In the autumn of 1986, Manchester United was a club skulking in its own shadow. Fresh from a 4-1 reverse at Southampton, the Reds languished in the top flight’s relegation zone a year after being apparent title shoo-ins. With the club’s demands of excellence scarcely realised since Sir Matt Busby’s abdication, the United board recognised the time for change had again arrived.
In five years at the helm, manager Ron Atkinson had won two FA Cups and had never finished below fourth in the league, but it was Big Ron’s inability to top second spot which proved his undoing.
“Manchester United is a club with exceptionally high standards,” recalls then-chairman Martin Edwards, now the Reds’ honourary life president. “Ron had been with us five seasons and had done reasonably well, but it started to go wrong the season before we decided to make the change. After the game at Southampton I think we were 21st in the league, so we had a meeting on the plane on the way back to Manchester and we all decided it was the right thing to do at the time.
“It was very difficult to tell Ron, because he hadn’t been a failure and he was very enthusiastic, and it’s never an easy job telling a manager that you want him to leave. That bit was difficult, but making the actual decision for the right reasons wasn’t difficult.”
The previous campaign had started with 10 straight league wins, but had sputtered out long before the Reds juddered over the line in fourth place. Understandably, the early months of the 1986/87 season had been soundtracked by incremental discontent on the terraces, while Atkinson was repeatedly subjected to questions about his future in the media.
The list of potential replacements had been drawn up long before the axe fell. The Guardian’s Frank Keating named the contenders as Brian Clough, Howard Kendall, Don Howe and even Bryan Robson in a