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.

Red Icons: Remi Moses – hard as nails

Long before Manchester United fans associated an afro haircut wearing midfielder with Marouane Fellaini. They associated the afro haircut to none other than Remi Moses. Perhaps a forgotten name to many today, the Manchester-born midfielder’s career is one that many will see as what might have been. Although being forced to retire at the youthful age of 27 due to injuries, the midfielder had done enough at Old Trafford to receive a cult hero status. Moses was brought into United by his former West Bromwich Albion manager Ron Atkinson. Consequentially, Moses became the first ever black player to score a goal for Manchester United.

During an eight-year career with Manchester United, Moses represented the Mancunian giants 188 times and scoring 12 goals. The defensive midfielder made his debut for the club against Swansea City in a 1-0 victory in September 1981. Unfortunately for the man from Miles Platting, his career was cut short at just age 27 due to a long battle with injuries. After a reoccurring ankle injury, Moses decided to call an end on his career in 1989.

Mainly, Moses was known for his midfield enforcer role he played for both West Brom and United. However, he could also dictate play with the best of opponents, most notably against Michel Platini and Juventus in 1984. Although Juventus went on to win the 1984 European Cup Winners’ Cup, in the first leg at Old Trafford Moses put on a tremendous midfield display. Notably, Bryan Robson missed this game however, Moses stepped up to the mark and demonstrated his ability.

Mainly though, Moses was known for his ferocious style of play in the middle of the park for Manchester United. The midfield hardman was given tasks that not many other players would’ve been capable of. Partnering Robson in midfield, Moses was often tasked with winning the ball and passing it off to his teammate. With Sir Alex Ferguson coming into the club in 1986, the Scottish boss wished to have Moses feature at the base of his midfield. Unfortunately, due to injuries, it did not plan out this way.

It wasn’t just his opponents that were on the wrong end of Moses’ brunt. During a game of five-a-side at United’s Cliff training ground in 1986. A clash left United winger Jesper Olsen with a bloody gash above his eye and Moses with bruised knuckles. Standing at only 5-foot-6, Moses was quick to prove to his teammates that he was no pushover. Moses’ reputation put fear into not only his adversaries but also his own teammates.

Referring to the injuries of Moses once more, these problems have cost him from experiencing what should have been landmark moments in his career. Not an injury but a suspension resulted in Moses missing out on United’s successful FA Cup final in 1983. However, Moses missed out again on FA Cup success in 1985, this time due to injury. In the same season, Moses was called up to the senior England national squad for the first time. Unfortunately, Moses missed out on this opportunity, due to yet again injury problems.

After a career riddled with frustration, Moses tends to stay away from the limelight today. Living a quiet life Moses has been involved in property development. He has also coached Manchester Warriors U20 inline skate hockey team. He also helped Old Trafford FC in a coaching role as part of a community development scheme. These are areas that are unknown quantities and add to the cult hero figure of Moses.

Although hugely admired by many United fans who have seen him play, on Remi Moses’ behalf there must be questions of what might have been.

Written by Shane Purcell

Red Icons: A look back at the career of Captain Marvel, Bryan Robson

Bryan Robson joined Manchester United from West Bromwich Albion for a then-record £1.5 million in 1981 and went on to be one of the most important players in United’s history. He wore the number 7 shirt for the club but was very different to those who would wear it after him, the likes of Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and the Cristiano Ronaldo, to name the most decorated. He went on to make 461 appearances, falling just shy of a century of goals on 99.

Very few players can be truly considered the ‘complete midfielder’, but the man who was nicknamed ‘Captain Marvel’ has a genuine claim to that. He had a strong passing range, was aggressive in the tackle, and had an eye for goal as his goals to games ratio suggests. He became an important figure in the United dressing room too, taking over from Ray Wilkins as club captain.

His skills were recognised by his country too, as he also wore the armband for England. He was capped 90 times, and in that time he scored 26 goals, putting him 13th on the all-time top scorers for the Three Lions. Robson was greatly appreciated by his first manager at United, Ron Atkinson, who was also his manager at West Brom. He knew of Robson’s ability when he brought him to United, saying:

“With this player, you’re not taking a gamble, what you’re buying is pure gold.”

But it was not just his ability which made him a firm favourite with his team-mates and United fans alike. He appreciated the importance of team spirit and this was embodied best at the end of the 1982-83 season in the FA Cup final replay against Brighton and Hove Albion. United won the game 4-0, with Robson scoring two of the four goals. It was remembered more for Robson’s decision to allow designated penalty taker, Arnold Muhren, to take the penalty rather than trying to grab his hat-trick.

The following season saw what may have been an even more memorable brace from the man from Chester-Le-Street. Needing to overturn a 2-0 deficit from the first leg of the European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final against Barcelona, Robson scored two goals to inspire United to a 3-0 victory. The euphoria around Old Trafford was evident as some fans invaded the pitch, lifting Robson aloft.

Despite Atkinson winning the FA Cup twice whilst Robson was at United, Robson’s mentor was sacked and replaced by a certain Scot, Sir Alex Ferguson. Despite a mixed start to Ferguson’s United Career, Robson continued to put in stellar performances. Despite Robson being a pivotal part of all the United teams he played for, ironically United’s first league title since the 1966-67 season came in a season when Robson lost his place as one of the first names on the manager’s teamsheet.

The following season saw United win the league again, with Robson once again playing a far smaller role than he was used to. However, it was a fitting moment when he joined Steve Bruce, who had captained United for most of the season with Robson spending most of the season on the bench, to lift the trophy.

He stopped playing after he left United and began a managerial career which included spells at West Brom and Middlesbrough. He has since re-joined United in an ambassadorial capacity, promoting the club on a global level as a brand along with the likes of Dwight Yorke, Dennis Irwin, and Dwight Yorke. Robson remains a club legend and was fully deserving of his nickname, Captain Marvel.

Written by Rob Potter

copyright: JW