Monday, 11 October 2021

1985/86: Leicester City v Manchester United

Football in England may have been in a bad place - a European ban, television blackout, and talks of a Super League - yet for Manchester United fans the start of the 1985/86 season was a heavenly experience. Ten straight wins in the league saw Ron Atkinson's team open up a nine-point lead over Liverpool, as talk turned to the club ending their title drought stretching back to 1967.

One more win would equal Tottenham's record of eleven consecutive wins at the start of their 1960/61 double season, but even though the 1-1 draw at Luton thwarted this attempt, the team bounced back to win three of their next four matches - drawing with Liverpool in the other - as their lead extended to ten points after fifteen matches.

Holding such an advantage over a third of the way through the campaign, some journalists pondered if the title race was already over. However, ever so slowly the cracks began to appear. There was no disgrace in a first defeat of the season away at Sheffield Wednesday, but injuries started to test the strength of Atkinson's squad.

One man the manager could ill-afford to lose was skipper Bryan Robson. Injured in England's 5-0 win over Turkey, the team remained unbeaten in his three-match layoff. Although Robson returned for the defeat at Hillsborough, he had to leave the field after just 15 minutes, and throughout the season his absence was keenly felt.

A goalless draw against Tottenham followed, yet the alarm bells would have been ringing loudly after United's next defeat. The 3-0 reverse at Filbert Street on Saturday November 23 highlighted the fragility of the underbelly, as a struggling Leicester City team opened up gaping holes in United's defence. All of a sudden, the lead at the top was down to just two points.

Ordinarily, away defeats in Division One were not cause for too much concern. But the nature of the embarrassment in Leicester was an eye-opener. Without Robson, the team looked shambolic, completely overrun by a Leicester side that had been suffering at the start of the season after losing star striker Gary Lineker in the summer.

The rise of Lineker continued, but his former club appeared to be dropping like a stone. Under the management of Gordon Milne, three wins in the opening eighteen saw the team drop into the bottom three. A surprise 3-1 win over champions Everton in the season opener proved a false dawn; the 5-0 hammering suffered at Oxford two matches later was a more accurate indicator of the season ahead.

"It's a game where you have to be on top of your form, otherwise you can catch a cold," Atkinson said prior to the match. At Filbert Street his team coughed, sneezed, and wheezed helplessly in an opening half hour that rattled the foundations of United's title hopes. 

Already missing Robson, Remi Moses and Peter Barnes, Atkinson could have done without another injury blow. But just 12 minutes into the match, Arthur Albiston had to leave the field after clashing with Andy Feeley, the 14 stitches in his thigh as painful as United's performance in front of 22,008 (Leicester's second biggest league gate of the season).

Leicester had already taken the lead before Albiston's injury. Goalkeeper Gary Bailey denied Simon Morgan as early as the fourth minute, yet two minutes later Gary McAllister waltzed through United's defence on the edge of the box before firing home to hand the home team a surprise lead. Before Albiston could be replaced, there was time for United to shoot themselves in the foot.

A weak back pass from Kevin Moran allowed Alan Smith to score - after a neat one-two with the post - and after just 12 minutes the away team were looking like a Sunday league side that had yet to shake off their hangovers. Forced to adjust the shape of his XI, a nightmare was unfolding before Atkinson.

Alan Brazil replaced Albiston, with Frank Stapleton slotting back into midfield and Paul McGrath moving to left back. Trailing 2-0 and completely swamped in midfield by McAllister and another Motherwell recruit Ally Mauchlan, there was seemingly no way back for the visitors.

Just before the half hour mark, amazingly the game was put to bed, when Laurie Cunningham - returning to English football on loan from Marseilles - flicked on to Smith, who thumped a stunning right-footed strike into the roof of the net past a shellshocked Bailey. 

Being a fly on the United dressing room wall at half-time would have been a scary experience. Having conceded just seven goals in their 17 league matches, serious questions would have been raised, and perhaps many a teacup thrown, as the ten-minute inquest went on. At least the second half saw a United display that "improved from poor to ordinary," in the words of the Guardian's Russell Thomas.

Brazil had a header saved from Ian Andrews, and the keeper also did well to keep out a Norman Whiteside effort. But Thomas' words were damning with very little praise indeed. As the match drifted on, some visiting fans hurled seats and coins on to the pitch for entertainment, leading to 18 arrests. That afternoon in the Midlands was not one to remember with great fondness.

Atkinson kept his team locked in the dressing room for 55 minutes as the fallout continued. The cracks were beginning to widen. "Remember Manchester United, those super soar away leaders who were going to cakewalk the championship?", Ronald Atkin wrote in the Guardian. "Yesterday they looked in terrible shape as Leicester torpedoed them with a three goal burst in the opening half hour." 

Inevitably the poor reviews continued, with the Express' John Wragg getting a sly dig in regarding United's involvement in the proposed English football revolution. "One of the attractions of a Super League is that United would be spared defeat like this against the small fry. But it would also take the very breath out of the game." It turns out that the past is not such a foreign country.

For Cunningham and Leicester, there was hope for the future. "Laurie gave us a little something we hadn't had before," Milne stated after Leicester's first home win in nearly two months. "The victory wasn't just down to him - but soccer's about chemistry and the team appreciated his talent, a different kind of talent."

Sadly, injury would impact Cunningham's spell at Leicester. After his successful debut he would play just 14 more times in a tough season for the club. Yet he did have a positive impact in the final day win over Newcastle, as Leicester avoided joining Midlands clubs Birmingham City and West Brom in sliding down to Division Two. It would be Cunningham's last game for Leicester.

United would stay top until February 1986. But the peloton was hunting them down. When Robson dislocated his shoulder in an FA Cup match at West Ham, club and country fans looked on in horror. Too many draws and then back-to-back home defeats against Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday in April killed off any remaining hopes.

In an ideal world, the season would have started and ended in glory for the United faithful. Yet in reality 1985/86 would be bookended by defeats against Sheffield Wednesday. The optimism would slowly evaporate, as bit by bit things unravelled, with that afternoon in Leicester further evidence that United were not quite made of the right stuff. The clock was ticking away for Atkinson.

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