“I had five years in charge at United, spent a few quid and did enough shrewd business to get most of it back,” states the former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson. “And I left United with the best record, at that time, since the great Sir Matt Busby. We never finished below the top four in the First Division, won two FA Cups and lost in the League Cup final. We were involved in European competition every year, something that had never been achieved since Matt’s days.
“We also did it with a certain amount of football panache and style, living up to United’s finest traditions. So it wasn’t all so bad, was it?”
Atkinson’s achievements were dwarfed by the magnitude of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successes over the ensuing 26-year period, but following a poor season under David Moyes and an underwhelming start from Louis van Gaal, life under Big Ron doesn’t look so bad.
Manchester United are a vastly different beast compared to thirty years ago, but despite not winning the title, United were still the best supported English team in eight 1980s seasons. The European ban in the latter half of the decade following the Heysel Stadium disaster didn’t help the decade, but United’s supporters who can remember them still hold the 80s in high regard, specifically the Atkinson era rather than the dreadful early years under Ferguson.
It was under Atkinson that fans witnessed a game still regarded as many as the best – and certainly loudest – they’d experienced at Old Trafford. Two-nil down to Maradona’s Barcelona in the quarter final of the 1983-84 Cup Winners’ Cup, United surged back in the home leg.
“It was the best atmosphere ever,” recalls Bryan Robson, United’s captain and finest player of the decade after his British record transfer fee from West Brom. “The pitch was shaking. They said the crowd was 58,000, but there were definitely more in the ground that night. The fans never stopped singing. They just wouldn’t stop and because your adrenalin was flowing, that really pumped us up.
There was a point in the match when Barcelona had completely gone, but then we started to tire because we’d put so much effort into the game. Bernd Schuster could have wrecked the evening because he bent a shot which went inches past the post.”
Two goals from Robson and another from Frank Stapleton meant United went through to a semi- final tie against Juventus. United were so impressive that Robson became a hot property in Europe.
“I had offers from Juventus, Milan and Sampdoria, but I was priced out of the market,” recalls Robson. “Maradona had just gone to Barcelona for £3m quid.
Ron Atkinson said to me: “You can go, but it will be for £3m.”
Atkinson had offers himself.
“Shortly after we had knocked Barcelona out, the feelers started to come my way from Barcelona. My answer, discreetly passed along the grapevine, was simple. ‘Sure, I’m ready to talk; just name the place.’ I met the Catalan delegation at a London hotel. I confirmed that if everything regarding my United contract could be resolved with them, then I would be willing to move to Barcelona. To be frank, apart from the clearly exciting professional opportunity, it offered the perfect escape route from the domestic upheaval that was then brewing in my private life. I could have gone, closed a page and been spared so much hassle from the news boys as my first marriage broke up and my second, with Maggie, started. Just let me make the career jump, I thought at the time, and let me get the hell out of it. Oh, and my salary would have quadrupled.
“During the initial discussion the only stumbling block was that Barça wanted me to join them on a two-year contract, which is the usual practice abroad; I countered that proposal with a demand for an extra year.”
Barça were told that Atkinson was negotiating to strengthen his position at Old Trafford and went instead for Terry Venables in the summer of 1984.
Atkinson won the FA Cup the following season in probably the greatest moment for United in the 80s. Sure, the 1983 Cup final, which went to a replay against Brighton & Hove Albion (won 4-0 after 2-2 in the first game) and earned a crack at Barça et al, was special, especially after Arsenal were defeated at Villa Park in the semi. It also helped ease the pain of the Milk Cup final defeat to Liverpool, six time 80s league champions, but ’85 was the defining moment on the pitch of the decade.
After beating Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final via a Maine Road replay, United reached Wembley against league champions and Cup Winners’ Cup elect winners Everton.
“We were the underdogs. Everton were going for the treble and Big Ron told us, ‘Don’t sit back. Go at them’,” recalls former Everton full-back John Gidman. “It was hot and we took salt tablets. The Wembley grass was long and I used longer studs than usual. When Peter Reid hit a volley, I stretched as far as I could to reach it, convinced the ball was going in. Somehow, my stud clipped it and it went wide.”
In the absence of a goal, it looked as if the game would be notorious for Kevin Moran being the first man to be sent off in an FA Cup final.
“It was a shocking decision to send Kevin off and I felt for him, but we still felt confident with ten men. With Frank Stapleton back at centre half, we aimed for the replay until Norm the Storm did his bit and bent a winner around Neville Southall.
I was the first player to congratulate him and said: ‘If there wasn’t 100,000 people here I’d fuck you now.’ After the game, I remember picking my old Villa team mate Andy Gray up, a tear in his eye, and telling him to keep his head up.”
That would be the last trophy of a decade. The next would be the Cup in 1990, a trophy which saved Ferguson’s career and started a winning run which continued until 2013.
He started in a decade when the team were sponsored by SHARP, when you could stand and sit on all four sides of Old Trafford and when a paperboy could afford to buy match tickets with his earnings. Ferguson was appointed after Atkinson’s United declined far quicker than anyone had anticipated. United started the 1985-86 season by winning their first ten league games. A first title since 1967 beckoned, but United declined sharply and chairman Martin Edwards, not without reason, felt that Atkinson had taken his eye of the job. By the autumn of 1986, United were closer to a relegation spot than the top of the league. Atkinson, the man with a sunbed overlooking the pitch at the Cliff training ground, lost his job in November 1986.
“Not for a single moment did I ever think of myself as a United manager destined to be in control for ten years, twenty years or even life. Nor did I ever want to,” said Atkinson.
“I had other plans, different ambitions. I was never cut out to be the dynasty-type of manager; an ambition that always seemed close to the heart of Alex Ferguson. That particular notion wasn’t ever a consideration on my professional agenda. Not my style, to be completely honest.”
His style was evident in the teams he put out – a style which characterised, and redeemed, the 1980s for Manchester United.
You can follow Andy Mitten on Twitter (@andymitten)