Up and down: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part nine)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

Manchester United entered their fourth season under the management of Ron Atkinson, with the previous term’s disappointments still fresh in the memory.

There was a cruel last minute elimination at the hands of Juventus in the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup when injuries left United without key personnel. The collapse in the league, allowing Liverpool to take the title, could also be put down to injuries but did the Red Devils have the mental strength to get over the line?

Atkinson added three players to his squad in the summer of 1984, and saw Ray Wilkins depart for AC Milan. The English press asked the question, was it finally United’s time to win the title? New faces Jesper Olsen, Alan Brazil and Gordon Strachan all started the first league game of the season when Watford visited Old Trafford. As usual, optimism was high amongst the faithful.

It was a dream start for Strachan, as he put United 1-0 up from the penalty spot and it looked to be enough to register the three points. In typical fashion though, a last minute goal from Nigel Callaghan levelled the score and the match ended 1-1. The next three league games also ended in draws and United were flattering to deceive once more.

On 8th September, United finally hit the jackpot. Over 54,000, including a huge away following, packed Old Trafford with newly promoted Newcastle United in town. The home side went into the interval with a one goal advantage, with Olsen scoring his second goal in as many games. Both sides had their chances but the floodgates opened once Strachan scored from the spot to make it 2-0.

Newcastle’s defence were offering no protection for their goalkeeper Kevin Carr. Mark Hughes and Remi Moses added to the score before Strachan finished the job off. A 5-0 home victory, and chants of “United are back” rang around the stadium.

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Two more wins and a 1-1 home draw against Liverpool concluded September with United unbeaten after the opening eight league games. A 3-0 first leg win over Rába ETO Győr in the UEFA Cup put United in a great spot for the away leg. It was the same in the Milk Cup too, with a 4-0 result versus Burnley making the second leg at Turf Moor a formality.

Ten games played in all competitions, with five wins and five draws.

Then October arrived. Inconsistency left the Red Devils staring at two heavy defeats and a cup exit.

It started well with a 2-2 second leg draw at Rába ETO Győr confirming European progress. Then United were swatted aside 3-0 away to Aston Villa. After suffering their first league loss of the season, United bounced back by winning 3-0 at Turf Moor in the Milk Cup. A 5-1 hammering of West Ham in the league at Old Trafford saw a positive response from Atkinson’s side.

Another home win, this time against Tottenham, and a hard fought 0-0 draw in the first leg away to PSV Eindhoven looked to have wiped away the memories of the Villa Park defeat.

Enter Everton.

Riding the wave of euphoria from a 1-0 win at Anfield the previous weekend, FA Cup holders Everton were also advancing in Europe too. When Manchester United arrived at Goodison Park, they had already tasted defeat in the league three times. But Howard Kendall was finding the winning formula and this was going to be a tough assignment for Atkinson and his players.

To add a little more spice, the sides were going to meet again three days later in the Milk Cup at Old Trafford. By 10 pm on Wednesday 30th October, Ron Atkinson didn’t want to see Everton again for a long time. Little did he know that fate would send the two clubs together again by the end of the season.

In the league, Everton gave United a brutal 5-0 drubbing. It was Atkinson’s heaviest loss as the United boss and his team’s weaknesses were laid bare for all to see that afternoon. The result sent shockwaves around the English game.

One of the title favourites had been destroyed by a team that were making people sit up and take notice. Their win at Anfield was one thing, but this was an incredible statement from The Toffees. Three days later, a shellshocked United saw their Milk Cup hopes ended when Everton left Manchester with a 2-1 win.

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As Halloween came and went, Atkinson was able to exorcise some of the demons from the two morale destroying defeats to Everton. A 4-2 home win over Arsenal was just the ticket, but in front of only around 32,000 supporters. Where the home fans losing faith?

Three more victories followed including a second leg 1-0 win over PSV. United had recovered so well in November and when they raced into a 2-0 lead away to Sunderland after fifteen minutes, it looked like a clean sweep of victories was on the cards. But this was Manchester United. By half-time, Sunderland were 3-2 up thanks to a Clive Walker hat-trick and that’s how it stayed.

