Ron Atkinson laid the groundwork for the success later enjoyed by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Journalism 101 courses around the world encourage aspiring writers to start big and bold, try and grab readers’ attention with an opening statement and then hold it.
So, how about mine?
Admittedly, in writing it I felt there would be a better than even chance that it would be immediately written-off as ‘click-bait nonsense.’ The sort of thing that is written not in order to garner interest and provoke debate, but simply to court controversy and annoy people.
However, let’s have a closer look and see how close to or how far off the mark that rather bold statement is.
Big Ron is Appointed
Ron Atkinson was manager of Manchester United for just over five full seasons from the start of the 1981-82 season to his dismissal in November 1986. During that time, it is true that a rather paltry brace of FA Cup wins and a solitary Charity Shield were the only silverware won. However, top-four positions were achieved each season, along with European qualification every year until the Heysel ban in 1985.
In the summer of 1981, new Manchester United Chairman Martin Edwards made the decision to dispense with the services of incumbent manager, Dave Sexton, after four years at the helm. Sexton’s time in charge had not been deemed a success and not a single trophy had been won.
Although the FA Cup final had been reached (and lost to Arsenal) in 1979, and United had made a decent fist of a title challenge the following season before finishing runners-up to Liverpool, there was a feeling of apathy around Old Trafford.
Gates were down, fans were unhappy, the football being played by Sexton’s teams unappetising, and so Edwards decided upon change.
Having approached, and been turned down by, Lawrie McMenemy, Sir Bobby Robson, and Ron Saunders, ‘Big Ron’ was not exactly anybody’s first choice, but unlike the other three gentlemen listed, he did have one thing going for him: he actually wanted the job!
His enthusiasm shone through in initial conversations with Edwards when he was informed that his remit would be ‘to return United to the top table of English football’.
United in the Doldrums
Prior to Atkinson taking over at Old Trafford, United had finished in the top four only twice in the previous 13 seasons, and had only qualified for Europe on three occasions in total during that time. Ron was informed that expectations included making United’s footballing style more attractive whilst challenging for major trophies.
In short, United had to become participants on the main stage again.
Whilst United had been in the doldrums, their east Lancs neighbours, Liverpool, had been cleaning up, of course. Silverware upon silverware had been piling up just 35 miles down the motorway – much to the chagrin to all those at Old Trafford.
Walking into United, Ron Atkinson already had a certain image. He was portrayed in the media as a champagne-swilling, jewellery-wearing extrovert who was never short of a quip or a quote.
This was an image he did little to dispel at times, it’s true, but perhaps is one that was exaggerated at the time. Although he was not averse to being photographed with a glass of champers in his hand, rather than actually drink much of the stuff, it was his want to make a single glass last for hours with surreptitious sipping.
1981-83: A New Beginning
Football-wise, Atkinson hit the ground running at United. Out went the overly cautious methods preferred by Sexton, and in came a more attack-minded approach. Early signings included Frank Stapleton from Arsenal, and from his old club, West Brom, in came the midfield pairing of Remi Moses and Bryan Robson.
All three players went on to be integral to the club in the coming years, but it was the signing of Bryan Robson in particular that at once catapulted United back to the forefront of English football. At a cost of a cool ₤1.5 million, Robson broke the British transfer record and signaled that United under Atkinson meant business.
A 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield in October 1981 saw United top the table, and although the title challenge couldn’t quite be maintained over the entire season, a strong third place behind Liverpool and Ipswich was achieved.
1982-83: Edging closer to Liverpool
With Ipswich boss, Bobby Robson, moving on to manage England, Manchester United were expected to be Liverpool’s greatest rivals the next season. This prophecy proved spot-on as United acquitted themselves well in all three domestic competitions.
Despite again topping the table early in the season, United had to play second fiddle to a splendid Liverpool team in the league. However, United hung on doggedly to Liverpool’s coat tails whilst reaching the final of both domestic cups.
