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Big Ron’s Reds: How Ron Atkinson helped rebuild Manchester United

Ron Atkinson was appointed Manchester United manager in June 1981.

It was a celebrated move amongst United fans who had suffered through four seasons of sterile Football under the stewardship of Dave Sexton and Atkinson’s appointment was met with real excitement by supporters. It was a bold statement of intent.

Atkinson had been managing for a decade and had achieved notable successes with Cambridge United, winning promotion to the Third Division and leaving with them on the verge of promotion to the Second Division. It was Atkinson’s subsequent three-year tenure as manager of West Bromwich Albion though which really brought him to the attention of Old Trafford.

In his first season in charge in 1978-79, he led the little-fancied West Brom to third place in the First Division and the UEFA Cup Quarter Finals.

In 1980-81, West Brom finished fourth. After struggling to mount a title challenge with Sexton, United turned to Atkinson with optimism that his overachievement with West Brom would yield success with United. It did.

First though, Atkinson had to stamp his authority on the role. The size of the task was made clear to him, when on his first day, big name United stars, Joe Jordan and Mickey Thomas departed for AC Milan and Everton respectively.

Atkinson’s response to the board. Sign Bryan Robson. The board acceded to Atkinson’s request and the future United and England Captain signed on the dotted line for a then British record fee of £1.5 million. It immediately brought Atkinson into conflict with the old guard, as Sir Matt Busby, so displeased at the size of the fee, resigned his position from the board of directors.

Atkinson though, hadn’t finished there and would sign further stars, adding Robson’s West Brom teammate Remi Moses and Frank Stapleton to the ranks at an additional cost of approximately £1.4 million.

In 1981-82, Atkinson’s first season in charge, he led United to a third-placed finish, in a season in which they had topped the table for spells prior to a late surge by eventual Champions Liverpool.

He matched this feat in 1982-83, finishing third place in the League once again. It was United’s cup form though, which really caught the eye as United finished runners-up in the League Cup, narrowly missing out on the trophy due to a painful extra-time defeat to Liverpool. United, however, went one better in the FA Cup as they secured their first trophy in six years, defeating Brighton after a replay. Optimism was high that United were heading in the right direction.

United sought to build on this success in 1983-84 and their season began with an impressive 2-0 victory over English League Champions, Liverpool in the Charity Shield curtain-raiser. Robson bagged both goals. Atkinson secured a fourth-place finish in the League and led United to the Semi-Finals of the Cup Winners Cup. The most enduring memory of the season was United’s impressive 3-0 destruction of Barcelona at Old Trafford in the Quarter Final Second Leg after they had lost the First Leg 2-0 in the Nou Camp.

1984-85 yielded more silverware for Atkinson’s United. They won the FA Cup for a second time in three seasons, defeating League 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 defender Kevin Moran.

However, due to the Heysel disaster, wherein 39 people, predominantly Juventus fans were killed and a further 600 injured prior to the European Cup final between the Italian side and Liverpool at the decrepit Heysel Stadium in Belgium, United were not able to compete in European competition owing to the five-year ban for all English clubs, implementing as punishment for the part Liverpool supporters played in the tragedy.

In 1985-86, United won their first 10 League matches and optimism was sky-high that Atkinson would finally achieve the League title success that had eluded the club since 1966-67. Unfortunately, that early promise was squandered and despite being top of the League 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 fourth position.

The wind had been removed from United’s sails and the hangover continued into the 1986-87 season. Indeed, the club hovered perilously close to the relegation zone in early Autumn and the decision was made to relieve Atkinson of his duties, bringing his exciting and memorable tenure as boss to an end. He was replaced by Aberdeen manager, Sir Alex Ferguson who was similarly tasked with delivering the League title back to United. It would take him a further seven years to do so.

As for Atkinson, he was by no means washed up in late 1986. He had considerable managerial success post-United and following his dismissal was immediately enticed back to his former employers West Brom who themselves had fallen on hard times since Atkinson’s 1981 exit.

Atkinson rescued his former club from relegation to the Third Division and turned them into promotion contenders before he was poached by Spanish giants Atletico Madrid before returning to England as manager of Sheffield Wednesday and later Aston Villa. In 1991 and 1994, he won the League Cup with both Wednesday and Villa, ironically enough defeating United in both finals.

In 1992-93, Atkinson’s Villa side also finished as runners-up to United’s Premier League winning side.

Villa was the last of Atkinson’s high profile jobs. His remaining managerial posts saw him placed in charge of relegation contenders, Coventry City and for a second time, Sheffield Wednesday. He steered both clear of trouble but the magic of Atkinson’s previous managerial exploits was rapidly diminishing.

By 1998-99, the year of United’s treble triumph, Atkinson oversaw new side Nottingham Forest’s relegation to England’s second tier, the First Division.

It was an embarrassment of a final assignment typified by Atkinson infamously sitting in the wrong dugout before his first game in charge against Arsenal. He also presided over Forest’s 8-1 capitulation at the hands of United at the City Ground and earned the wrath of Forest supporters when he insisted his team had played a large part in a nine-goal thriller.

The spark had finally been extinguished. Atkinson’s managerial magic had dissipated and the game had appeared to pass him by.

Despite the ignominy of the end of Atkinson’s near thirty-year manager career, he was still a hot property in the mid-eighties at the time of his United departure. What would the course of history have been for United had Atkinson not been replaced by Ferguson in November 1986? Could he have come close to matching the achievements of the most successful United gaffer ever? It seems unlikely.

It is possible that Atkinson could have turned United’s 1986-87 season around. However, he had presided over so many near misses in United’s long pursuit of a League title post-Busby and it’s doubtful he could have achieved this feat post-1986.

What’s more likely is that United would have continued to be a successful Cup team under his stewardship. Atkinson’s post-United League Cup successes with mid-table sides Sheffield Wednesday and Aston Villa demonstrate his talent for negotiating tournament Football

United’s board, however, wanted more, and in November 1986 the patience had run out. Ferguson was their choice and he, not Atkinson, would become the most successful United boss, post-Busby, and later United’s most successful manager ever. Atkinson’s League title near miss with Villa in 1993 also provides additional compelling evidence that his ability to negotiate successful silverware winning sides were limited to shorter form cup competitions rather than a 42 match League campaign. Despite the lack of a First Division/Premier League title on his resume, Atkinson was an outstandingly charismatic and talented manager who produced entertaining, goal-filled teams that delivered silverware.

The excitement and undoubted theatre of the football that ‘Big Ron’ brought to United in the early eighties should never be forgotten and for those who witnessed it, it never will be.

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