Five way dance: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (part sixteen)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

The Sunday newspapers made unpleasant reading for the supporters of Manchester United on March 16th 1986. The same journalists crowned the Red Devils as champions in October 1985 were now sharpening their knives. The 1-0 loss to QPR the previous day was United’s eight in the league that season. They didn’t lose their first until November.

The clouds above Old Trafford were of the darkest variety. The league collapse wasn’t the only issue. Mark Hughes was leaving for Barcelona at the end of the season, Bryan Robson was out with a dislocated shoulder and their grip on the FA Cup had gone after West Ham won 2-0 at Old Trafford in a fifth round replay.

Everton were the current champions of England and after an inconsistent first half of the season, the Toffees had gone on an impressive unbeaten run. These results took them past Liverpool and then United to top the table. A 1-1 draw against Chelsea later that Sunday afternoon saw Howard Kendall’s team three points ahead of their Merseyside rivals with a game in hand.

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Liverpool’s 2-1 win at The Dell the day before saw them edge closer. They had now won their last three games and were embarking on a run of their own. Manchester United incredibly were now third, seven adrift of Everton having played a game less. The Toffees were heading to Old Trafford on March 31st; it was imperative that Ron Atkinson’s team won every game before that so that they still had a chance of the title.

Eighth placed Luton Town were the visitors on Wednesday 19th March. This was United’s game in hand and with neither of the top two in action, this was the opportunity that Atkinson and his players needed.

The Hatters had ended United’s winning run in October but away from home, they were a different proposition. Their home form, aided by an artificial surface and a ban on away supporters, was impressive and they were hosting Everton in their next game.

Goals from Hughes and Paul McGrath gave United a comfortable 2-0 victory over David Pleat’s team. The Red Devils had closed the gap. With mid-table neighbours City up next in the Manchester derby, Atkinson eyed another great chance at keeping up the momentum.

One sore note from the Luton match was the loss of defender Kevin Moran, who broke his arm after only thirteen minutes. The list of casualties was growing. Mark Higgins would now be handed his debut against City.

The former Everton defender had retired through injury but when he was able to recover, Atkinson gave him a trial. United had to pay a fee for him to be eligible for any matches. They had no choice with Moran out.

The following Saturday saw the top three in action and Liverpool flew at visitors Oxford United, with Ian Rush giving them the lead inside the first minute at Anfield. 60 seconds later and there was a goal at Old Trafford.

Colin Gibson had adjusted well since his arrival at the end of 1985 and had chipped in with some important goals. He gave the home side an early lead to settle any nerves. The noise inside the stadium rose. By half-time, Liverpool were 3-0 ahead but Everton were still looking to break the deadlock at Kenilworth Road.

Penalties at Anfield and Old Trafford saw both home sides extend their advantage before the hour mark, with Jan Molby and Gordon Strachan netting for their respective teams. Kevin Richardson gave Everton the lead at Luton, and normal service was resumed.

The last twenty minutes saw things change completely. Manchester City defender Clive Wilson produced an excellent diving header to score in front of the Stretford End and give the visitors a lifeline. The goal caused panic on the field and tension on the terraces.

When City attacked again two minutes later, United’s defence was all over the place. Left-back Arthur Albiston went to make a clearance but instead sent the ball past Chris Turner in the United goal. A calamitous own goal had tied the score at 2-2. United were jittery and had thrown away their lead.

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Liverpool continued to score at Anfield, and by the time the game was over, they had netted six times without reply. The celebrations were even sweeter when they discovered that two goals for Luton saw them come back to win 2-1 against Everton. With United blowing their lead, the red half of Merseyside were the winners by 5 pm.

Kenny Dalglish’s side were level with Everton, only in second place on goals scored, as they both had identical goal difference. Liverpool had played one game more. United sat in third, three points away from the top.

In fourth spot was Chelsea, just four points behind Everton but with two games in hand. Under John Hollins, the team from West London were now serious contenders to crash the party and lift the league. Every match meant something, and with the Easter weekend coming up, everyone would play twice. Things were heating up nicely.

