If a week is a long time in politics, then a year must have seemed like an eternity to Ron Atkinson as he contemplated his lot in November 1986. Just twelve months before Atkinson had looked destined to become the first Manchester United manager to win the Division One title since 1967. By November 1986 he was out of the door.
The decline in United’s fortunes post-November 1986 signalled the beginning of the end for Atkinson. After winning the opening ten matches of the 1985/86 campaign, United remained unbeaten in the league for their first 15 games. But with just nine wins from their remaining 27 fixtures, a fourth placed finish saw United finish twelve points behind champions Liverpool.
Injuries played their part, with captain Bryan Robson at the centre of Atkinson’s problems, missing half of United’s league programme. Injured on England duty in October 1985 and then dislocating his shoulder in March 1986, Robson became embroiled in a club versus country row.
England manager Bobby Robson wanted his skipper to have an operation on his shoulder before the World Cup, but United were reluctant, especially as they were still in the title hunt. When Robson’s shoulder failed again at Mexico, the operation could be delayed no longer. Yet it would have a significant impact on the start of United’s 1986/87 season.
Robson was not the only man to go under the knife, with Gary Bailey, Remi Moses and Norman Whiteside all undergoing surgery. Despite having a big squad, the constant stream of injuries disrupted the team, and the sale of Mark Hughes to Barcelona in the summer added even more pressure on Atkinson.
Chairman Martin Edwards seemed reasonably relaxed prior to the 1986/87 season, even though Terry Venables and Alex Ferguson had been linked to Atkinson’s job. “Obviously, it’s been a long time to go without the League title and the longer it goes the more the pressure builds up on everyone at the club. But to keep harping on about it doesn’t help the management or the players.”
Atkinson and United needed to come flying out of the blocks; instead they suffered a false start and never recovered. Losing, but the next two matches at Old Trafford indicated that all was not well. Behind after 32 seconds against West Ham, United showed character to later fight back from two down. But that was little consolation as Frank McAvennie’s second goal .
Worse was to follow. The 1-0 defeat against newly promoted Charlton gave United their worst start in 14 years, and with boos echoing round Old Trafford and many calling for Atkinson’s head, Edwards was beginning to field questions about the position of his manager. “We are not fickle enough to sack a manager on the strength of three games.”
There was a tiny glimmer of light at the end of the gloomy tunnel for Atkinson. The losing run ended with a 1-1 draw at Leicester, and with Robson returning to the side after 11 weeks out, at least the manager now had his talisman back in the side. It didn’t seem a coincidence that Robson’s first match back saw United crush Southampton 5-1 at Old Trafford.
“As far as I’m concerned we’re on our way back,” Whiteside had said before the Southampton game. But the small step forward was followed by a giant one back. Although Moses came back into the team, Whiteside and Gordon Strachan were ruled out of the 1-0 reverse at Watford. United player well, but paid for missing chances when.
“It’s out of order to talk about pressure upon a manager with the season just six games old,” Everton manager Howard Kendall stated before United’s visit to Goodison Park for the live BBC match. “I cannot understand all this talk of a sacking at Old Trafford.” Kendall’s team did little to quieten the din, however,.
Another television date awaited a week later, as the Big Match covered Chelsea’s match at Old Trafford. If ninety minutes could sum up Atkinson’s situation at the time then this was it. An early Kerry Dixon strike highlighted United’s weakness at the back, yet they.
When a team misses two penalties in as many minutes, perhaps the writing is on the wall. The Times reported United “flying on the wings of outrageous misfortune,” after Tony Godden denied Jesper Olsen and Strachan. “This is the worst position I have been in as a football manager,” Atkinson admitted. “We have got to buckle down and start winning matches.”
Things could only get better after that, and United embarked on a five match unbeaten run in the league, drawing away at leaders Nottingham Forest, defeating Sheffield Wednesday and Luton, before. A disappointing draw at home against Coventry followed, United’s frustration increased when Robson limped off with a hamstring strain.
Through it all, Atkinson was reeling. Performances may have improved slightly, but matters off the pitch saw Atkinson under the media spotlight. A training ground spat between Moses and Olsen resulted in the latter receiving 11 stitches in a cut over his left eye, with United’s manager trying to brush over the incident.
Claiming the players clashed heads, relationships between Atkinson and the press became strained; Atkinson would walk out of one press conference, and miss another after the Luton match. Discipline at the club was questioned – seven players were fined for breaking a curfew in an Amsterdam pre-season tournament, and Moses had also been involved in another row with Clayton Blackmore – all problems Atkinson could have done without.
There would be one hammer blow from which Big Ron could not recover;. Missing Robson and Strachan, and losing Whiteside and Colin Gibson in the first half, United were humiliated. Atkinson had reached the point of no return.
On November 6 Atkinson was sacked, leaving the door open for Alex Ferguson to create his dynasty. Edwards indicated that “in light of the team’s poor performance over the last 12 months” and “in the best interests of club and fans” the decision had to be made. “Obviously I’m a bit disappointed,” Atkinson said. “Things have gone against us so I suppose it was inevitable this would eventually happen.”
Atkinson had enjoyed some success at United, as Edwards was keen to point out. “In his five full seasons he was never out of the top four in the league. He won the FA Cup twice, got us into the Milk Cup final, and the semi-final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.” But ultimately Atkinson would pay the price for being the latest United manager who was unable to win the title.
In the aftermath, many had their say regarding where things went wrong for Atkinson. Some claimed it his flash image had alienated him from the United faithful; others pointed the finger at his lack of success in the transfer market; the poor discipline at the club was also used as a stick to beat him with.
As ever, though, results on the pitch sealed Atkinson’s fate. In the 40 league matches between November 1985 to 1986, United won just 12 matches and lost 16. From the high of the ten-in-a row to the low of 19th position within a year, Atkinson was simply unable to hold back the tide. Even his successor would find that the pressure at Manchester United could take a manager to the brink.