The Mersey beaters: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part eleven)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

In 1999 Manchester United beat Arsenal in the last FA Cup semi-final replay. A classic match, played at Villa Park, not Wembley. A game that had so much. When the change to no replays was made, something about the FA Cup faded away. With the semi-finals at Wembley now, the FA put another nail in the coffin of their own famous trophy.

After a dramatic FA Cup semi-final Saturday in 1985, league champions-elect Everton awaited the result of the replay between Liverpool and Manchester United. The two great rivals had drawn 2-2 at Everton’s Goodison Park and now were ready to meet again at Manchester City’s Maine Road.

The mood was tense. There had been trouble before, during and after the game. Arrests had been made, objects thrown onto the field of play and stabbings reported. The bad blood between the supporters was at boiling point.

Manchester United had already taken four points from Liverpool, as the champions of England struggled to retain the trophy. United themselves had once again got within touching distance of the title before stuttering and dropping away from the leaders. There was a familiar feeling, as under Ron Atkinson’s guidance, they promised so much but could not get over the line.

Liverpool had one foot in the European Cup final after a comprehensive first-leg victory over Panathinaikos at Anfield in the semi-final. United had blown the chance to go top of the league and Everton had strengthened their position with still two games in hand. The FA Cup was Atkinson’s only chance of a trophy.

Liverpool came out strongly. Had United missed their chance on Saturday when they had twice led? Decked in all red, the men from Anfield started to cause problems for United’s backline. Paul McGrath had been excellent in the first game, but when Steve Nicol’s cross came into the area, he headed past Gary Bailey to score an own goal. John Wark was waiting to pounce, and McGrath could do very little, but Liverpool were ahead and the all Merseyside final was on.

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Like a boxer clinging to the ropes, United managed to get to the interval at only one nil down. Atkinson needed his powers of motivation and tactical nous to get his side back in the game.

Whatever was said in the dressing room certainly worked.

One minute into the second half and United were level. After a potential Liverpool attack was snuffed out, captain Bryan Robson picked up the ball. The skipper had been criticised in some quarters since his return from injury in March, with his level of performance scrutinised. He scored the first goal in the 2-2 draw at Goodison, it was time for him to step forward again.

On the halfway line he exchanged passes with Frank Stapleton and surged through the middle of the Liverpool team. He then unleashed a left foot shot from at least 25 yards that flew past Bruce Grobbelaar to equalise. The goal embodied Robson. Determination, skill and mental strength when needed. The man for the big occasion had done it again.

Liverpool were stunned. On the touchline, Atkinson clenched his fists in celebration. He knew that his side had been lucky to still be in the game. Now they had their tails up and their opponent was in shock. It was the moment to capitalise.

Twelve minutes later, Liverpool’s defence was caught out again. Gordon Strachan cut inside from his usual right-wing position and headed for the centre circle. Despite running at speed, he changed his body shape and direction. He then played the perfect pass through the heart of the Liverpool defence, where Mark Hughes ran onto the ball. He stepped over it before shooting first time from twenty yards. His shot went under Grobbelaar and into the net. United had turned it around and now were 2-1 to the good. But Liverpool were the comeback specialists, there was still work to be done.

Despite Bailey making one or two routine saves, the onslaught never came. Referee Keith Hackett blew his whistle and the United fans invaded the pitch. Just as they did when Barcelona were beaten the year before, they lifted Robson onto their shoulders. Manchester United were going to Wembley.

Three days later and Everton won away at Stoke City to cement their place at the top. When Luton beat United 2-1 the following day live on TV, all eyes were on the FA Cup final. The league was gone. When Atkinson saw two home draws in the next two games against Southampton and Sunderland, the chances of finishing even second started to diminish.

On Bank Holiday Monday, May 6th 1985, Everton beat QPR 2-0 at Goodison Park to win the First Division title. 30 or so miles away United beat Nottingham Forest by the same score line in their last home game of the season. Everton had also qualified for the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, so were chasing a treble.

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May 11th 1985 was one of the saddest days in English football. 56 people lost their lives at Valley Parade when a fire broke out in the stand as Bradford City faced Lincoln City. What should have been a promotion party turned into tragedy. Just before Birmingham City and Leeds United prepared to face off in a big game at the top of the second tier, a riot broke out. Teenager Ian Hambridge sadly died.

