Some things have to end: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part thirteen)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

Sunday 15th September 1985. When Ron Atkinson opened the morning papers, he had a lot to be happy about. His Manchester United were top of the league after a comprehensive 3-0 win in the Manchester derby at Maine Road the previous day.

Liverpool and Everton might have been the benchmark, but they were trailing by some margin. With the two Merseyside clubs meeting the following Saturday at Goodison Park, Atkinson was well aware that he could go further ahead of one, if not both of the teams.

United had a trip to The Hawthorns to look forward to. Atkinson’s former club, West Brom, were struggling at the foot of the division with one point and this offered United the chance to rack up a ninth successive league win. The future was bright. The English sports journalists thought so too, they raved about Atkinson’s team and had already declared the title race as over.

With English clubs banned from Europe, for the sides who would have taken part, a new competition had been created. Sponsored by the fledgling cable TV channel, Screen Sports, the Super Cup was seen as a way to keep those sides busy and happy with some financial and sporting rewards at stake.

Manchester United were drawn alongside Everton and Norwich City. The Canaries were relegated the season before but as Milk Cup winners would have played in the UEFA Cup. The first game of the cup for United saw Everton come to Old Trafford. It was a fixture that nobody wanted.

Everton came away with a 4-2 win, it was the second time they had beaten United in just over a month. But just as the Charity Shield didn’t count towards United’s league run, neither did this cup loss, which had not grabbed anyone’s attention at all. Everton’s eyes turned to Saturday and the visit of Liverpool.

The Merseyside Derby began in explosive style. Liverpool’s player-manager Kenny Dalglish may have been new to the role off the field, but he was still excellent on it. He put his side one nil ahead in the very first minute, then Ian Rush made it two just fifteen minutes later.

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When ex-Evertonian Steve McMahon scored just before half-time, Liverpool looked to be handing Everton an enormous hiding, as well as a third league loss of the season. At the Hawthorns, another comprehensive victory was taking shape, with goals flying in.

By the time both matches had concluded, eleven goals had been scored. Everton made a comeback and reduced the deficit to 3-2 with half an hour to play but they couldn’t find a leveller. Manchester United destroyed West Brom 5-1, with forgotten man Alan Brazil netting twice. An injury to Gordon Strachan, who collided with the post while scoring was the only downside of the win. His shoulder problem would see him out for a while.

After the weekend’s action, Everton were down in sixth, with Liverpool second behind United. The gap was nine points. Chelsea were third, with only goal difference keeping Liverpool ahead of them. With Southampton up next at Old Trafford, a tenth straight league win was surely possible for Atkinson’s side.

Before the league meeting with Southampton, the Milk Cup began. Joining at the second round stage, United travelled to Selhurst Park to face second tier Crystal Place for the first leg. A Peter Barnes goal was enough to give the Red Devils an advantage for the return match.

The final Saturday of September arrived. Manchester United had made the most of the late summer weather. The excellent early season pitches gave them the perfect platform to play their expansive attractive football. Now autumn was here, would this make a difference as the nights started to draw in?

As the half-time scores were announced at Old Trafford, a collective groan went up as news came in from Anfield that Liverpool were ahead against Tottenham. Southampton were proving to be a tough nut to crack for the league leaders and Atkinson needed his players to be patient as they tried to find a way past Peter Shilton in the visitor’s net.

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The ideal opportunity came from the penalty spot. Bryan Robson took the responsibility, facing his England team-mate Shilton. But the Saints’ keeper kept it out. United were staring at the end of their incredible run, and at home to a side that were 17th in the table, with just one win under their belts.

It couldn’t end like this.

With the clock ticking, Mark Hughes came to the fore with just 15 minutes to go. It was enough to win the game, the tenth victory. But United struggled and looked lost at times. Was the squad paying the price for injuries to John Gidman and Strachan, plus the arrival of midweek cup football? In past seasons a long list of casualties had robbed Atkinson of key players at the most important moments, he couldn’t afford to lose anyone else.

On October 5th, 1985, both Liverpool and Manchester United had away fixtures on artificial surfaces. Liverpool were in West London to face QPR, while United were at Luton. Despite the new away fan ban, some away supporters had used their cunning to get into the ground and cheer on their side as they searched for league win number eleven.

Liverpool took an early lead through Paul Walsh, but by the interval, QPR were level through Terry Fenwick. At Kenilworth Road, the score was 0-0. Just like the previous Saturday, Atkinson saw his team lacking a cutting edge. And as one week earlier, Hughes stepped up to put his side ahead.

