Christmas Day 1985. Merry Christmas Everyone by Shakin’ Stevens has outsold the rest of the Christmas songs to sit proudly at the top of the British music charts. In the First Division, Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United are top of the pile.
But they are hanging on by a thread.
After their blistering start took them to ten successive league victories and a comfortable lead over the rest of the division, injuries have started to mount up and cracks are appearing.
They may not have lost their first league game until November, but now their form is patchy. A recent home loss to Arsenal has left Atkinson with a lot to ponder before a trip to Goodison Park to face current champions Everton on Boxing Day.
Skipper Bryan Robson’s fitness is again an issue, he won’t be available for this big game. His absence can never be underestimated. Can United cope without him?
Things start well. United race into the lead through Frank Stapleton, who has seen goals dry up of late. The Irishman gives his manager hope and the Red Devils are 1-0 up. It doesn’t last very long. In the sixteenth minute, Graeme Sharp levels and the two heavyweights slug it out, toe to toe.
If things had worked out differently in the summer of 1985, Stapleton would have been playing in France and Mark Hughes would have been partnered by Gary Lineker in attack. But Lineker joined Everton and Stapleton stayed. The Toffees were benefitting from the goals of the England international and he put his side ahead just five minutes before the interval. United had lost their lead and were now trailing at the break.
Atkinson may have tried to rally his troops but Everton went further head just two minutes into the second period, with Sharp again the scorer. United had no response and a second successive defeat was confirmed. Everton’s strike force was firing, United’s front two had lost their verve from earlier in the campaign.
Was the panic button about to be pressed?
Back in Manchester, Liverpool lost to City at Maine Road so United still held a four point lead, despite the Goodison Park defeat. Everton were now only six points behind, with West Ham and Chelsea closer still. The tight grip on the top spot was slipping out of Atkinson’s grasp.
On the first day of 1986, struggling Birmingham arrived at Old Trafford. It looked like the perfect fixture for United to get back on track. After just nine minutes Paul McGrath limped off, with Alan Brazil his replacement. Stapleton dropped into defence alongside young Billy Garton and Brazil partnered Hughes in attack.
The game was dire. Birmingham offered little and United couldn’t find a way through until new signing Colin Gibson scored just after half-time. It was the only goal of the game but at this stage, the points were needed more than the performance.
FA Cup 3rd round action was next for United with a local derby against Rochdale. A big freeze caused many postponed ties, but Old Trafford boasted state-of-the-art undersoil heating. But after it malfunctioned, the match was off and had to be rescheduled to midweek. A laboured 2-0 win over their lowly opponents didn’t bring much optimism but they were into the next round.
The next league match took them to a ground where they had been shocked in the League Cup back in 1983/84. The Manor Ground now hosted top-flight football after Oxford United celebrated two successive promotions. But Manchester United were in no mood for surprises and left with a 3-1 win. Gibson again netted.
His namesake Terry arrived from Coventry City, which meant Brazil departed in the opposite direction. The Scot’s time at United was disappointing, but a back injury that would eventually end his career was hampering him. With Hughes and Stapleton established as Atkinson’s front two, Brazil never got the opportunities he craved.
At the end of August when United were winning every game, a 3-1 win at Nottingham Forest showed the early credentials for Atkinson’s team. On that warm summer’s day, the Red Devils were 3-0 up at half-time and Forest were easily beaten. When the reverse fixture arrived in January 1986, Brian Clough’s side were not having a great season and had already lost ten times in the league. They were in ninth spot and nowhere near the top of the table
After taking the lead just before the interval through Colin Walsh, Forest were 2-1 down with under ten minutes to go. Jesper Olsen, wearing number seven, had scored twice in front of the Streford End and United were ahead. With eight minutes to play, everything changed. First Walsh netted again to equalise before Nigel Clough headed his side in front with two minutes to go. A 3-2 home loss for the Red Devils.
United had fallen apart and the chasing pack took advantage. Everton were now second, with Liverpool and Chelsea also on the same points. The gap was down to two points. United needed their captain back and he was set to return for the FA Cup 4th round away to Second Division Sunderland.