In the League Cup, a titanic tussle at Wembley saw old foes Liverpool prevail 2-1 following extra-time. United were decimated by injury both before and during the game as Bryan Robson missed the match completely, while Kevin Moran and Gordon McQueen both suffered injuries at the heart of United’s defence.
The FA Cup saw another run to a Wembley final, and this time a stubborn Brighton and Hove Albion were overcome 4-0 in a replay following a 2-2 draw, to give Atkinson his first major trophy.
Although United undoubtedly rode their luck in the first game, with Gordon Smith famously missing a gilt-edged chance to win the cup for Brighton in the dying seconds of extra-time, there was no doubting that Atkinson had already delivered on his promise to bring United back to the top table of English soccer.
Two cup final appearances in Atkinson’s second season in charge indicated good progress and it was only late two goals conceded in United’s last league game of the season that prevented the Old Trafford club from finishing runners-up to Liverpool. Instead, Watford sneaked in by a point.
1983 -84: Fourth in a two-horse race
The following season started where the previous one ended: back at Wembley. This time it was for the Charity Shield, and two Bryan Robson goals to nil saw the old enemy of Liverpool defeated.
That season, 1983-84, Manchester United should have won the league. For practically the entire campaign they were locked in a two-horse race with Liverpool with the lead alternating on an almost weekly basis at one point.
On the last Saturday in March, United sat atop of the table one point ahead of the Anfield men with both sides having 10 games left to play. Liverpool thereon in stumbled towards the finishing line, taking only 17 points from their last 10 games.
This tally was hardly title-winning form, and United should have been ripe to take advantage and so secure their first title for 17 years, but inexplicably collapsed to an even worse degree than Liverpool. Taking only a further 10 points all season, United fell away to finish a very disappointing fourth.
Success in the cups also eluded United this season, with humiliating defeats to third division opposition in the form of Oxford United and Bournemouth in the League and FA Cups respectively.
Expanding horizons on and off the pitch
In Europe, however, United acquitted themselves more than respectably with a run to the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and an agonizing last-minute defeat to Juventus 3-2 on aggregate.
The quarter-final against Barcelona saw arguably one of the greatest Manchester United matches of all time. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, a Bryan Robson-inspired Red Devils came back to win 3-0 in front of more than 58,000 fans on a never-to-be-forgotten night at Old Trafford.
The disappointing end-of-season collapse notwithstanding, three seasons into Ron Atkinson’s reign and United were now recognized as one of the top footballing sides in the country.
Due to a degree of insight and planning off the field, the club was beginning to expand its horizons and business sense. Gates were rising again and marketing was beginning to take off. Sponsorship deals were becoming more important and generating unseen levels of income, and the global name of Manchester United was more recognized than ever before.
What was needed now was the title.
In the summer of 1984, Manchester United rejected a bid from Juventus for Bryan Robson, but agreed to sell Ray Wilkins to AC Milan for more than 1.5 million pounds. With the incoming transfer money, Atkinson bought the attacking trio of Jesper Olsen, Gordon Strachan and Alan Brazil to replace the somewhat more pragmatic Wilkins.
1984-85: Battles with Merseyside
1984-85 once again saw an exceptional Merseyside side thwart Ron Atkinson and a very good Manchester United in their title aspirations. The only difference was that this time rather than Liverpool acting as United’s nemesis, it was their near-neighbours Everton that stood between United and the title. Again, a final-day-of-the-season defeat (5-1 to Watford) deprived United of the consolation of even a runners-up spot.
Once again, however, success was to be found at Wembley in the form of the FA Cup. After an undistinguished if steady run to the semi-finals, United and Atkinson found themselves up against – who else – Liverpool. In one of the most dramatic FA Cup semi-finals of all-time, the first match finished in a 2-2 draw at Goodison with Liverpool equalizing twice: once in the 88th-minute and once in the 120th.