Two minutes later, there was a goal at Loftus Road. Gary Bannister put QPR 2-1 up, everything was working out for Atkinson. The drama wasn’t over. Brian Stein equalised for Luton, they trailed for just nine minutes. Twenty minutes remained, there were points to be won and lost.

As the final whistle went at Loftus Road, the home supporters were celebrating a famous victory. QPR had handed Liverpool their second league loss of the season. Around the same moment, a loud roar passed through Kenilworth Road.

There wasn’t a goal to cheer, the match was over. Luton Town had become the first team to stop Manchester United from winning in the first division. After ten consecutive league victories, The Red Devils drew 1-1 with The Hatters. With Liverpool losing, United extended their lead to ten points, but after being ahead and seeing the run come to an end, disappointment was the main emotion amongst Manchester United’s players and fans.

It was a big story for the back pages of the papers, but of course, it had to come to an end at some point. The following Wednesday, a goal from Norman Whiteside gave United a 2-0 aggregate win over Crystal Palace. It was another lacklustre performance from the Red Devils, in front of just over 26,000 people. It was the first of three consecutive home matches.

QPR may have handed Liverpool a loss, but when they took to the field at Old Trafford one week on, they never looked like repeating the feat. Hughes and Olsen did the damage and Atkinson’s charges were back to winning ways. The timing was important, Liverpool squeezed past Southampton at Anfield. Dalglish’s team were the next visitors for Manchester United, looking to reduce the ten point gap.

Before that though, international football took centre stage. England hosted Turkey at Wembley as part of the qualifying campaign for the 1986 World Cup. Gary Lineker showed his scoring abilities again with a treble, and skipper Robson also was on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win. Then, as Robson looked to score his second, he overstretched. His hamstring went. Three days before the biggest game of the season for his club.

With an injury like that, it’s never a quick return. There was no doubt that Manchester United would have to face Liverpool without their captain. The blow was felt on the terraces, as the supporters felt deflated. They had seen their team perform incredibly, with Robson at the forefront of it. Now with their great rivals rolling into town, their talisman would be absent. Not for the first time.

One of the reasons for Manchester United’s march to the summit was their defence. Despite losing Gidman during the second game of the season, the back four and Gary Bailey in goal had conceded just four league goals.

Key to this was Irishman Paul McGrath, who had followed on from an excellent previous term by again proving to be a classy operator in the middle of the backline. But for the Liverpool game, McGrath had to show his versatility. Without Robson, he had to take the number seven shirt and step into the huge void left by his skipper. This also meant his presence would be missed at centre-back too.

Manchester United versus Liverpool is a special fixture with an incredible atmosphere, no matter the venue. In October 1985, the Anfield side were looking up at their rivals from down the East Lancs. Road for a change. With a ten point advantage, Ron Atkinson welcomed his rookie counterpart Kenny Dalglish to Old Trafford knowing how big three points would be.

After a tense first period, the interval arrived with no goals scored. Despite being played at a frantic pace, the teams had cancelled each other out, with Craig Johnston coming closest for Liverpool when Bailey denied him.

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It didn’t take long for things to change. After United lost the ball in the Liverpool half, the visitors broke away. Rush found himself on the left wing and crossed into the penalty area. Johnston arrived unmarked to head past Bailey to give his side the advantage and send the away support behind the goal into raptures. The second half was eighteen seconds old.

United huffed and puffed but couldn’t create any real clear chances. Their usual driving force was injured, someone needed to take responsibility to prevent the first league defeat from happening to the team directly below them.

In the sixty fourth minute, left-back Arthur Albiston crossed into the Liverpool box but Mark Lawrenson got a touch. It rolled towards his own goalkeeper, but before it reached Bruce Grobbelaar, McGrath arrived to send the ball into the net at the Stretford End. Now the home faithful believed. Whiteside broke free and tried to chip Grobbelaar who managed to keep it out.

The teams had to settle for a share of the spoils. For only the second time that season, Manchester United had failed to win. But they were unbeaten still and had shown great character to take a point after going behind. Robson was an enormous miss of course and it wasn’t clear when he would be back.

With a visit to Chelsea next, United knew that Robson and Strachan would still be unavailable for Stamford Bridge.

As the darkness began to fall earlier in the evenings and the cold started to bite, could Atkinson keep his players fit for the tough challenges ahead?