18. Jan, 2022


Two FA Cups, a League Cup Final appearance and consistent Top 4 appearances in the First Division isn't too shabby. Yet it only secures Ron Atkinson a supporting role in the sparkling history of Manchester United.

In hindsight Big Ron was on a loser from day one. He inherited three persistent Old Trafford problems. Failure to topple Liverpool from their continuing dominance of Domestic and European football. Failure to win the League Title since 1967 and the lingering ghost of Sir Matt Busby.

Busby was the original United icon. The Scot turned them from a mediocre top flight outfit into arguey the biggest Football Club in the World. Appointed manager in 1946, Busby built three great sides. The 1948 FA Cup winning team contained wise old heads like Johnny Carey. Youth replaced experience in the 50's with the Busby Babes. Teenage sensations Duncan Edwards and Bobby Charlton speared a United team that won 3 League Titles. The Red Devils seemed destined to transfer their brilliance to the European stage until the fateful 1958 Munich Air Crash.

A triumphant Manchester United team stopped over in Germany after victory over Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup Quarter Final. Tragically Edwards and 7 other United players were killed when their plane crashed on a snow covered Bavarian runway. Busby and Charlton survived. A young Irish sensation named George Best made his debut in 1963 while Busby rescued Denis Law from a nightmare stint in Italy. The Sixties side survived a relegation scare in 1963 before winning the FA Cup. Two more League Titles were won in a swashbuckling style that saw legions of new fans flock to Old Trafford. The crowning glory came in 1968 when a blue shirted United team beat Benfica 4-1 in the European Cup Final. Fittingly Munich survivor Charlton scored twice before lifting the giant silver trophy.

Six Years later Manchester United were in the Second Division. Busby and Charlton retired while Best was at the outset of a lifelong battle with alcoholism. The Irishman went awol as both Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell were swiftly ejected from the Old Trafford hot seat The final nadir occurred when United were relegated to Division 2. It a cruel twist of fate a Denis Law back healed winner in a Manchester derby rubbed salt into the wounds. Despite scoring 171 goals in 309 appearances The Lawman was given a free transfer by new manager Tommy Docherty. Law signed for Manchester City and his half hearted effort trickled past Alex Stepney. In truth Birmingham City were the real architects of United's downfall. The Blues 2-1 win over Norwich City made events in Manchester academic. It was of little consolation to Law who look deflated when he scored. A marked contrast to the characteristic arm raised when celebrating scoring in a red shirt.

Tommy Docherty restored pride and First Division status within a year. in 1977 he masterminded a memorable FA Cup triumph. As United beat favorites Liverpool in a Sun lit Wembley final. Within weeks Docherty was sacked. The Doc had been having an affair with Mary Brown, wife of United physio Laurie Brown. Busby was now on the board, a staunch Catholic he could not tolerate adultery and Manchester United needed a new manager. Dave Sexton came and went. The nightmare signing of Gary Birtles and no trophies sealed his fate.

Atkinson seemed a sound choice. His tenure at West Bromwich Albion attracted a legion of admirers. Albion played free flowing attacking football, In an earlier post I described the Baggies 5-3 win at The Theatre of Dreams in 1978. His commitment to attacking football mirrored the Red Devils ethos. Not that Atkinson was first choice It was rumored that Ipswich Town's Bobby Robson and Southampton boss Laurie McMenemy were favored in the board room,

Atkinson was soon active in the transfer market, he returned to raid his old club. Albion midfielder Bryan Robson joined for a £1.5 Million plus fee. The United manager had no doubts over his new acquisition stating that Robson was "Pure Gold". Robson did make a massive contribution to the cause, however a catalogue of injuries hampered a sustained challenge for honours and Atkinson's job prospects. There were other stars emerging to lessen the blow. Norman Whiteside's path to Old Trafford was humble yet familiar. Born in Belfast, Whiteside had graduated through the United youth system In 1982 a 17 year old Whiteside made his debut as a substitute against Brighton & Hove Albion. Inevitably comparisons were drawn with George Best.

Best watched from the stands as Whiteside's sublime winner saw off Ipswich in August 1982. Afterwards a suitably impressed Best was interviewed on Match Of The Day. Whiteside further enhanced his reputation when he gave United the lead in the 1983 League Cup Final, yet not for the first time Liverpool dashed hopes of silverware, winning 2-1 in extra time. It was the same story in the League as the Anfield club won the title in 1982, 1983 and 1984. The situation was not helped by the emergence of Ipswich Town, Watford and Swansea City who posed the greatest threat to the Merseyside stranglehold. All three clubs had meager resources compared to the riches at Atkinson's disposal. The Stretford End's patience was already wearing thin.

