History's coolest teams: Big Ron's Manchester United 85/86


Frank Sinatra’s comedy heist film Ocean’s 11 attempted to bedazzle its audience with Vegas glamour, craps and crime, and plenty of shots of the Rat Pack quaffing back Martinis while being effortlessly cool but alas cinematic history has not been kind. It is now regarded less as a fun caper and more a flawed curio. Worse yet a potboiler that hopelessly loses the plot halfway through.

Years later of course George Clooney came along with his million-dollar smile and shrewd acumen, polished the template up and struck box-office gold.

Away from the big screen we have seen the same thing occur closer to home. To a club I grew up hating. To a side – just the one mind – that I grew to quite like.

For Sinatra read ‘Big Ron’ Atkinson. For the Rat Pack read play-hard-and-drink-harder boys from the old-school Robson, McGrath and Whiteside. For the Flamingo of 1960 read Old Trafford in 1985.

This analogy makes Sir Alex Ferguson by default a popular heart-throb with perfect gnashers but, to quote the song, if you know your history you’ll know where I’m going with this and let it pass.

I was eleven in the mid-eighties and very clearly a Manchester City fan. Each fortnight I’d battle with my small scrawny frame to view a section of the pitch from the Kippax and wore my City scarf to school every winter to the bemusement of my classmates who all supported teams that featured heavily on television. I also carried around a general demeanour of pessimism with the sincere belief that if something could go wrong it would go wrong. Yup I was a Blue.

Yet Ron Atkinson’s 1985/86 United – a side that blistered its way to ten opening wins, remained unbeaten for five more before throwing it all away post-Christmas – is as familiar to me as any City team from any era.

That’s because for many games from that season I could be found close to the touchline in the North Stand – Gordon Strachan once even gave me a wink as I threw him back the ball – and I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that mostly I was pleased when they won. That confession alone is enough to have my Junior Blues membership retrospectively revoked but hear me out. The reason for my glad-tidings and semi-enthusiastic applause stood alongside me: My dad, a lifelong Red who had long given up on his quest to convert me to the cause and now settled for having his youngest appreciating with him the attacking brio and cavalier football on display.

I was a kid and if my old fella was happy I was happy and being an acolyte to Best and Law and adventure the 1985 Manchester United certainly made him so.

On the left twinkled Jesper Olsen, a will-o-the-wisp winger in perpetual danger of falling over while across the park Strachan scurried and harried as if the Beano had drawn a Scottish midfielder. Whiteside and Robson bossed the middle like centre-circle bouncers who stayed behind after-hours and drank the place dry while up front the permed brawn of Mark Hughes buffeted defenders with an arse that had its own MP. Add Frank Stapleton and Paul McGrath into the mix along with the deceptively bellicose Mike Duxbury and you have a muscular group of battle-hardened boozers with Olsen as the cherry in the cocktail.

In Ron Atkinson’s fifth season in charge he had created the perfect storm of big personalities and match-winners and United duly raced from the traps with intent battering aside all-comers with an unstoppable blend of power and flair. Annoyingly their kit wasn’t half bad either – an understated deep-necked Adidas number – and it took Luton Town’s plastic pitch in October to finally curtail the winning streak that arguably saw United play their best football in the vast chasm between the Busby and Ferguson eras.

But here’s the kicker. Nobody but the thousands present inside Old Trafford, Portman Road, Highbury, the City Ground, Maine Road, and the Hawthorns witnessed these commanding performances as 1985 heralded in a television blackout. For four long months the sport was off our screens with the chairman from the ‘big six’ claiming live televised games was killing football. Yes really.

When the ITV cameras returned in the new year so too did United’s inconsistency as their seemingly impenetrable lead at the top was chewed up and surpassed by Liverpool, Everton, even the West Ham of Cottee and McAvennie.

The failure to see the job through – made all the more pertinent with such an outstanding collection of players – put Atkinson’s mahogany neck on the chopping block and a frustrated board looked north to Aberdeen.

The rest, as they say, is history and one that is often repeated. Ferguson soon put a stop to the drinking culture that was rife within the club – disbanding the Rat Pack – before gradually ushering in a sustained period of dominance. He eventually struck box-office gold.

“I’m not going again dad,” I said aged twelve on the motorway home following a game I can barely recall. For one thing I had started going to aways with City. For another there was just something about that gum-chewing fella in the dug-out that I didn’t take to.

My dad nodded, kept his eyes on the road, and hopefully understood.

Ferguson’s eleven were becoming slick and packed with expensive superstars. I preferred the flaws, Martinis and all, that lost the plot halfway through.

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