Both Manchester United and Everton recorded wins that day, but nobody cared. The losses of life were felt around communities as well as the whole sport. But there were still dark days to come, some sooner than imagined.

Two days later and Atkinson took his team to Watford with one priority, the FA Cup final later that week. His changed side were hammered 5-1, leaving the United boss with food for thought before naming his team and deploying his tactics.

48 hours on from the Watford game, Everton were in Rotterdam to face Rapid Vienna in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. A comfortable 3-1 win saw The Toffees lift their second trophy of the season, they just had to beat Manchester United at Wembley now on Saturday to lift a third.

Saturday, May 18th 1985 was FA Cup final day. The coverage always began earlier in this period and was on both BBC and ITV. Different guests from sport and entertainment appeared, as special editions of popular shows were broadcast to compliment the day. TV cameras were on the teams’ buses as they made their journey to the famous old stadium, with thousands of fans milling around the streets.

The game kicked off at 3 pm and it was tense. Everton as favourites tried to gain an early upper hand and came close to scoring in the first quarter of an hour. Bailey punched the ball out after a long throw-in but only as far as Peter Reid. The Everton midfielder volleyed the ball back towards goal, where former Evertonian John Gidman was able to stop the ball from crossing the line and away to safety off the post.

There was little incident to speak of after that, as the two sides cancelled each other out. Then in the 75th minute, the whole contest changed. McGrath’s pass from defence was intercepted and Reid broke clear. Kevin Moran was the last defender and he slid in. He only took Reid though and not the ball, with Reid flying into the air. Referee Peter Willis, in his last ever game, didn’t hesitate. He ordered Moran off, the first time anyone had ever been sent off in a FA Cup final.

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Reid pleaded with Willis in an incredible act of sportsmanship and Moran didn’t want to leave the field. Finally, things calmed down and Atkinson shuffled the pack to cover for the loss of his defender. Stapleton dropped back to play next to McGrath at the heart of the United back four.

Atkinson’s assistant manager Mick Brown urged his boss to do everything they could to hang on and force a replay. This wasn’t Ron Atkinson’s way. It was impossible for him to contemplate playing for a draw.

The ninety minutes were up and the game went into extra time. Thirty more minutes for the ten men to survive. But Everton were tired, physically and mentally. Their midweek trip to Holland had taken its toll too. Three days on from beating Rapid Vienna, they had to find energy for the extra half an hour.

The first period passed, and neither side could make the breakthrough.

Fifteen minutes to go.

They would have to do it all again the following week unless something dramatic happened.

The second period began. Manchester United’s hearts were in their mouths when Robson flicked a corner onto his own crossbar. At the other end, Norman Whiteside stumbled at the key moment in front of Neville Southall’s goal. Still 0-0.

Ten minutes to go.

Jesper Olsen brought the ball out of defence and found Hughes in his own half, facing away from the Everton goal. The United number nine turned and then skipped away from Paul Bracewell. He delivered a pass to the right wing with the outside of his foot. The Toffees had pushed up high, but right back Gary Stevens was behind the others. Whiteside collected the pass from his team-mate. He was onside.

The Everton defence got back in position. Their number three Pat Van Den Hauwe tried to keep Whiteside as far wide as possible. United’s number four cut inside and entered the penalty area and did a step-over. It was enough to make Van Den Hauwe move slightly to his left and leave Whiteside a sight at goal.

Norman Whiteside had scored many important goals for Manchester United, including in previous Wembley finals. Now with ten minutes remaining, he curled a shot into the goal, beating one of the best keepers in the world. Manchester United were winning with ten men. Arthur Albiston jumped into his manager’s arms. Moran was still on the bench, embracing his colleagues.

On the touchline, Brown told the players to concentrate. After Stevens hurled a long throw into the United area, an unmarked Derek Mountfield could only flick his header into Bailey’s arms. It was Everton’s last chance. Willis blew and Atkinson had done it again, Manchester United FA Cup winners once more.

Amongst the celebrations, Everton manager Howard Kendall spoke with Moran, as did Peter Reid. The two showed class in defeat, as the noise from the United fans got louder and louder. Robson climbed the famous steps to lift the cup for the second time in three years. Atkinson and his players had done it against the odds.

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Despite the disappointment in the league, where United finally finished fourth, they were FA Cup winners and would be playing in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Everton, the holders of that trophy would be in the European Cup as champions of England. Nobody would want to draw them next season.

But then things changed completely.