The end: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (Part Eighteen)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

The summer of 1986 is remembered for the festival of football served up in Mexico at the World Cup. Diego Maradona left his mark on the tournament, becoming a hero to millions, while at the same time being hated by football fans in England. Other stars performed, while new names became idols.

Watching on as a TV pundit was Ron Atkinson. Justifying his presence to his board of directors by claiming he was scouting the talent, the United boss saw his club captain once again fall foul to the same shoulder injury during the tournament. Bryan Robson would miss the start of the new season.

At the start of previous campaigns, there had been a buzz around Old Trafford and the media asked the question “would this be United’s time?”. Their last league title had been in 1967.

But in August 1986, this wasn’t the case. Manchester United was a wounded animal. The collapse from title certainties to finishing way behind in fourth place had tempered expectations. With Robson’s injury problems continuing, the Red Devils were not considered favourites to prise the title away from Merseyside, where it had been since 1982.

Everton would begin the new term without their top scorer. After winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup, Gary Lineker left for Barcelona, where he would play alongside fellow new arrival, Mark Hughes.

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United had seen Peter Davenport as the ideal replacement for Hughes, but since his arrival in March, he had shown little to convince the fans that he could take the place of the Welshman. Terry Gibson, another striker, was yet to score and also seemed to be finding the move from Coventry to Manchester United a step too high.

The opening day saw a narrow 1-0 loss away to Arsenal who won the game through Charlie Nicholas. When West Ham came away from Old Trafford with a 3-2 victory just days later, United were doing the reverse of the season before. Instead of winning their opening games, this time they were losing them. The previous August, United had won at Highbury and beat The Hammers at home.

Things were about to get worse.

The visit of newly promoted Charlton Athletic to Old Trafford appeared to be the perfect fixture for Atkinson’s team to get points on the board. But after another tepid display, Mark Stuart’s winner sent Manchester United into the relegation zone when the first league table of the season was officially announced.

If the pressure was on Atkinson after the capitulation during the last season, then it was amplified now. One year on from beating everyone in front of them, the mood had changed completely. United hadn’t recruited in the summer and some of the players were starting to age with recurring injuries a problem. The signings from 1985/86 hadn’t had an impact. Players like Jesper Olsen were starting to look for the exit door.

Atkinson played things down and guaranteed that the team would turn the corner soon. He also pointed out that the league positions he had achieved each year were better than past managers. Naturally, he crowed about the two FA Cup wins in his five year spell.

But the knives were out. The same journalists who crowned United champions in the autumn of 1985 were insinuating that the manager was going to be sacked. Despite being jovial and accommodating with the press, Atkinson was getting little sympathy from the newspapers.

The next game away at Leicester started poorly, with The Foxes leading 1-0 at the interval. An equaliser seven minutes into the second half from Norman Whiteside rescued a point, but The Red Devils were still rock bottom of the league. Newly promoted Wimbledon were top, winning four of the five games they had played.

Southampton were up next and the mood around Old Trafford was lifted before kick-off when the teams were announced as the captain Robson was back. His team needed him more than ever. The Saints were without Peter Shilton, so young keeper Tim Flowers took his place in goal.

Olsen set the ball rolling with a penalty but incredibly United fell asleep and Colin Clarke scored straight after the restart. The action continued two minutes later when Peter Davenport restored the home side’s advantage. Frank Stapleton made it 3-1 to put United into a comfortable position at the break.

When Whiteside and Stapleton added to the score during the second period, the Stretford End rejoiced. They serenaded the players with “United are back!” as the 5-1 victory was confirmed. The win took Atkinson’s team out of the bottom three. Was the season starting now?

A goal from Iwan Roberts at Vicarage Road the following Tuesday evening answered that question as Watford handed United a 1-0 loss. The next two league fixtures were to be contested on a Sunday with the television cameras in attendance. For many, it would be the first opportunity to see how much United had fallen.

Despite a leveller from  Robson, Everton were too strong and won the first game 3-1. A third successive league loss followed when Chelsea left Old Trafford with a 1-0 victory. Kerry Dixon did the damage again after only two minutes, but that doesn’t tell the full story.

Both Olsen and Gordon Strachan saw tame penalties saved by Tony Godden within a matter of minutes. Olsen had only just come on when he took his kick. The watching audience on ITV saw more doom and gloom around Old Trafford.

