When Ron Atkinson took over at Old Trafford in the summer of 1981, he made it very clear to Chairman Martin Edwards who he wanted to build his team around. The player in question wasn’t already at the club, but at West Bromwich Albion, the team Atkinson left to become manager of Manchester United. Atkinson got his wish and his top target signed for the club. Not long afterward he became the captain and leader of the team.
His name? Bryan Robson.
Over the next three seasons, Robson became the heartbeat of the team. By the Spring of 1984, he was being courted by Italian teams and United were pondering some huge offers from overseas. Robson’s stock was elevated even more after his key role in the 3-0 win over Barcelona. But just after, he was hit by injury.
Atkinson had built the team around his captain, just as he envisaged. But now the problem was that Robson had become too important. His absence was felt on the pitch and in the stands. For many seasons, when his name wasn’t announced in the team, feelings of disappointment and even dread passed through Old Trafford’s four sides.
Now as United arrived in Turin, Italy for the second leg of their European Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final to take on the might of Juventus, Robson wasn’t fit enough for a starting role.
In the first leg, United were also missing Dutch midfielder Arnold Mühren and English international Ray Wilkins. They also lost John Gidman in the first ten minutes of the 1-1 draw. Only Wilkins was able to start the second leg. United’s patched up side had also lost momentum in their title chase, with a lot riding on the last few weeks of the season.
The second leg began in lively fashion and the first chance fell to the visitors. Young striker Mark Hughes saw an effort pushed away for a corner, with Paul McGrath close to getting to the loose ball. Then after Michel Platini took control in midfield, it needed an excellent save from Gary Bailey to deny Paolo Rossi.
Juventus were full of star names and one of them gave the home side the advantage. Platini’s long ball left Boniek against Arthur Albiston. Holding off the Scottish left-back, Boniek clipped the ball past the advancing Bailey. There were just thirteen minutes on the watch. United needed a goal to stay in the tie.
After a few scares, United made it to half-time still trailing by one goal to nil. They hadn’t offered much in attack but they were still in the game. As the game entered the last half hour, Atkinson introduced Norman Whiteside in place of Frank Stapleton.
United’s youthful attack may have lacked pace but it had strength and power. Whiteside had also proven himself as a man for the big occasion after cup final goals the season before. They needed him now to keep their European dream alive.
Atkinson had his keeper Bailey to thank though, as he again denied Juventus clear daylight. When a corner was cleared to Platini, the French captain’s chip into the area was delightful. Rossi wasn’t picked up and he headed it toward the bottom corner. Bailey then produced an excellent save, tipping the header away for another corner.
Moments later, the value of Bailey’s save paid off. Arthur Graham came down the left and crossed to McGrath in the penalty area. McGrath managed to find Whiteside who lashed the ball home from just outside the six yard area. United were not only level on the night but also on aggregate. They had cancelled out the away goal that Juventus scored at Old Trafford. With twenty minutes to go, the semi-final was on a knife edge. When Boniek was put through, it looked like he was bound to score but once again Bailey produced a fine save to deny the Polish superstar.
The ninety minutes were up. What happened next might not have just finished the European adventure for Manchester United, but possibly their season. Scirea collected the ball just outside the United penalty area after a free-kick was only cleared as far as him. His shot was deflected and fell into the path of Rossi, who placed the ball past Bailey to make it 2-1.
“Oh how cruel” said legendary commentator Barry Davies, as Rossi wheeled away in celebration. There were 45 seconds left on the clock. United still managed to force a corner, but it came to nothing and like that, the dream was over. A 3-2 aggregate defeat saw the Italians progress to the final where they beat Porto 2-1 to lift the trophy.
Elsewhere Liverpool finished the job off in their second leg and were in the European Cup final, with the difficult task of beating AS Roma in their own backyard. The UEFA Cup final wasn’t going to be an all-English affair though.
Tottenham made it but Nottingham Forest lost their second leg 3-0 and went out in a game riddled with controversy. Years later the truth came out that the referee was bribed and Anderlecht were punished. It was no consolation for Brian Clough, his players, or the supporters. They were robbed of a place in the final.
Was it the knock-on effect of European elimination in Turin that impacted the rest of the season for Manchester United? The results of the last five league games showed that they were not able to lift themselves enough to become league champions.
This was their best chance under Atkinson to end the long wait for the title. Liverpool even left the door ajar for them more than once but United fluffed their lines. After both teams drew their next two league games, May 7th proved to be the turning point.
Hughes put the home side ahead at Old Trafford against an Ipswich Town team battling to stay in the division. His fellow Welshman Ian Rush scored in the 43rd and 45th minutes to send Liverpool into a 2-0 lead at Anfield over Coventry City. By the end of the match, Rush had four goals in a 5-0 victory.
Back at Old Trafford, the ghost of football past came back to haunt Manchester United and leave them needing a miracle to stop Liverpool. In the 1979 FA Cup final a last minute goal from Alan Sunderland broke United hearts to give Arsenal a 3-2 win. Now on loan at Ipswich, he was back to do more damage.
United had conceded an equaliser early in the second half and with word spreading around Old Trafford through the magic of the transistor radio of Liverpool’s goal feast at Anfield, the Red Devils had to win. With four minutes to go the winning goal came. Just as in 1979, Sunderland put the ball past Bailey to secure the win and help his loan club’s cause. It was out of United’s hands as they slumped to another 2-1 loss from a late goal.
The week after Liverpool were confirmed champions again. They drew 0-0 at Notts County but United’s 1-1 result at Tottenham meant that it was over. A 2-0 loss to Nottingham Forest on the last day of the season confirmed that United had finished fourth. From being top of the league and conquerors of Barcelona in March, they took just three points from the last five matches. Liverpool only took seven. Atkinson must have been demoralised. The opportunity was there. Now it had vanished.
Southampton came second and Forest overtook United into third place. Questions were asked about United’s mental strength and of course the overreliance on Robson. Just two days before Liverpool were crowned, the announcement was made that Wilkins was leaving to join AC Milan. The club banked £1.5 million.
After finishing third in his first two seasons and now fourth, Atkinson had to assess how far off Liverpool his team were. The six point gap wasn’t enormous but when Liverpool collected their third trophy of the season by winning the European Cup, it was clear that they were head and shoulders above the rest.
With no Home Nations involved in Euro 84 in France, a tournament lit up by Platini and his fellow countrymen, Atkinson had time to reflect and to see if he could find the missing pieces. The previous season saw only the addition of Arthur Graham but the summer of 1984 was different.
Atkinson was a fan of Scottish striker Alan Brazil and had tried to sign him before. Brazil was part of Ipswich’s excellent team under Bobby Robson but left for Tottenham. It didn’t work out there for him, so Atkinson took him to Old Trafford.
Exciting Danish winger Jesper Olsen also came from Ajax before Gordon Strachan completed the transfer business when he signed from Aberdeen, despite an agreement with FC Köln in West Germany. The deal was better for The Dons because they were able to receive more for the player due to the transfer rules at the time. Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson helped to make sure that the transfer went ahead.
Atkinson was upbeat as the new season approached. He had added exciting players who would surely light up Old Trafford. He could see Liverpool in his sights and he was firmly fixed on passing them.
Little did he realise, a new force was emerging.