The 1983 FA Cup offered an element of redemption. Frank Stapleton's last minute lob settled a pulsating Quarter Final with Everton before Arsenal were beaten in a Villa Park Semi Final. Norman Whiteside scored a marvelous winner as Atkinson's men overturned a 1-0 deficit. Manchester United were overwhelming favourites in the final. Already relegated Brighton were given little chance by the bookies. Yet the Seagulls confounded the doubters with a stirring display Gordon Smith's neat header gave the South Coast club a half time lead. Five minutes after the break Robson's scrambled effort restored parity. Normal service appeared to be resumed when Ray Wilkins scored a marvelous goal. The midfielder picked up the ball on United's right before curling a 25 yard beauty past Graham Moseley. The underdogs would not lie down and equalised with four minutes remaining. Defender Gary Stevens scoring after a well worked corner.

Extra Time remained uneventful until the 119th minute. Brighton striker Michael Robinson raced into the penalty area, he then squared the ball to an unmarked Smith. With the goal at his mercy Smith's shot was saved by United goalkeeper Gary Bailey. Before Smith shot, legendary BBC Radio 2 commentator Peter Jones observed "SMITH MUST SCORE" A phrase that has passed into sporting folklore. Thus Gordon Smith joined a sad group. Sportsmen who have seen glory slipped through their fingers. Think of Don Fox standing just in front of the Wembley goal posts before shanking his potentially winning conversion wide in the dying embers of the 1968 Rugby League Challenge Cup Final or golfer Doug Sanders missing a three yard put and handing the 1970 Open Championship to Jack Nicklaus or poor jockey Richard Pitman romping clear aboard Chris in the 1973 Grand National only to see Red Rum pip him the final furlong.

Four days later the Red Devils capitalised on their reprieve. They hammered a demoralised Brighton in a one sided replay. Would silverware prove the turning point? Not really, Eight months later the FA Cup holders were beaten in Round 3. Their unlikely conquerors were Third Division Bournemouth managed by a young Harry Radknapp. Typically United responded by knocking Barcelona out of the European Cup Winners Cup. The tie seemed over when Barca won the first leg 2-0 at the Nou Camp. But a Robson brace and a goal from Stapleton saw United win the home leg 3-0 and complete a 3-2 win on aggregate. Again the memorable victory proved a false dawn as Juventus ended the dream in the Semi Final.

Inconsistency plagued United, they could beat the very best on their day. They won the FA Cup again in 1985, beating Liverpool in the Semi Final replay and treble chasing Everton in the Final, the Toffees had already won the First Division Championship and the European Cup Winners Cup. The triumph was even more commendable considering they played a large chuck of the final with 10 men. Defender Kevin Moran was sent off in the 78th minute after committing a professional foul on Everton midfielder Peter Reid. Moran becoming the first player to be sent off in a FA Cup Final. Fellow Irishman Whiteside was again the hero scoring an extra time winner. His memorable strike was almost a carbon copy of Wilkins goal two years earlier (pictured in the cover photo).

Unlike 1983 however, Manchester United carried on in similar vain as the beginning of the1985/86 season. They won their first ten league games of the campaign. Not that many people actually saw it. The Football League was in dispute with the BBC and ITV. So remarkably their was no football been broadcasted on Television. When the cameras returned in January United were in decline. Robson was injured in October, United threw away 2 goal leads and ended up losing 3-2 at Nottingham Forest and Sunderland On both occasions the games were broadcast on Match Of The Day. TV viewers also saw Bryan Robson dislocate his shoulder as United were beaten by West Ham in the FA Cup 5th round.

Ron Atkinson must have felt like Richard Pitman, as Liverpool, Everton and West Ham galloped past him in the title race. Once again the holy grail had eluded him. The following November Manchester United were mired in a relegation battle and Atkinson was sacked. How will he be viewed in Old Trafford history? He certainly brought attacking football back to the Theatre of dreams along with tangible silverware. His critics cite a perceived drinking culture which derailed a successful title challenge. It alleged that Robson, Whiteside and young defender Paul McGrath were the ring leaders. Midfielder Gordon Strachan once woke up in the boot of Robson's car after a bender. But their nemesis Liverpool enjoyed a night out while Arsenal's 1989 Championship winning side contained several renowned drinkers. In addition Atkinson did maintain another Red Devils tradition. He gave youth a chance, along with Whiteside, Welsh striker Mark Hughes and McGrath blossomed into wonderful players.

When Atkinson was sacked he was replaced by Aberdeen boss Alex Ferguson. When asked what he wanted to achieve. Fergie replied "I want to knock Liverpool off their perch." How those words must have rang in his predecessors ears.