Andy Mitten: A winning start for Manchester United doesn’t always lead to glory – look at 1986
Manchester United may have made a decent start to the league season, but Andy Mitten finds a cautionary tale in the club’s in 1985-86 campaign…
If Manchester United beat winless bogey team Sunderland on Saturday, they’ll have an impressive record of five wins, a draw and a defeat from their first seven games. Fans would have accepted that at the start of the season, though United have commenced the league in similar fashion many times in the last 25 years on the way to winning the title.
The club’s best ever start came thirty years ago in 1985-86 when United, titleless since 1967, won their first ten games of the season. With confidence high after the FA Cup final victory against champions Everton, Ron Atkinson’s side lost the Charity Shield to the Toffees before the winning run started with a 4-0 home triumph against Aston Villa in front of 49,743. The United team was Gary Bailey, John Gidman, Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath, Graeme Hogg, Bryan Robson, Remi Moses, Mark Hughes, Frank Stapleton and Jesper Olsen.
The second match was a 1-0 win at Ipswich Town.
“It was our best chance to win the league with United, but I broke my leg at Ipswich when that p***k Cranson did me from behind,” recalls Scouse full-back John Gidman. “The lads kept winning though…”
John Gidman, Manchester UnitedPA Photos
They did. Arsenal were beaten 2-1 away, West Ham 2-0 at home. Three were put past Forest and Newcastle United in the fifth and sixth games. The mood among the players and fans was euphoric and the team would celebrate with regular drinking sessions, which, while popular, were not to everyone’s liking.
“The drinking culture was a problem, no question,” recalled goalkeeper Gary Bailey. “It wasn’t a problem for people like Bryan Robson who enjoyed the drinking and still performed perfectly well. But it created a culture that other players were not comfortable with. I believe in looking after your body, watching what you eat and being physiologically stable. I bumped heads constantly with the ‘you cope or piss off home approach.’
“During that ten-game run Robbo arranged a session in the Four Seasons hotel in Hale. I thought, ‘I’m going to try and be one of the lads. I can fight now and I’m playing well, so I’ll give it my best shot.’
“Well, they drank so quickly - Robbo, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath and Kevin Moran - that I had to stop them buying me drinks.
" I got to pint number four after an hour before saying, ‘Please guys, I can’t keep up. I need a break."
“Then we had lunch. I hoped that the lunch would sponge up the fluid. After lunch they were on their ninth pint and I was on my fifth. I couldn’t take it and stupidly got in my car and drove home, where I was sick. I propped myself up in bed with a jug of water and went to sleep before waking up at 6pm with a stinking hangover. The lads had told me to go back to meet them, so I drove back to the Four Seasons. They were on their 16th pint and were talking a different language, falling all over laughing. I tried to have one more drink but it was the most horrible taste.
“So I went home again and went to bed. I said to myself: ‘Gary you are not part of this culture. You’re a loner, you’re different and had better get used to that.’ I think they cracked 20 pints each that day.”
They also cracked on with winning football matches. Another three goals were put past Oxford United in the seventh game, while the best performance of the run was in the eighth match at Manchester City, when 13,000 travelling fans packed the Platt Lane End and Kippax corner and delighted in goals from Robson, Duxbury and Albiston.
United were surging ahead and the goals ratio increased, with a 5-1 win at West Brom in the ninth match. Alan Brazil made his first start of the season at the Hawthorns and scored twice.
“I was sub for nine of the opening games,” said Brazil. “They used to call me the judge because I was always sitting on the bench. I came on now and again, but I could have no complaints because the team was winning. And don’t forget, suddenly Mark Hughes had come onto the scene and he was sensational.
Manchester United parade the FA Cup around Wembley after their 1-0 victory: (l-r) Frank Stapleton, Mike Duxbury, Gordon Strachan, Bryan Robson, John Gidman, Mark Hughes, Gary Bailey, Arthur Albiston, Jesper Olsen, Paul McGrath, manager Ron AtkinsonPA Photos
“Sparky had played in the first team when I was at Tottenham, but obviously Ron didn’t fancy him and that’s why he signed me. That was added pressure on me. I cost £625,000 and people expected me to be better than the homegrown kids. My goalscoring record was never bad.”
Despite the brace, Brazil didn’t keep his place in the team for the next game, a 1-0 win against Southampton at Old Trafford to put United 13 points clear of Liverpool and nine ahead of Everton, who’d won the title and the Cup Winners’ Cup with ease the previous season.
The record run would come to a halt in the next match on the plastic surface at Luton Town on October 5th 1985 with a 1-1 draw. Contrary to popular belief, United didn't fall apart. They beat QPR 2-0 in the next game, then drew 1-1 with Liverpool at home. Chelsea were beaten 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, when 11,000 United fans filed through the Britannia Gate and into the terrace behind the goal to see Hughes and Jesper Olsen score. Coventry were vanquished 2-0 in game 15.
United had played 15, won 13 and drawn two. They were ten points clear of Liverpool in second, 15 clear of champions Everton and 13 clear of Sheffield Wednesday in third. The Owls were United’s 16th opponents and 17,000 thousand fan travelled over the Pennines to stand and sit in the Leppings Lane End in a massive 48, 105 crowd. There were crushes on that terrace behind the goal long before the Hillsborough disaster four years later.
The huge away following would witness United’s first defeat of the season by a single goal. Hughes was so frustrated that he booted the ball into the crowd at the end, injuring a spectator.
Captain Robson, the inspiration of the team, started in Sheffield but wouldn’t begin another league game until West Ham in February. By that time, United’s lead had been reduced to two points over Everton, though they had a game in hand. But United were shot. They lost 10 of their remaining 27 games and finished fourth. To the dismay of their fans, Liverpool won the title. Again.
“It fell apart,” said Gidman.
" I don’t know why, whether it was nerves, but it wasn’t the manager’s fault. It was such a shame we couldn’t give fans the one trophy they wanted."
Gidman’s broken leg confirmed in Atkinson’s mind that he’d have to replace his popular right-back. “I got wind that something was going on when I bumped into Kenny Dalglish - a good bloke - at Manchester airport. He told me that he had seen Atkinson out in Denmark and that he was buying a new right back, warning me that I had to be careful.
“I was a bit gutted, but then again I was 33, had played in a cup final and had a broken leg. But I shouldn’t have found out from another footballer.”
United bought Danish international John Sivebaek for £285,000 from Vejle in February 1986, leaving Gidman to weigh up his options.
John SivebaekPA Photos
“When you are at a club like Man Utd, it’s ok winning cups but the fans wanted the league,” recalled Robson. “People were getting frustrated, especially after the ten wins on the bounce. People were very frustrated around the club at the end of that year. The pressure was building in the media too and the rumours were going about that there might be a change of manager.”
Atkinson would indeed lose his job, but twelve months later after a poor start to the 1986-87 season.
“Five of my most productive, essential and senior players – Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Arthur Albiston, Gary Bailey and Gordon Strachan – had returned from the 1986 World Cup to face operations,” explained Atkinson.
“Hardly the most encouraging medical news before the launch of a new campaign to resolve, even remedy, the increasingly annoying failure of the season before.”
Atkinson had actually offered to pack his bags in Spring 1986, an hour after a defeat to QPR when it became clear that United were not going to win the league. After five years at the club, he wondered whether it was time to go and questioned whether the target of the league championship was unreachable.
For Atkinson it was, but not for Alex Ferguson, though he’d take seven years, by which time it had been 26 years since United last lifted the title.