Manchester United blew all before them out of the water at the beginning of the 1985/86 season: winning their first 10 games on the spin and not losing their first league match until November. However, by March they were as good as out of the title race and their quest for football’s ‘holy grail' would continue.
The summer of 1985 provided plenty of reasons for Manchester United fans to be optimistic at a time of real turmoil for the game. English clubs had been banned from European competition in the fallout from the previous season’s European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus that had left 39 fans dead. Meanwhile, 56 fans would also perish when fire ravaged Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground; and hooligan clashes St Andrew’s, Birmingham and Luton Town's Kenilworth Road made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
United were still the best supported in the land and had just won the FA Cup for the second time in three years, leading many United fans to believe that this could finally be ‘their year' – and the way the Red Devils started that season, who could blame them?
Their pre-season activity in the transfer market was remarkably quiet by today’s standards, a sign of the confidence in the ranks that the side they had in place was more than capable of winning the league for the first time since 1967.
Much of this optimism was being generated by larger-than-life manager Ron Atkinson who had come to the club four years earlier, and was seen as something of a ray of light after four dull and trophy-less seasons under Dave Sexton.
The two FA Cup wins of 1983 and 1985 had lifted the gloom but significant investment in players such as Bryan Robson and Frank Stapleton was seen as a real statement of intent when it came to the ongoing battle to wrestle power away from Merseyside and back to Manchester.
Atkinson oozed confidence and, as well as making some expensive signings, was keen that his teams played fast-flowing, attacking and, more importantly, entertaining football. “There’s little doubt that football stands at a crossroads”, he told the press on the eve of the 1985/86 season. “It’s now even more important to remember that football should be all about entertainment. At Old Trafford, we’re aiming to put the smile back on people’s faces.”
United’s start was so impressive you really had to see it to believe it; quite literally as none of the games were broadcast live on TV following a dispute between broadcasters and the Football League, which had led to a total black-out until the New Year.
There was little sign of what was to come when United went down 2-0 to Everton in that season’s Charity Shield at Wembley though, if ever the insignificance of the traditional season opener was needed it was in those first few optimistic months in the late summer when the proper action got underway.
United’s season kicked off for real the following weekend as almost 50,000 expectant fans witnessed a 4-0 thumping of Aston Villa, thanks to two goals from Mark Hughes, as well as strikes from Norman Whiteside and Jesper Olsen. This blistering start was then quickly followed-up by an impressive 1-0 win away at Ipswich Town.
The following weekend United battled to a 2-1 win over Arsenal in North London thanks to a strike from Mark Hughes and a rare effort from defender Paul McGrath. As the month drew to a close their record read; played 5, won 5, thanks to wins over Nottingham Forest.
The wins kept coming heading into September, much to the delight of Atkinson. “To be so rhythmic early in the season is very pleasing,” he beamed. Perhaps the most impressive to date coming at Maine Road on the 14 September, when goals from Bryan Robson, Mike Duxbury and Arthur Albiston secured a convincing Manchester derby win against the newly-promoted City.
United travelled to The Hawthorns next, where gaffer Atkinson and skipper Robson thrashed their former club West Bromwich Albion 5-1 before beating Southampton 1-0 at Old Trafford in front of another full house. It was United’s 10th win in a row and the streak didn't look like ending anytime soon.
Having gone nine points clear at the top of the table and after scoring 26 goals, a 1-1 draw at Kenilworth Road – on the unpopular plastic pitch of Luton Town – would finally see their 100% run end; one game short of Tottenham’s 1960 11-game top-flight record. Even after this relative disappointment Atkinson’s team won three of their next four matches – only dropping points in a hard-fought home draw with Liverpool.
When United won away at Coventry City it meant they were now undefeated in 15 games – 10 points clear at the top of the table and well clear of Merseyside rivals Liverpool and Everton who were some distance back.
“The league is a marathon, not a sprint,” admitted Atkinson, who was trying to keep a lid on all the excitement, adding, “We know we can’t continue winning forever, and the key will be to picking ourselves up after we stumble.”
That first defeat of the season finally came on 9 November, at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday in a 1-0 defeat, but such was the lead that United had accumulated during those first three months of the season, the team didn’t lose top spot until the middle of January.
The New Year brought about something of a change of fortunes for United, however, and one which they would never really recover from. The ever-influential Bryan Robson dislocated his shoulder in January, while his fellow midfielder Remi Moses would also be blighted with injury. Atkinson's reduced options in midfield meant his side were no longer able to outmuscle their opponents.
The beginning of 1986 also brought about an alarming drop-off in form of striker Hughes, who had smashed 10 goals in the opening 15 games but would only score another seven league strikes that campaign. Boss Atkinson claimed at the time that it was ‘a temporary problem for a young player', but in truth United had secretly sanctioned the forward’s move to Barcelona early in January, which the player later admitted had seriously affected his concentration.
United’s spectacular stall also coincided with some great runs from West Ham, Everton and Liverpool, the latter embarking on an incredible run of 11 wins from 12 games. After going unbeaten for the first 15 games of the campaign, United went on to lose 10 of their remaining 27 in a collapse that Devon Loch would have been proud of.
When United were finally overtaken by their two Merseyside rivals, questions about the side's commitment and Atkinson’s credentials as a genuine title contender were obviously going to be asked. United players had gained something of a reputation for themselves when it came to their off-field drinking habits, and such a spectacular failing would only highlight a lack of discipline and dedication at Old Trafford.
The second of successive home defeats in April – to Sheffield Wednesday – was the final nail in United’s coffin; watched by a crowd of only 32,551 – more than 20,000 down on the season's highest gate. Anger at Atkinson was starting to grow, and the European football ban meant that a fourth place finish in the league meant absolutely nothing.
A season which had started so brightly in the heady and optimistic days of late summer had ultimately come to an end before the clocks had gone forward the following spring. Liverpool went on to clinch the league title in a tight battle with Everton and West Ham which went to the wire. The Reds would eventually finish 12 points ahead of United and a week later would complete the double when they won the FA Cup final at Wembley, prompting Liverpudlian comic Stan Boardman to joke that, ‘United had finished fourth in a two horse race'.
For Manchester United fans, though, the way in which their team threw in the towel so early after such a terrific start meant the alarm bells were now ringing. Despite never finishing outside the top four in his time at Old Trafford, Ron Atkinson’s title credentials were firmly in the spotlight. “Ron proved that he couldn’t manage that team to the title,” explained Gordon Strachan some years later, “Something had to change.”
But rather than bouncing back from their disappointment, the following season began as badly as the previous one had ended and after a heavy defeat to Southampton in the League Cup in November, Big Ron’s time was up.
Atkinson may have planted the seed of belief that Manchester United could, one day, step out of the shadows of their bitter rivals from the other end of the M62, but he ultimately wouldn’t be the man to oversee the job in hand. Instead, that role fell to his replacement who arrived from Aberdeen in November 1986, and who would eventually lead the club to 13 league titles in 24 years in charge.