Monday, 24 July 2017

1980s: Opening day League matches

A look back this week at some memorable opening day League matches of the 1980s. Including a dream start for a newly promoted team, a couple of false dawns for Manchester United, and Liverpool starting as they intended to go on.

1981: Swansea City 5 Leeds United 1

The rise and rise of Swansea City under John Toshack had seen the club promoted from the Fourth Division to the top flight between 1978 and 1981, and the team containing talented players such as Robbie James, Leighton James, Alan Curtis, and Bob Latchford, set about proving that they truly belonged at the highest level.

The first of many giants to be felled was Leeds United, on an unforgettable Division One debut for the Welsh club in the August sunshine. In front of the Match of the Day cameras at Vetch Field, a Jeremy Charles opener was cancelled out by Derek Parlane, yet come the second half, the Swans were unstoppable. A hat-trick from new signing Latchford, and a fine finish after a jinking run from Curtis, sent a warning out to the rest of Division One.

"Promoted teams invariably flatter to deceive on their elevation to the first division," Nicholas Harding stated in the Times. "But after their destruction of Leeds United it is impossible to envisage Swansea City having any difficulty with survival. Swansea made out the most impressive case why they should not merely survive but pursue the honours."

For a while, Harding's words seemed accurate, as Swansea bloodied the noses of Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool, and led the division towards the end of March. But a lack of squad strength saw the club struggle towards the end of the season, yet still finish in a creditable sixth place. Sadly the rest of the 1980s would not be so kind; by the start of the 1986/87 season, Swansea were back where they had started in 1978.

1984: Everton 1 Tottenham 4

The blue wave of optimism surrounding Everton as the 1984/85 season neared was justifiable. A change in fortunes for manager Howard Kendall had seen the club embark on a run in 1984 consisting of just three defeats in Division One, a Milk Cup final loss after a replay against Liverpool, and their first trophy in 14 years, winning the FA Cup after a comfortable victory over Watford.

When the feelgood factor was boosted by a Charity Shield win against Liverpool, you could understand why many were tipping Kendall's team for the title. But the team were brought back to earth in spectacular fashion, losing 4-1 to Tottenham on the opening day of the season, the Daily Express highlighting how "the script went grotesquely wrong," in front of a largely hopeful crowd of 35,630.

Everton did take the lead through a Adrian Heath penalty, yet that was as good as it got on the day for the home team. An unusually sloppy performance by Neville Southall and Everton's defence, resulted in Tottenham scoring four goals in 17 crazy minutes, as the very same journalists who had been bigging up Everton, began to have second thoughts.

"Clive Allen highlighted the reason why the White Hart Lane cockerel is more likely to be crowing at the end of the season than the expectant Goodison fans," Chris James wrote in the Daily Mirror. Indeed, Everton would lose their next game, and Tottenham did mount a decent title challenge. But from Boxing Day onwards, Everton were unstoppable; 15 wins and two draws seeing them crowned as champions. And Southall would gain some revenge against Tottenham along the way too.

1985: Man Utd 4 Aston Villa 0

"It is always good to kick off as a winner," Derek Potter stated in the Daily Express, after Manchester United's crushing second half display against Aston Villa. "But cute observers will not be drawing any wildly optimistic conclusions yet." United's four-goal salvo in the second half - goals scored by Mark Hughes (2), Norman Whiteside, and Jesper Olsen - was achieved against an injury-ravaged Villa side. But, as the weeks progressed, Big Ron's team would send many teams the same way as Villa.

Further wins against Ipswich, Arsenal, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Newcastle, Oxford, Manchester City, West Brom, and Southampton followed, with the press getting more and more excited about the prospect of Tottenham's top flight 11-match winning record being broken with every United win. The perfect run ended with a draw at Luton, yet the Old Trafford outfit were still unbeaten after 15 League matches, and looking good to end 19 years of hurt.

"On a wider front, the worrying question is whether the First Division has a team capable of staying in the slipstream of Ron Atkinson's thoroughbreds to stop the League season being killed off by the turn of the year," Harry Miller pondered in the Daily Mirror, after the West Brom victory. The expression "it's a marathon, not a sprint" immediately springs to mind.

As the end of 1985 approached, gradually things began to unravel. Injuries, and the absence of Bryan Robson in particular, hit the team hard, and ten wins from their last 27 resulted in a fourth-placed finish. Sadly for armchair United fans, the television coverage blackout at the start of the 85/86 season meant they didn't even get to see the dream start to the campaign.

1987: Arsenal 1 Liverpool 2

After a rare trophyless season in 1986/87, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish had raided the transfer market, hoping that Peter Beardsley and John Barnes would ease the pain of losing Ian Rush to Juventus. John Aldridge, signed in February 1987, was also slotted into the team, as Liverpool faced a daunting trip to north London on the first day of the League campaign.

In sweltering conditions, a crowd of 54,703 packed into Highbury, as Liverpool, modelling their new grey away kit, passed their first examination. In a match of three headers, Beardsley and Barnes combined for the first goal, finished from six yards out by Aldridge, only for Paul Davis to equalise with a flicked diving header after 17 minutes.

The match would be decided by Steve Nicol's extraordinary long range header with three minutes remaining. Whether Nicol was trying to score is debatable, but as the Liverpool players celebrated, they had made a statement for the domination they were about to exert over the title race. Aldridge would score in Liverpool's first nine League matches, and he and the team never looked back.

Equalling Leeds' 29-match unbeaten run at the start of a League season, the Reds were simply breathtaking, and an argument could be made that this was the finest team in their history. Watch the highlights of this match against a Nottingham Forest team that would finish third in the table to get an idea of Liverpool's brilliance. And who knows, if Aldridge had scored from the spot against Wimbledon at Wembley, Dalglish might have achieved two doubles in his first three seasons as Liverpool manager.

1989: Man Utd 4 Arsenal 1 

Another false dawn for Manchester United, in more ways than one. Before the match, the media-shy figure of Michael Knighton took centre stage, the property dealer celebrating his apparent takeover of Manchester United by donning a training top and juggling the ball in front of the Stretford End. Smashing the ball into the back of the net, Knighton blew kisses to the crowd, who were about to witness goals of a much more significant nature.

It didn't help Arsenal that they played like a team that had been drinking all summer after that miracle at Anfield in May, and that Tony Adams would leave the field to be replaced by Gus Caesar. But United simply exploited the opportunity, with goals from Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Neil Webb (or Knee-all Webb as Martin Tyler preferred to call him), and Brian McClair sealing a 4-1 win against the champions (United also missed a penalty).

With an ambitious new chairman on the horizon, and Alex Ferguson splashing the cash on Webb and Mike Phelan - and later on Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, and Danny Wallace - the opening day win pointed to a brighter future. Yet it was a glorious one-off for both Knighton and the club, as by September United were developing into a shambles on and off the pitch.

Knighton pulled out of the deal to buy the club, unable to fund the takeover, and taking a seat on the United Board instead. And four defeats in their next six League matches after the Arsenal win, including a 5-1 hammering against Manchester City, began to increase the pressure on a struggling Fergie. Of course, he would eventually turn things around, but imagine if an under-fire chairman Martin Edwards had listened to some dissenting voices, and pulled the trigger before Sir Alex had become a United institution?

You may also be interested in my blog on the opening day of the First Division season in 1988/89:

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