United made a poor start to the 1980's. Following an early FA Cup exit to Spurs and a First Division hammering at Ipswich, however, Dave Sexton and his team recovered to win eight of their last ten league games, and finish just two points behind Liverpool in the title race.
United produced another blistering finish at the end of the following season, 1980/81, when they won their last seven league games in a row. This time, however, they could only finish eighth in the table – a position which the club's board could not tolerate. Sexton was sacked on 30 April 1981, after four seasons in the hotseat.
Sexton’s replacement Ron Atkinson brought in Mick Brown as assistant manager and Eric Harrison as youth coach. But it was his on-the-field acquisitions that really excited the fans. He broke the British transfer record to recruit Bryan Robson from his old club West Bromwich Albion for £1.5m and he spent around a third of that again to add another ex-Albion man, Remi Moses, to the United squad.
In midfield the new arrivals wonderfully complemented the finesse of Ray Wilkins, the ball-playing England star. But still there was something missing. United needed a forward who could match the strike rate of Ian Rush at Liverpool, who again won the Championship in 1982, 1983 and 1984. Atkinson’s men were never far behind, finishing third or fourth in every season of his reign. But they were never that close either.
The domestic cups offered United their best chances of silverware, and in 1983, they reached Wembley in both competitions. Liverpool beat them 2-1 after extra-time to win the Milk (League) Cup, while little-fancied Brighton and Hove Albion were beaten in two attempts in the FA Cup final. A shock 2-2 draw was followed up by a thumping 4-0 win for United through goals from Robson (2), Arnold Muhren and Norman Whiteside.
Whiteside’s habit of rising to the big occasion was never more gratefully received than in 1985, when he curled in the only goal of the FA Cup Final to beat Everton 1-0. United had earlier been reduced to ten men by the dismissal of Kevin Moran, who formed a great defensive partnership in the 1980’s with Paul McGrath.
It was Atkinson’s second FA Cup success in three seasons, but eighteen months later he was sacked for his inability to break Merseyside’s monopoly of the League Championship. Not even ten straight wins at the start of 1985/86 could lead him to the Holy Grail.
In November 1986, United at last appointed a proven winner. At Aberdeen, Alex Ferguson had claimed every prize that Scotland had to offer, not to mention the added bonus of the European Cup Winners Cup when his team defied the odds to beat Real Madrid!
Fergie clearly had the talent for the job, but he also needed time to turn United round. The club remained patient as