roma to navigate.

This night of European football was dramatic, exciting, heart-breaking and extremely controversial, with ramifications lasting over a decade.

Could Atkinson get another big performance out of his side and take United to their first European final since 1968?