So to Maine Road for the replay four days later, and this time United prevailed 2-1 despite going in a goal down at half-time.
Dominance Over Liverpool
During Atkinson’s reign, his record against Liverpool was really quite outstanding. There was only one defeat in 10 league games, and Liverpool were also overcome in a Wembley Charity Shield, as well as this semi-final. Other than the solitary league game, Liverpool’s only other victories over Atkinson’s United came courtesy of two league cup wins.
Big Ron, writing many years later in his autobiography, credited this on-pitch dominance over Liverpool due to the shutting-down of Liverpool’s playmaker. That he singled out Liverpool’s main man to be Phil Neal and not Souness, Dalglish or even Ian Rush, was perhaps a surprise, but he felt much of Liverpool’s creativity in those days originated from the back. He reasoned if Neal could be closed down, Liverpool’s effectiveness would be reduced accordingly.
The second half of the ‘Scouse-busting’ FA Cup run was duly completed at Wembley a month or so later, when treble-chasing Everton were defeated by the only goal of the game. By the time Norman Whiteside popped up to curl the extra-time winner past Neville Southall in the Everton goal, United had been reduced to 10 men following Kevin Moran’s dismissal for a foul on Peter Reid.
1985-86: The Final Push
Into 1985-86 and four years on, it was surely United’s time for the title. Ron Atkinson had enjoyed the most successful first four seasons of any manager in the club’s history, but there was a feeling of ‘now or never’ with regard to his and the club’s title aspirations.
Ten games in and United sat 10 points clear of the pack with a 100% record. Fifteen games gone and the gap was still 10 points with United still unbeaten. Nineteen games played and it was down to two and United’s confidence was shot to pieces.
A disastrous second half of the season saw United trail away to finish fourth, a massive 12 points behind Liverpool, and the writing was on the wall for Big Ron.
Following another end-of-season game against Watford, Atkinson offered to resign but was persuaded to carry on by Martin Edwards.
The reprieve was short-lived, though, and after a poor start to the 1986-87 season, the axe came down, Fergie was recruited from Aberdeen, and the rest is history.
Post-1986: Big Ron’s Legacy?
So, why the claim that Fergie should be grateful for the foundations laid by Atkinson?
Well, quite simply, Atkinson made United a ‘big club’ again, on the pitch at least. In the time between winning the European Cup in 1968 and Atkinson being appointed 13 years later, United had spent a number of seasons floundering.
They’d had a number of mid-table finishes, flirted with relegation, actually been relegated, and only seriously challenged for the title twice (in 1976 and 1980). European football had been intermittent, to say the least, and the only trophy of note won had been the 1977 FA Cup.
Expectations and Belief
Ron Atkinson raised expectations around the club, and then finally fell victim to the same expectations. It was Ron’s failure to win the title that finally saw Martin Edwards lose patience and send for Fergie. It should not be forgotten, however, that Atkinson also introduced the style of attacking football that is often linked with United.
Ron Atkinson got the club thinking and believing in being champions, even if they couldn’t quite make the final step. He felt with some justification that it was injuries that mainly stopped the club from taking the title in 1984 and 1986. Both times the club suffered collapses in the second half of the season. Likewise, it was only exceptional Merseyside teams in 1983 and 1985 that thwarted United’s aspirations those years.
A very fine line between being awarded legendary status and being deemed a failure, perhaps.
Big Ron’s greatest signing
Finally, it is worth noting that, Bryan Robson aside, Ron Atkinson’s greatest signing for Manchester United was probably Eric Harrison, whom he poached from Everton and put in charge of youth development.
With players such as Clayton Blackmore, Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside famously coming through the ranks under Big Ron. The foundations were then laid by Harrison for a truly exception conveyer belt of talent in the coming years.
This culminated, of course, in the famous Class of ’92. Beckham, Scholes, Butt, the Neville brothers and Giggs went on to achieve so much for United.
So, does Fergie owe Big Ron a debt of gratitude?