As May 1985 drew towards its end, two clubs were celebrating silverware. Everton had followed up their FA Cup win from the previous year by being crowned Canon League Division One Champions at the start of the month. On 15th May, they added the European Cup Winners’ Cup to their cabinet.
Three days later Manchester United, under the tutelage of Ron Atkinson, beat The Toffees in the FA Cup final, preventing the Merseysiders from winning a treble. The Red Devils may have faltered again in their quest for the title, but they had the consolation of the prestigious cup.
The two clubs shared a common rival.
Liverpool had taken home three trophies themselves the season before, but after a disappointing domestic campaign by their high standards, they were in the European Cup final. Standing in their way, a Juventus team that had won the Italian title in 1984 with players like Michel Platini in their ranks. Liverpool, the current holders, were facing a difficult adversary.
On May 29th, 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium before the final between Liverpool and Juventus began, trouble started on the terraces. What happened after led to 39 people losing their lives and hundreds being injured. The psychological scars for those who were there will never heal.
Despite all this, the game went ahead. A Platini penalty was the difference maker and Juventus were champions. Nobody was talking about the game afterward. UEFA were under pressure to take action.
And they did.
Without exception, they banned all English clubs from their competitions. Everton were not going to be in the European Cup and Manchester United would not compete for the Cup Winners’ Cup. Ron Atkinson’s last ever European match as manager of Manchester United was the penalty shoot-out loss to Videoton in March 1985. He never had the opportunity with the club again.
The dark clouds continued to linger throughout the summer as football stayed on the front pages. Luton Town announced that they were not going to allow any away fans at Kenilworth Road, with their supporters carrying membership cards for entry.
Football was unattractive to the general public and the TV companies knew this. They couldn’t find a solution in their negotiations with the Football League to cover matches. This dispute meant that nobody would be able to see anything when the season started.
At Manchester United, there was still an optimistic feeling. As FA Cup winners, they had raised themselves for the big occasion. Now Atkinson had to sustain that level to make sure his side could finally make the next step and lift the title.
He brought in goalkeeper Chris Turner from relegated Sunderland and ex-Manchester City winger Peter Barnes. Gordon McQueen and Arnold Mühren departed, both had played their part in Atkinson’s earlier seasons. He kept faith with the rest of the squad that had finished fourth in 1984/85.
There were whispers and rumours that Atkinson would move for Leicester City striker Gary Lineker, with Frank Stapleton leaving Old Trafford. Neither happened and Lineker set off for Goodison Park instead to partner Graeme Sharp at Everton. Aston Villa stepped in to take Andy Gray from the champions and bring him back for a second spell at Villa Park.
Lineker was on the opposing side as the FA Charity Shield raised the curtain for the season with a repeat of the FA Cup final. United were out of sorts on a hot afternoon at Wembley and Everton recorded a comfortable 2-0 win.
Andy Gray lined up alongside his new colleagues as the season opened at Old Trafford with Manchester United welcoming an Aston Villa team that they had destroyed in March by four goals to nil. On this warm sunny August day, the match was goalless at the break, with the home support a little frustrated at their side’s inability to find the net.
The Red Devils came out for the second half quickly and hungry for goals. Norman Whiteside broke the deadlock in the 48th minute and then two minutes later Mark Hughes added a second. The visitors were stunned. They had no response.
Hughes had bagged three in nine minutes back in March when the teams met and he scored his second of the new season with fifteen minutes to play. Danish winger Jesper Olsen sealed the victory in the 84th minute. The scoreline had been repeated. An excellent second half saw Atkinson’s side put down a marker for the new campaign.
At the final whistle, the cheers of the Old Trafford crowd grew louder when it was announced that Everton had lost 3-1 at Filbert Street. There was no happy return for Lineker against Leicester. Liverpool started with a win, a 2-0 victory over Arsenal at Anfield came courtesy of goals from Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol.