Incredibly Manchester City and Chelsea had to play twenty four hours after their Saturday games when the two sides met in the final of the Full Members Cup, another cup competition created to give teams something to do with the European ban in place. Despite a late fightback, Chelsea were the winners by five goals to four, with David Speedie netting three times.

Before the Easter fixtures, there were midweek international games, and one of them would have an enormous impact on the rest of the season. Wales were away to Ireland, and when keeper Neville Southall injured his ankle at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, Everton lost their custodian for the remaining part of the campaign.

This huge blow gave their title rivals a lift, so Kendall moved quickly to sign free agent Pat Jennings. The veteran was going to the World Cup in Mexico that summer as Northern Ireland’s number one; he would provide cover for Everton with Bobby Mimms stepping in to replace Southall.

On to Easter Saturday. Liverpool headed to Sheffield Wednesday for a difficult fixture, Newcastle were the visitors to Goodison Park and United were away at relegation haunted Birmingham City. Chelsea hosted West Ham at Stamford Bridge.

The Hammers had four games in hand over Everton, but were still in seventh place and twelve points adrift. They would need to win those matches to enter into the title conversation.

A tense 0-0 draw saw Liverpool leave South Yorkshire with just a point. Richardson scored again, and this time it proved to be the winner as nervy Everton overcame Newcastle. Peter Beardsley also missed a penalty for the visitors. Mimms had a clean sheet and his team collected three points.

After sixty six minutes Ian Handysides put Birmingham 1-0 ahead. The team scrapping for survival had taken an important lead and at the same time delivered a hammer blow to Manchester United’s title hopes.

Enter the returning Bryan Robson.

Back in the side from his shoulder injury, the skipper equalised with six minutes to go. A 1-1 draw was disappointing but United were close to a shock defeat. With Everton coming to Old Trafford two days later, the Easter Monday clash was a game the Red Devils had to win.

And Chelsea?

West Ham produced a fantastic display on a terrible surface to wallop their rivals 4-0 at Stamford Bridge. The Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie partnership was too much for the home side to handle. The two strikers scored three of the four that afternoon. Alan Devonshire, who registered the other, was majestic in midfield for the Hammers. They were still in the title race.

The games were coming thick and fast and all eyes were focused on the huge game at Old Trafford. There was an incredible ambience around the stadium. The Everton team bus arrived pre-match to jeers and gestures, and the away supporters were greeted with even more vitriol when their coaches brought them to the ground.

Despite his shutout on Saturday, Mimms was considered the weakness in the visiting XI. It was not against him personally; it’s just that Neville Southall was undoubtedly one of the best in the world at the time. His boots (and gloves) would take a lot of filling.

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The atmosphere became tenser and tenser once the game began. There was an aggressive feeling between two groups of supporters who had no time for each other, combined with the pressure of the fixture and the repercussions come May. Neither side blinked.

Frank Stapleton replaced Peter Davenport in attack just after the hour mark. He tested Mimms but couldn’t break through. Higgins, against his former club, kept things tight alongside McGrath. Everton could not find a goal either. It finished 0-0.

The football headlines were broadcast at 5 pm on Sports Report for the fans listening on the radio. There was a new league leader. Liverpool’s 2-0 home victory over Manchester City put them ahead on goal difference. Painfully for Everton, Steve McMahon got both at Anfield. He had played for the Toffees earlier in the decade.

West Ham’s Easter got better. A 2-1 home win over Spurs saw them ten points behind Liverpool but with an incredible five games in hand. The Hammers travelled to Nottingham for one of their games in hand against a Forest side that could upset any applecart. It was their third game in six days.

The game is remembered for a famous free-kick by Dutchman Johnny Metgod. His powerful long distance effort flew past Phil Parkes. Forest won 2-1 and Metgod’s goal is still spoken of today. It also featured on the BBC’s 101 Great Goals video. A chance had gone begging for West Ham.

Manchester United had seven games to play. Atkinson knew that any slip now would end their hopes. They also had to rely on Liverpool and Everton to drop points and that West Ham wouldn’t overtake them.

The month of April would make or break the title race for five teams.

Who had the stamina to come out on top?