The final game of the month saw Dundee United leave Old Trafford with two away goals after a 2-2 draw in the UEFA Cup. Gordon Strachan scored a penalty but was denied a second success from the spot when Hamish McAlpine saved his effort.

November came to an end, and Everton were leading the division. United closed the gap after a win over Norwich as December began but the next few weeks would damage their title charge. Firstly at the City Ground, a two goal lead was lost again as Nottingham Forest came back to defeat United 3-2.

A few days later at Tannadice, the score was 3-2 once more but this time it was Manchester United with the win. Beating Dundee United in the away leg saw progress to the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. Two comfortable wins over QPR and Ipswich Town gave United a boost before Christmas Day but it was Tottenham who took the top spot as Everton lost 4-3 to Chelsea.

Struggling Stoke City lifted themselves to then hand United a 2-1 loss on Boxing Day. It was the fifth league defeat of the campaign for Atkinson, all coming away from home. Three days later a tough looking fixture at Chelsea saw United come away with a 3-1 win. But Spurs still sat top of the pile as 1984 ended, their 2-0 victory over Sunderland confirming their position.

If Old Trafford had been a fortress during the early part of the season, then the walls came tumbling down quickly in 1985. Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City took maximum points in the opening league games of the new year, as United’s unbeaten home run disappeared. With seven league losses by January 12th, the title looked more and more unlikely.

Sandwiched between the two home defeats was the opportunity for revenge for Atkinson, as AFC Bournemouth came to Old Trafford for the 3rd round of the FA Cup. The third division side had humiliated United at the same stage a year previously, but this time the fixture was in Manchester and not on the South Coast.

A 3-0 win saw United progress to another home tie, this time against Coventry City. The Sky Blues couldn’t record two successive away wins though, as goals from Hughes and Paul McGrath took United through in a tense game, which finished 2-1. A penalty save by reserve keeper Stephen Pears from Terry Gibson proved to be vital. The cups looked to be the best hope of silverware for Atkinson as Everton started February by moving further ahead, after they had replaced Tottenham as league leaders in January.

With the pressure off and the title looking to be between Everton and Spurs, Manchester United started to finally click in the league. Alongside that, progress in the FA Cup continued on a cold winter night in Blackburn.

Televised by the BBC on a Friday, a 2-0 win for the visitors saw Manchester United reach another quarter-final. When the cup draw was made, a home tie against West Ham made Atkinson’s side favourites to advance.

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In their next league game, a Norman Whiteside goal saw the Red Devils leave Highbury with a 1-0 win over Arsenal. It was a good test, with league matches against Everton and Tottenham to come in March.

The third meeting of the season between Manchester United and Everton kicked off the new month and finished 1-1 with both teams missing penalties. It also meant that Spurs could close the gap on the Toffees. The priority at Old Trafford then moved on to two cup quarter-finals with Videoton of Hungary and West Ham coming to Manchester.

When the Hungarian side took to the field on March 6th 1985 for the first leg of the UEFA Cup quarter-final, the crowd was just over 35,000. United laboured to a 1-0 win thanks to a Frank Stapleton goal. It was a slim advantage to take to Hungary.

The crowd was significantly higher when West Ham arrived three days later, aided by the travelling faithful from the East End. Converted to a midfield role after another injury to Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside stepped up once more and proved to be the man for the occasion. His three goals helped his team record a 4-2 win against the Hammers.

The next few weeks were again to shape United’s season.

The unbeaten run had extended and with a trip to White Hart Lane next up in the league, Ron Atkinson had seen his side enter back in the title race. The FA Cup semi-final draw saw a mouth-watering tie with Liverpool pulled out of the velvet bag. With the second leg to come against Videoton too, there was still a lot to play for. Also the return of Robson was on the horizon.

Fighting on three fronts, surely Atkinson and Manchester United couldn’t falter this time.