A long midweek trip to East Anglia was next on the agenda for United, as they travelled to Ipswich. John Gidman suffered a serious injury and the Red Devils found it hard to break down their opponents. As he often did, captain Bryan Robson stepped up and scored the winner to make it maximum points after two matches.
The third game of the season took Atkinson and his players to North London and a difficult match against Arsenal at Highbury. The away team’s performance was measured and they left the famous old ground with a 2-1 win. Gary Bailey saved a penalty from Charlie Nicholas before being beaten by Ian Allinson, who scored from the spot during the closing moments.
In 1985 the first official league tables were announced after three games, anything before didn’t count. Atkinson was looking down on the rest. United had scored seven goals, and conceded just one (and a penalty at that), with the maximum nine points in the bag. The first week of the new season couldn’t have gone much better for the club and its manager.
Two days after the Arsenal win, West Ham arrived at Old Trafford for the Bank Holiday fixture. It took the home side a little time to break down The Hammers but Hughes and Gordon Strachan scored and a fourth win was confirmed. Bailey also had another clean sheet to enjoy. Over 50,000 were packed into the ground too, and excitement was growing.
Across on Merseyside, Liverpool recovered from an away loss at Newcastle by battering Ipswich Town 5-0. Gary Lineker scored his first goal for Everton, as his side won away at Tottenham. The champions had seven points from a possible twelve, the same as their rivals from Anfield. Four games played and Manchester United were already five points clear of the two clubs.
The fifth match of the league season, on the last day of August, saw United in the East Midlands. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest were not in the best of form, with four points from their opening games. But the City Ground was the scene of a famous victory for the home team in the autumn of 1984, when they came from 2-0 behind to beat Manchester United. Atkinson knew he had to be wary.
Flying out of the blocks, United were ahead immediately. The goal from Hughes was stunning. His spectacular finish in front of the Trent End was celebrated around the ground by pockets of away supporters who had made their way into the home enclosures. Peter Barnes and Stapleton then added to the tally, United were 3-0 up by the break.
When Peter Davenport pulled one back for Forest at the start of the second period, some United fans started to worry, with last season’s collapse still fresh in their memories. They didn’t need to, their team left Nottingham with a 3-1 win and another maximum points.
The next day, the Sunday newspapers were full of title talk. It was September 1st and already they were declaring the Red Devils the kings of England.
Newcastle United had seen star winger Chris Waddle leave in the summer for Tottenham and without him, they proved to be toothless as they left Old Trafford with a 3-0 loss. Another shutout from Bailey, he was yet to concede at home.
Newly promoted Oxford United had eliminated Atkinson’s team from the Milk Cup in the 1983/84 season while still being a third division side. Now in the top flight, they hoped to be the first side to stop Ron’s rampant Red Devils. They failed. Another 3-0 home victory. Seven games and twenty one points.
When QPR beat Everton by the same score, it was already the champion’s second reverse. Was the previous campaign a fluke? They were now eight points behind the current leaders from Old Trafford. Liverpool were just ahead of The Toffees, with a Merseyside derby two weeks away.
United’s next assignment meant travelling to another team that had come up with Oxford. But this was different. It was Manchester City. They hadn’t met in a competitive fixture since the 1982/83 season, and Maine Road seemed like the perfect place for a winning run to finish.
Manchester United’s confidence was sky-high. If City thought the script was written for them to knock United off course, they were wrong.
A Robson penalty settled any early derby day nerves for the red half of Manchester, with Arthur Albiston hitting a screaming shot past Alex Williams to make it 2-0. A rare goal from Mike Duxbury made it three. Just like Newcastle and Oxford, City were despatched with ease.
The whole club had a buzz around it after eight wins from eight games. Their defensive record was remarkable. Two goals conceded, with only one from open play.
Finally, Atkinson had found the magic formula, and the pieces of the jigsaw were complete.
The English press had already crowned them as champions, asking the question:
“Who can stop Manchester United?”