The summer of 1985 was not much of a time for optimism in English football, but if there was one club that had a reason to feel a little sanguine, it was Manchester United. Still the most-supported club in England despite not having lifted the Football League Championship since 1967, they had ended the previous season winning the FA Cup for the second time in three years, a sign that the club’s fortunes were changing for the better for the first time in almost two decades. And for a while, throughout the tail end of the summer and the beginning of the autumn of 1985, Manchester United looked very much like they might be able to break what might otherwise have looked like an impregnable period of Merseyside dominance of the English game.
The club’s summer in the transfer market had been a quiet one. Winger Peter Barnes, a wonder-kid who never quite reached the full extent of potential that he displayed as a teenager at Manchester City and subsequently at West Bromwich Albion, and back-up goalkeeper Chris Turner were the only arrivals, whilst a small clear-out of excess baggage saw, amongst others, Arnold Muhren depart for Ajax and Gordon McQueen for Hong Kong. Manager Ron Atkinson, however, was confident, telling the press that, “There’s little doubt that football stands at a crossroads, and it’s now even more important to remember that football should be all about entertainment. At Old Trafford, we’re aiming to put the smile back on people’s faces.”
Atkinson had arrived at Old Trafford in 1981, after four dour and trophy-less seasons under Dave Sexton. His first year in charge saw Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, John Gidman and Frank Stapleton arrive at the club, whilst Gordon Strachan, the aforementioned Muhren, and Jesper Olsen followed over the subsequent four years. Two FA Cups were a return on – very heavy – investment, but the clear next step up from this was to break the hold that Merseyside had held over the League title over the previous four years, with Liverpool having won it 1982, 1983 and 1984, and Everton having won it in 1985. Liverpool had been the champions of Europe four times since Manchester United had last been the champions of England.
The Merseyside two had similarly quiet summers in the transfer market, with only Steve McMahon arriving at Liverpool, and a Gary Lineker replacing Andy Gray at Everton, amongst a handful of lower key signings, whilst Liverpool were suffering a post-Heysel identity crisis as well as the – albeit expected – upheaval of the untried Kenny Dalglish replacing the retiring Joe Fagan in the manager’s seat at Anfield. Indeed, it looked as if this quiet summer might have been something of a misjudgement following a disjointed and somewhat error-strewn performance in the pre-season Charity Shield match at Wembley against Everton, which ended in a two-nil defeat. The following Saturday, however, the First Division season kicked off with a four-nil thumping of Aston Villa, thanks to two goals from Mark Hughes and one each for Norman Whiteside and Jesper Olsen. The next result was a one-nil win at a rapidly declining Ipswich Town. the most notable feature of which was a broken leg suffered by defender John Gidman.
The wins kept coming, accompanied by an increasingly confident and expansive football. West Ham United, Arsenal and Nottingham Forest were amongst the teams that Atkinson’s team brushed aside with increasing ease, but perhaps the biggest performance of the lot came at Maine Road on the fourteenth of September, when goals from Bryan Robson, Arthur Albiston handed the team a handsome win against the newly-promoted Manchester City. Jesper Olsen sparkled on the left wing, fulfilling some of the promise of his much-hyped arrival from Ajax a year earlier, whilst Bryan Robson similarly matured into the player that United had paid £1.5m for four years earlier in prising him from West Bromwich Albion.
How such an electric start to the season might have turned sour is a question that is one unlikely to have a single answer. Two items of interest, however, are likely to be of particular interest. First was the pervasiveness of a drinking culture amongst some on the first team. Several of the team’s players began to earn themselves a fearsome reputation for their drinking capacity and, whilst there is no proof that this culture did affect performances, players have previously spoken of its existence at this time and it’s difficult to imagine that it wouldn’t have had some effect on the players involved’s physical conditions. The other significant issue was the fitness of Bryan Robson, who got injured at The Hawthorns and was out of the team until February, none of which might have mattered quite so much had his replacement, Remi Moses, not got injured too. Robson would only play half of Manchester United’s matches all season.
After defeating Aston Villa, Ipswich Town, Arsenal, West Ham United, Nottingham Forest, Newcastle United, Oxford United, Manchester City, West Bromwich Albion and Southampton, and with average attendances having risen above the 50,000 mark, the second best ever one hundred per cent record from the start of a season – United were beaten only in this respect by Tottenham Hotspur’s eleven out of eleven at the start of the 1960/61 season – in the history of top flight English football came to an end. After going nine points clear at the top of the table and having scored twenty-six goals in these ten matches, a one-one draw at Kenilworth Road, on the unpopular plastic pitch of Luton Town. Even after this result, Atkinson’s team won three of their next four matches – the only further points dropped came thanks to another draw, this time at home against Liverpool. A first defeat of the season finally came on the ninth of November, at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday, by a goal to nil.
By the following spring, however, the atmosphere at Old Trafford had changed completely. Such was the size of the lead accumulated during that first heady three months of the season that the team didn’t lose top place in the table until the middle of January 1986. Robson’s season continued in a stop-start fashion before a dislocated shoulder finally put him out, and the team was slipping further and further adrift of Liverpool, Everton and West Ham United in the League.In the cups, and meanwhile United lost to Liverpool in the League Cup at the end of November and to West Ham United in March. John Sivebaek arrived for £285,000 from Vejle in February 1986, whilst Peter Davenport arrived from Nottingham Forest in anticipation of the departure of Mark Hughes, which was confirmed – but not made public for that summer, a decision which, according to the player himself, “destroyed my concentration” for the rest of the season.
The second of two successive home defeats in April, at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday, was watched by a crowd of just 32,551 people, more than twenty-two thousand down from the season high crowd that had seen the team draw with Tottenham Hotspur the previous December. Anger at Atkinson was starting to grow, and with the European football ban meaning that a fourth place finish in the League was effectively meaningless, patience with the manager was already starting to wear thin before a dismal start to the 1986/87 season saw him sacked at the start of November and replaced by Alex Ferguson. The new man in charge would steer the team clear of the relegation zone, but overall end of season standings would, with the exception of a distant second place finish behind Liverpool in 1988, generally speaking continue to disappoint until the first Premier League title arrived at Old Trafford in 1993.
Perhaps, with Liverpool, Everton and West Ham United all fighting it out for the top spot until the last week of the season, there was never going to be any place for Manchester United at the business end of this title race. Perhaps the drinking culture of some of the players at the club affected the stamina and balance of the team overall as winter started to kick in during a long, hard season. Perhaps the team did get unlucky with injuries, whilst new signings didn’t set the team ablaze as had been hoped and others were distracted by other events. It’s probably reasonable to conclude that each of these factors and others each had a part to play. But perhaps most important of all was the planting of the seed of an idea during those first few weeks of the 1985/86 season, the idea that Merseyside’s growing dominance of English football could be arrested. It would take a while, but Ron Atkinson’s successor got there in the end.
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