Throughout his tenure as manager of Manchester United, Ron Atkinson had relied on his captain Bryan Robson. When Atkinson saw his team stumble at the final hurdle in the league and various cup competitions, there was always a common factor. Robson was unavailable through injury.
When Manchester United won their ten first league games of the Canon First Division in 1985/86, Robson was a key player. But when October arrived, United and Atkinson lost their skipper to a hamstring injury while on England duty. The next match was a 1-1 draw against second place Liverpool at Old Trafford. Without Robson, Atkinson had to make more than one change to compensate.
How long could he cope with his main man’s absence?
Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was United’s next challenge. The London club had been promoted in 1984 and adjusted well to life back in the old First Division. Now occupying third place just behind Liverpool, the team managed by John Hollins were ready to pounce if Manchester United started to slip.
When Danish winger Jesper Olsen put United ahead, it appeared that his team were back on the right track. But Scottish defender Joe McLaughlin equalised and another draw was on the cards for the Red Devils.
Up stepped top scorer Mark Hughes. One minute after seeing his side concede, the Welshman restored the lead for the visitors and the three points headed back to Manchester. It was an important win in light of the tricky opponents and Robson, Gordon Strachan and John Gidman still missing through injury.
One week later and Olsen scored twice as Coventry were defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford. November began and Manchester United were still ahead of the pack. Robson and Strachan looked to be on the way back, which raised eyebrows because the severity of their injuries should have seen a longer time on the shelf.
The Screen Sports Super Cup returned with a 1-1 draw against Norwich City at Old Trafford. 20,000 were in attendance for a competition that was a burden to Manchester United and nobody was taking it seriously. With small squads, rotation was difficult and Norman Whiteside’s penalty was United’s only success in front of goal. It was time for more important matters. Back to league football.
During the previous season, United had shown glimpses of a potential title challenge, but then they would lose to a side they were expected to beat and hopes would be dashed. The pattern had developed at the beginning of Atkinson’s time at the club but with Liverpool off-colour domestically in 1984/85, Everton capitalised when the Anfield club left the door open.
One of the teams that did damage in 1984/85 was Sheffield Wednesday. After promotion in 1984, they won at Old Trafford on the first day of 1985. They then deflated United’s momentum in April with a 1-0 win at Hillsborough. That felt like the end of the title chase, which had gathered pace after an impressive run in March for the Red Devils.
Wednesday had replaced Chelsea in third spot but had been humiliated in the League Cup at fourth tier Swindon. United had a ten point lead over Liverpool, who occupied second place and were away at Coventry on the same day. Atkinson was boosted by the very premature return of Robson to the starting eleven, with Strachan able to take his place as the substitute.
The game was petering out as the last ten minutes began. Robson had departed and been replaced by Strachan, but it looked like United were going to come away with a 0-0 draw. With only seven minutes to play, Lee Chapman met a corner and headed home past Gary Bailey. 1-0 to The Owls.
It was all it took to win the game and hand United their first league defeat of the season. It was so monumental that ITV rushed the footage of the goal on-screen, despite the picture quality being dreadful. Liverpool cruised to a 3-0 win at Highfield Road, the gap was now seven points.
Fast forward to Saturday 30th November. Manchester United’s players trundled off the Old Trafford pitch to some jeers, with their heads bowed. Their ten point lead at the start of the month had dwindled to just two. How did they get there? They were being crowned the champions of England by the press and pundits just weeks earlier.
Following the 1-0 reverse to Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham shutout United’s attack and left with a 0-0 draw. Hughes rattled the bar but that was as close as they came. Liverpool hammered rock-bottom West Brom 4-1 at Anfield, the difference between the two famous clubs was shortening.
One week later and things got worse for Atkinson. They were swamped by Leicester City at Filbert Street and left the East Midlands with a 3-0 loss. Liverpool were comfortable, they won 2-0 at Birmingham.
The great rivals then met in the Milk Cup. Liverpool had dominated the cup in the 1980s, winning it from 1981 to 1984. United had only ever reached one final, losing in 1983. Paul McGrath rescued a point in the league match between the two in October and he put the visiting side ahead at Anfield. Danish midfielder Jan Molby then made his mark, scoring twice to put Liverpool through by two goals to one.
Atkinson made a signing just after with Colin Gibson, a player who could play on the left of defence or midfield, arriving from Aston Villa.
So back to the last day of the month. With very little left on the clock, it was going to be a good day for Manchester United. Sub Alan Brazil put United ahead against Watford and a much-needed three points looked in the bag. Liverpool and Chelsea were drawing 0-0 at Anfield so United would be further ahead.
Then with five minutes to go, Molby converted a penalty to put the home side 1-0 up. Liverpool were on course to record a full month of league wins. Then, in the last minute, the situation changed at both grounds.
Pat Nevin equalised for Chelsea and moments later Colin West did the same for Watford. Both games ended 1-1, but a huge chance had been lost for Manchester United. Atkinson needed to revitalise his troops, as Liverpool were breathing down their neck, and now West Ham had moved up to third place, just five points away from United.
November to forget for Atkinson, a November to remember for the red half of Merseyside.
December began with a 1-0 defeat to Everton in the Screen Sports Super Cup. Only 20,000 braved the cold to be at Goodison Park. An unconvincing 1-0 win over Ipswich followed, meaning that United stayed in top spot, with Liverpool easily overcoming Aston Villa 3-0.
Bottom place was confirmed in the Screen Sports Super Cup after a 1-1 draw at Carrow Road, Norwich and Everton qualified for the semi-finals alongside Tottenham and Liverpool. The cup had brought nothing positive for United, but at least now they were out of it.
Three days later, United were off to Villa Park in the reverse of the opening day fixtures. A cold day in the West Midlands was some contrast to the warm summer August weather when they first met that term. Liverpool were at Highbury to play an inconsistent Arsenal.
Clayton Blackmore was given a rare start and he hit a blockbuster of a shot to put United 1-0 up. The match finished 3-1 for the visitors and it got better when the results came in. Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0, with a young Irishman scoring on his debut. Niall Quinn’s time at Arsenal may have been forgotten, but he was popular at Old Trafford on this particular day. The Gunners were United’s next opponents.
The last Saturday before Christmas saw torrential rain in Manchester. Both Manchester United and Arsenal tried their best to manage the conditions and the home side had the perfect opportunity to go ahead when they were awarded a penalty.
Whiteside took it and his tame effort was easily smothered by John Lukic. A golden chance had gone. It was 0-0 at half-time, with Liverpool drawing 1-1 at the break against Newcastle at Anfield. The game at Anfield stayed like that, but with fifteen minutes to go at Old Trafford, the deadlock was broken.
The home side tried to clear the ball on a number of occasions, but each time it rebounded back to an Arsenal player. Quinn found space and shot goalward. Bailey parried it back out, Charlie Nicholas reacted first and rolled the ball into the net. It seemed to take an age to cross the line on the wet turf. United were beaten for a third time and Liverpool were left kicking themselves. This was the first home league loss of the season for Atkinson’s team.
The fixtures were not going to get any kinder, as Everton were waiting for United on Boxing Day. They were sitting in sixth place, nine points adrift of the Red Devils, who held a point lead over 2nd placed Liverpool. The Toffees had beaten United twice in the Screen Sports Super Cup, but this was going to be a different type of game.
Could United end their inconsistent league form? Would they be able to hold off the chasing pack?