A 0-0 draw in icy cold conditions meant a replay but Robson’s return stole the headlines. After clashing with Barry Venison, the United skipper was dismissed and his team were down to ten men. The replay was more comfortable though and a 3-0 home win saw the Old Trafford outfit into the next round.
So much of what happened in 1985/86 was never seen because of a TV dispute between the Football League and the television companies. By January 1986 an agreement was in place and United’s next two league games were to be televised.
The first was away at West Ham. The Hammers were enjoying a good season and were sitting in fifth and into the next round of the FA Cup. Their opponents in the cup? Manchester United. Before then though, it was all about the league.
Twenty six minutes in and the visitors struck. Robson’s impact this time was more positive and his goal meant that Atkinson’s team were leading at half-time. But John Lyall’s side, urged on by a passionate home support, were a difficult opponent.
Mark Ward’s leveller just after the hour lifted the fans even more. They could smell blood and United were wobbling. With fourteen minutes to play, Tony Cottee put the Hammers 2-1 to the good. That goal saw another loss for the Red Devils and it meant that they were now in second place. Everton’s excellent form had taken them to the top.
The following Sunday the BBC cameras were present at Anfield for Liverpool versus Manchester United. As the coverage began, it became known that someone had sprayed something at the United players as they entered the stadium, with some in a lot of distress. Big Ron took his men onto the pitch to try and get some fresh air. The situation clearly rattled his side.
Robson was absent through suspension so Atkinson handed a start to Dane John Sivebaek. Normally a right-back, his boss employed him in midfield for this enormous game at the top of the table. With Everton not in action, this was an opportunity for top spot to be regained.
Despite the pre-match issue, the visitors began strongly. Bruce Grobbelaar spilled the ball and Colin Gibson continued his goalscoring form by reacting first to make it 1-0 after only fifteen minutes. The prefect start for the team looking to take back first place.
They couldn’t add to their lead and in the 40th minute Liverpool replied through John Wark. The second half couldn’t produce a winning goal, so Everton stayed top of the pile without kicking a ball. The next match was against rock bottom West Brom, so surely United couldn’t slip up this time at home.
Two penalties from Olsen gave United control and the Dane completed his hat-trick to give the home side a much needed three points. It was their first league victory since the 3-1 win at Oxford. Everton were three points in front but had played a game more than United. The Toffees won 2-0 at Anfield, so the media fancied them to retain the title now.
Atkinson’s team were now going on the road for three away games, two in the league and the FA Cup clash with West Ham. The conditions on the South Coast were dreadful as Southampton hosted United at The Dell. With nine minutes to go, Glenn Cockerill fired home past Chris Turner to give The Saints a 1-0 win. Everton won again, the gap was growing.
The midweek FA Cup game at West Ham was costly. A 1-1 draw meant that they would have to replay at Old Trafford but Robson dislocated his shoulder. Would he be out of the season and possibly the World Cup in Mexico? With matches coming thick and fast, United were up against it.
The TV cameras were at Old Trafford for the replay and West Ham made the most of it. A 2-0 win for The Hammers saw last season’s winners eliminated at the fifth round stage. Atkinson saw his team go out without laying a glove on the away team, they looked physically and mentally wrecked.
Things were about to get worse.
Childhood fan Peter Davenport signed for the club from Nottingham Forest as Atkinson decided to boost the attack some more. In fact Davenport was purchased to replace Hughes, as news broke that the Welshman would leave at the end of the season for Barcelona. Hughes had been courted by the Spanish giants, but had appeared to be staying. It was a hammer blow, the timing was terrible.
On the plastic pitch at Loftus Road, Davenport thought he had made an instant impact when he believed he had given United the lead against QPR. The goal was ruled out and United again conceded in the 81st minute, this time from John Byrne.
Everton’s draw the next day against Chelsea saw United seven points adrift, but with a game in hand. After the loss in West London though, they were now third. Liverpool had overtaken them.
There was a sense of déjà vu around Old Trafford. Robson was out and United had lost against sides lower down the league. With the FA Cup elimination and the collapse at the top of the league, the pressure was building on the manager. He had won two FA Cups, but the league title was the big one.
The golden days of the late summer and early autumn were in the distant past now. The cold winter had left Manchester United with only an outside hope of finally winning the league.
Had Atkinson run out of ideas? Or did he have one last trick up his sleeve?