Manchester United had reached the latter stage of the 1985/86 season under their flamboyant manager, Ron Atkinson. The team had been streets ahead of the chasing pack on points and on the field. But when bad form and injuries took hold, the lead was lost and the Red Devils were replaced in first place.
As April arrived, a number of teams were in the running to win the Canon League Division One title. Everton were the reigning champions and were neck and neck with neighbours Liverpool, who held top spot on goal difference. Behind them were United, then Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham. With plenty of football to play, predictions were difficult to make.
The first Saturday of the month saw both Merseyside clubs in FA Cup semi-final action. Third place United were at Highfield Road to face a Coventry City side that were looking over their shoulder at the relegation trapdoor. Both sides needed three points for different reasons. A win would put United two points behind the top two.
The visitors raced into an early two goal lead through Colin Gibson and Bryan Robson. Nick Pickering pulled one back, but Gordon Strachan settled the nerves and Manchester United were 3-1 victors.
The gap had been closed, although Everton had played one game less. With two home matches to come, Atkinson could afford a smile. The resurrection of his side’s title hopes was possible. Everton and Liverpool had reason to celebrate too, with both advancing to the FA Cup final.
Before a Wednesday fixture against Chelsea at Old Trafford, West Ham won 1-0 against Southampton. The Hammers still had games in hand, and they were looking good. The following night Chelsea knew they needed to beat United and vice versa. The home side would be back in first place with a win.
Linked with Manchester United when Gary Lineker chose Everton, Kerry Dixon was the difference maker. He gave the away team the lead after 46 minutes. It was a blow but United had time to react. It took them a while but in the 67th minute, they were awarded a penalty. Danish winger Jesper Olsen stepped up to level. Now it was anyone’s game.
The Old Trafford crowd urged their heroes on. Atkinson was never a defensive manager either and his side were in the ascendancy. There looked to be only one winner.
Time was practically up. Another United attack was cleared by the visiting defence. But this time, Chelsea broke away. The Red Devils had pushed up and left very little back to protect Chris Turner’s goal. The ball came to Dixon again who sent the away support into hysterics with the winning goal. There was no time to respond, Chelsea had won 2-1. It was a great result for Liverpool and Everton as well.
Come Saturday, Liverpool hammered Coventry 5-0 at Anfield, they had done all that could be asked of them. Everton’s task was more difficult, but they left Highbury with three points when Adrian Heath’s goal gave them a win over Arsenal. The Gunners were left with a very slim chance now.
The next day, Manchester United were live on ITV against Sheffield Wednesday. The Owls had put the first nail into the coffin back in November when they beat United to end the long unbeaten run. The Red Devils never really recovered once their invincibility was exposed.
After the results of the previous day, which also included a win for West Ham, Atkinson must have known this was the last chance saloon. A dull first half did little to convince anyone that his side were good enough to keep fighting, never mind be champions. In the 46th minute, Carl Shutt put Wednesday into the lead. The end was drawing ever closer.
Seven minutes later the situation worsened. A penalty for the visitors was despatched by Mel Sterland and The Owls controlled the rest of the game. The 2-0 win was comfortable and Manchester United had now lost ten league games. They were also five points away from the top two, who had played fewer games. The clouds above Old Trafford were getting darker.
Midweek fixtures saw no change in the top three, despite an encouraging 4-2 win at Newcastle for Atkinson. Everton and Liverpool both won to maintain the gap. But Chelsea won at West Ham to avenge their Easter mauling and throw a huge spanner in the works for the home side. The Hammers still had games in hand, but now they needed the top two to drop points.
Liverpool and Everton were still going toe to toe at the top of the league and narrow wins for them against West Brom and Ipswich saw their lead grow. Tottenham frustrated Manchester United again. A second 0-0 draw of the season between the two teams left Atkinson staring at a seven point deficit with two games to play. Everton also had two games in hand, Liverpool one.
