That was the year that wasn’t: Reliving of one of United’s most forgettable seasons
When leafing through the pages of history that document this glorious club’s highs and lows over the past 100 years or so, few fingers would hover too long over the 1981/82 season.
There were no trophies to speak of, many players had seen better days and it wasn’t as though the team were on the brink of a string of league titles or even championship challenges. Yet there was a strange sense of expectancy surrounding Old Trafford.
And it’s because of this that quite a few parallels can be drawn with where United were back then, and with the predicament the club finds itself in today.
So let’s look at what was so similar in two very different eras, not just for the club, but for the game itself.
Firstly, a new, brash and confident manager was embarking on his first full season in charge having replaced a slightly more dour and conservative predecessor who had led the Reds to a disappointing 8th place finish the previous year.
The club was also out of all European competitions with little to fill the void caused by a lack of midweek games against continental opposition.
And fans were also hoping that some big and expensive signings would be brought in to change the fortunes of a team that was fast falling behind their major rivals.
And how about this. If United of today were to win the only cup competition they are in, The FA Cup (excluding replays), they will have only competed in 45 games come May – the exact same number of games that Atkinson’s Reds completed in that very 81/82 season.
So is this just a strange coincidence or is there anything we can learn from one of the most forgettable seasons in United’s recent history?
Well it’s fair to say that the new boss back then hardly got off to a flying start either.
When Dave Sexton’s five year tenure at the club, which was pockmarked by disappointing days against the club’s closest rivals, costly signings and a direct and dour form of football, came to an end, the club turned to Ron Atkinson to turn around its fortunes.
But any optimistic Reds fans that turned up that August with an over-healthy sense of anticipation would soon be brought down to earth with a heavy bump thanks to a shockingly poor start to the league campaign.
In fact, it wasn’t until mid-September that United chalked up their first win, thanks to a 1-0 home success over Swansea following league defeats to Coventry and Ipswich and draws with Forest and Aston Villa.
And rather like Van Gaal’s side of today, the team contained plenty of ageing stars and players that were living on the glories of yesteryear.
Similarly, if not winning wasn’t bad enough, one of the biggest concerns was United lack of creativity and all round impotence in front of goal – the team only scored 59 goals all season.
Knowing just the man for the job Ron Atkinson turned to his old skipper at West Brom to reverse the team’s fortunes and inject a little magic into his side, as Bryan Robson became a United player and legend-to-be by signing on the pitch for a British record fee of £1.5 million before the game with Wolves on October 3rd 1981.
“Buying this boy isn’t a gamble,” said Atkinson at a typically champagne drenched press conference.
“He’s pure gold.”
No United fan needed telling otherwise.
To say Robson’s impact was immediate would be ludicrous, even though he sat in the stand to watch his new team mates romp to a 5-0 win, which featured a hat-trick from the player Robson would ultimately replace, Sammy McIlroy.
But the team and the fans had a player that they felt would galvanise a tired and lacklustre team that was short of confidence and light on ideas – how right they were.
“Big Ron” would also splash out on Robson’s Albion team mate Remi Moses for £500, 000 in a spending spree that would land United with something of a reputation they would struggle to shake off in later years.
But like today, there was still a desire to give youth a chance amid multi-million pound record signings, and the 1981/82 season will be remembered for giving birth to another United legend amid the big name transfers.
A young 17 year old from Belfast called Norman Whiteside made a substitute appearance at Brighton on 24 April 1982 in a 1-0 league win at the Goldstone Ground to become United’s youngest first team player since Duncan Edwards.
Not all bad news then.
In terms of cup success things couldn’t have been much worse. Like this year United crashed out at the first hurdle in the league cup when they lost to Spurs and as for the FA Cup, they went out to Watford in the third round.
So all-in-all, 1981/82 was one of the poorest seasons for the club in the past 35 years or so. But football is cyclical, we all know that, and teams are constantly reinventing themselves, rebuilding and facing new challenges.
And as for the positives, well they are few and far between in all honesty. But the introduction of the man who would captain the club for the next 12 years will always be something that Reds everywhere cherish to this day.
Oh, and what about the league that season?
United finished third in what was to be the first of five consecutive top four finishes under Atkinson.
Suddenly it doesn’t look so bad, does it?