Manchester United had just lost a legendary manager and a number of stars within a span of few years. They bounced around unsuccessfully from one vision to another, leaving the fans baffled about what direction the club were going towards.
We are not talking about the post-Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United but the post-Sir Matt Busby Red Devils. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying to bring the glory years back to Old Trafford but the club have been here before and it is nothing new for a certain age of Manchester United supporters.
The Red Devils struggled both on and off the pitch after Busby left his post as manager and they also lost the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. The nadir came in 1974 when they were relegated from the top division after a few years of stasis.
Tommy Docherty revived Manchester United in the mid-1970s and even won the FA Cup. But his exit under dubious circumstances left a talented but young team in the hands of Dave Sexton.
Dave Sexton was not a Manchester United manager
The Dave Sexton era – from July 1977 to May 1981 – is largely considered as one where the Old Trafford club only moved backwards. While under Tommy Docherty Manchester United played exciting and attacking football, their football was an eyesore under Sexton and it only created resentment amongst the fanbase.
Exciting players were sold, the football was dour and by the end of it, the fans voted with their feet as attendance plummeted at Old Trafford.
However, Sexton walked into a Manchester United side on the up with a young core and a growing reputation.
They had beaten soon-to-be European champions, Liverpool, in the FA Cup and were playing some of the most swashbuckling football in England. Sexton had a good CV with the England Under-21s and at club level and was expected to take Manchester United to the next level.
However, he clashed with Manchester United winger Gordon Hill over his defensive duties and by April 1978, the exiting wide played was sold. Hill was also the club’s highest goalscorer and Sexton needed his replacement Mickey Thomas to come good instantly. Thomas scored just once in the league in the following season and Manchester United finished ninth while losing the 1979 FA Cup final.
Some more popular stars in Brian Greenhoff and Stuart Pearson were allowed to leave. Sexton did add the brilliant Ray Wilkins to his midfield but by the turn of the year in the 1980/81 season, Manchester United were in seventh place, had drawn 15 of their 25 games and had failed to score in nine of them.
A run of five scoreless games in February and March meant Sexton was sacked. Players were straight-jacketed into specific systems and stopped trusting their instincts. The uninspiring football attracted boos and groans from the Old Trafford crowd.
While Docherty’s team had the crowd eating from their hands, Sexton’s side turned away people from Old Trafford and the board was forced to make a decision.
Ron Atkinson’s arrival and champagne football
Ron Atkinson was a big name when he took charge of Manchester United in June 1981. He has been managing for a decade and had achieved success at Cambridge United when he won promotion to the third division and left them on the verge of getting promoted to the second tier.
However, it was his performance at West Brom that truly caught the eye of Manchester United. In his first season in charge in 1978-79, he led the little-fancied Baggies to third place in the First Division and the UEFA Cup quarter-finals.
The following season, West Brom finished fourth and United turned to Atkinson to take the Red Devils forward from the uninspiring reign of Sexton.
It was not peaches and cream for Atkinson at the start of his reign. He was confronted by a Manchester United side who have been playing a restrained style of football for the last four years and the remnants of the Tommy Docherty era were either in the final years of their career or were in need of a fresh start at a new club.
The then-Manchester United manager convinced the board to sign Bryan Robson for a British record fee of £1.5m. The deal created an uproar amongst the old guard at the club and Sir Matt Busby was so scandalized by the money spent, he resigned from his director’s post in the board.
Atkinson also signed Remi Moses to add more steel to his midfield and Frank Stapleton came in to replace Joe Jordan who left for AC Milan. He didn’t rate Ray Wilkins but the midfielder proved the manager wrong and kept his place in the side, and while Arnold Muhren came in from Ipswich Town.
In his first season in charge in 1981/82, Manchester United finished third in the league and had topped the table for spells before getting beaten to the title by champions Liverpool.
The following campaign, they finished third again but it was Manchester United’s form in the cup that truly captured the fanbase. They were narrowly beaten by Liverpool in the League Cup final. However, they went one better in the FA Cup as they secured their first trophy in six years, beating Brighton in a replay.
There was real optimism that Manchester United were in the right direction under Atkinson and they beat Liverpool 2-0 in the Charity Shield at the start of the 1983/84 season.
They secured a fourth-place finish in the league and Manchester United also made it to the Cup Winners Cup. The most enduring memory of the season was Manchester United beating Barcelona in the second leg of their semi-final tie at Old Trafford.
1984/85 yielded more silverware for Atkinson’s Manchester United. They won the FA Cup for a second time in three years, defeating champions Everton 1-0 to win the trophy, in a match most memorable for the first red card ever given in an FA Cup final to Manchester United defender Kevin Moran.
Manchester United were off to a scintillating start in the 1985/86 season, winning their first ten league games and there was a real expectation that they will finally win the league after a few years of progress.
Unfortunately, that early promise was a false dawn and despite being top of the table as late as February, a dreadful post-Christmas run of form in which they lost eight times between December and April saw them finish the season in the fourth position.
A demoralised Manchester United side took the pitch in the following season and they were perilously close to the relegation zone in autumn before the club decided to part ways in December 1986. A certain young Scottish manager in Alexander Chapman Ferguson succeeded him.
Ron Atkinson’s legacy at Manchester United
Ron Atkinson believed in playing football to the best traditions of Manchester United. He designed his teams to play free-flowing attacking football. He appeared to have stumbled upon the right ingredients to build a squad of players who are still regarded as one of the best teams in the club’s history.
He trusted his players to play their natural game, encouraging them to take risks and have faith in their natural instincts. Atkinson’s Manchester United side played with width and he complimented senior stars with homegrown talents such as Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside and Mick Duxbury to just name a few.
While he eventually left in 1986, Atkinson had demonstrated what the recipe for success could be if Manchester United had the right manager at the helm. Sir Alex Ferguson was the right man at the right place and he noted the right things his predecessor had done at Old Trafford.
Atkinson’s time at Manchester United was followed by the greatest managerial reign in the game of football and it was a bit unfortunate at a personal level. Many at Manchester United do not believe that he failed as a manager at Old Trafford but Atkinson wanted to win.
While his cavalier football was much-loved at Old Trafford, Atkinson was desperate to win and not succeeding in bringing the league title at Manchester United was a source of bitter disappointment for him.
However, if football is considered as a source of entertainment for fans and supporters, Atkinson was a resounding success as Manchester United manager. His teams played football that fans would have paid to watch on any given weekend.