Sandwiched between the two league games, United managed a 2-0 home first leg victory over Port Vale in the League Cup, now known as the Littlewoods Cup. The crowd was just over 18,000.

Nottingham Forest were flying high and a trip to the City Ground was next up for Atkinson. Brian Clough’s side took the lead through ex-United player Garry Birtles before Robson stepped up again and saved the day. 1-1 was a decent result in light of the current form of each team.

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Port Vale were beaten 5-2 in the return leg at Vale Park, and then United won their next two league matches against Sheffield Wednesday and Luton Town at Old Trafford. They were still only one place above the drop zone but it felt that a corner had been turned.

The Manchester derby was next.

City were propping up the division and added to their ranks during the week before the match by taking John Gidman from United. The right-back was to make his debut against the side he joined in 1981. The game was live and a 1-1 draw did neither side a favour.

The draws continued. A dour League Cup tie with Southampton finished goalless, meaning that United would have to replay on the South Coast. Coventry came away with a point after David Phillips cancelled out Davenport’s excellent goal. It was the first day of November and only goal difference kept The Red Devils from the bottom three.

Atkinson could point out that United were now on a seven game unbeaten run since the loss at the end of September to Chelsea. As he walked down the tunnel after the Coventry match, little did he know it was the last time he would manage Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The midweek replay against Southampton meant a long journey for Manchester United and their supporters. The next league game against Oxford United was four days away but Atkinson knew that cup progress would help improve the feeling around the club.

The first half saw United forced into changes. It was the first season where two subs were allowed in cup competition, it was just one in the league. Atkinson was relieved by this new rule; he lost Gibson and Whiteside to injury. Five minutes after the latter departed, George Lawrence put The Saints one up.

United huffed and puffed in the second half but when future United winger Danny Wallace made it 2-0 with less than twenty minutes to play, the task got harder. Atkinson urged his men to attack in the hope of getting back into the game. In doing so, they left the door open for the home side to counter attack.

A quick-fire brace from Matt Le Tissier put Southampton 4-0 up with six minutes to go. Le Tissier had only just signed professional forms in October. The 18 year old now had the first goals of his long career. These two goals would have huge repercussions in the history of Manchester United.

Despite a very late reply from Davenport, United had been humiliated. A 4-1 defeat. The next day was November 5th, people anticipated fireworks in the boardroom as speculation mounted about the future of the manager.

Nothing happened.

Atkinson arrived as usual on the morning of November 6th 1986, when he was relieved of his duties by chairman Martin Edwards. Now, this giant of English football was looking for a new man to pull it out of the mire and get it back on track.

Atkinson’s record in comparison to his predecessors was impressive. He had been the most successful manager since the glory days of Sir Matt Busby. But the terrible start to the 1986/87 season added to the discontent caused by the second part of the previous campaign.

Atkinson had run out of credit, with the fourth place finish in 1985/86 not seen as progress. The team had gone from being ten points clear at the summit of the division to being way behind eventual champions Liverpool.

He had never addressed certain issues. The injury list was always long, questions have to be raised why this was the case. There was a mental block too. How could United beat Barcelona 3-0, then lose to a relegation candidate within a couple of weeks?

The signings made during the previous year looked like panic purchases. The new players didn’t have what was required to succeed under the circumstances that they were thrown into. Davenport and the two Gibsons were good players but they were thrust into a side that was under pressure and was no longer riding the crest of a wave. All three could have had different careers at Old Trafford if the timing had been better.

The over-reliance on Bryan Robson was costly. With so many injuries, United’s captain was an enormous loss when on the treatment table. The players and supporters all felt his absence. Each time he returned, his colleagues and the fans were given a boost and the skipper delivered in spades.

Atkinson deserves praise for his two FA Cup wins and when the side clicked, they played exciting football. Inconsistency was an issue though; they couldn’t perform like this on a regular basis. But he left behind some great memories for the supporters.

The evening of his dismissal, Atkinson had a leaving party at his home, but attendance was low. The players had a game in less than 48 hours and so only a small number of the squad went. This was mainly the injured ones. The party did not go down well in the eyes of the new manager who was revealed that same day.

Alex Ferguson left Aberdeen after years of success to take on a new challenge. One that would need a lot of work, time and patience. Ferguson was officially announced as the manager of Manchester United Football Club.

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A new era was about to begin.