It was over.
It was no longer mathematically possible.
The Manchester United team that won the first ten league games of the season with exhilarating football had seen their hopes vanish. At that moment in April 1986, the club seemed further away from winning the league than they ever had under Atkinson. There was no optimism, no positives to take.
Then West Ham then made a statement of intent. Following a 2-0 victory over Watford, two days later Newcastle came to Upton Park. It was one of the precious games in hand for The Hammers. They made sure they didn’t pass up the opportunity. Martin Thomas in the Newcastle goal wasn’t 100% fit and by the interval had seen four goals go past him. He didn’t emerge for the second half.
Chris Hedworth took his place but that didn’t go well when he collided with the post and broke his collarbone. Peter Beardsley became the third keeper of the night for The Magpies but could do little to stop the rout. Alvin Martin completed his hat-trick with a penalty; Martin’s three goals came against three different goalkeepers. The 8-1 victory put West Ham in third place.
Manchester United were now fourth, the position they had finished in the previous two seasons. The season that promised so much was going to end with no silverware and would be remembered for the collapse. They were falling more and more behind. The season was now finished before it was officially over, with two games still to play. Atkinson’s fifth season in charge was coming to a conclusion, but not in the way anticipated.
A 4-0 win over Leicester in the last home fixture of the campaign did little to cheer the mood of the Old Trafford faithful. Three late goals gave a flattering look to the scoreline. Mark Hughes also said his goodbyes.
His last appearance came the week after in a 1-1 draw at Watford. He also scored United’s goal. His drop in form had more than hindered the situation. United’s lack of goals in the second part of the season contributed to their demise.
On the same day a goal from player-manager Kenny Dalglish gave Liverpool the title. Their 1-0 win at Chelsea was enough. Everton had blinked first, gaining one point from their previous two matches. The two would meet in the FA Cup final shortly after with Liverpool looking to win the coveted double.
Two days after seeing their title go to the red side of the city, Everton beat West Ham 3-1 to confirm second spot, with The Hammers coming third. Atkinson could only look on. Fourth place was unimaginable back in October.
When Liverpool came from behind to win 3-1 at Wembley to lift the FA Cup, the sick feeling around Old Trafford was accentuated. With their rookie manager, the Anfield club had finished the season with an incredible winning run to take the two most prestigious domestic trophies.
In 1983/84 Liverpool stumbled over the line with United practically handing the league trophy to their rivals when they choked themselves. In 1985/86 the rot had set in long before the end of the campaign and Atkinson had no more cards to play. Liverpool and Everton’s form after Christmas meant that United’s defeats were costly each time.
Colin and Terry Gibson arrived with Peter Davenport but they couldn’t inspire the team. Robson’s injury issues continued to haunt the player and his manager. The biggest “what if” for Atkinson must have revolved around what could have happened if his skipper stayed fit. Not just in 1985/86 but in 1983/84 too.
Rumours started to spread around football about Atkinson’s future. He had delivered two FA Cups but the league title was the holy grail and twice his side had thrown it away. They had also come close in other seasons under him, but couldn’t find the staying power. Now it felt that perhaps his time had run out.
Injuries at the wrong time had been a regular feature but the mentality of the players has to be discussed. Were they strong enough when the pressure was on? The evidence suggested that they weren’t. They could produce big performances against their rivals or in important cup games but they lacked consistency and often dropped points when they were the favourites. Did the players prefer to be underdogs?
The United manager headed to the World Cup to work as a television pundit, which didn’t go down well within the corridors of power at the club. Atkinson justified the trip to Mexico as a scouting mission, but nobody believed that.
When the fixtures were released for the new term, an away trip to Arsenal would be followed by a home match with West Ham. Not the easiest of starts for Manchester United. The 1986/87 season would begin with Atkinson at the helm, he had a reprieve.
The pressure was more intense than ever, if he didn’t deliver this time, then surely it would be the end.