United team pic 1981/82.

Why did United only play once in December 1981?

Sunday 12 December 2021 20:00

Manchester United's December campaign, forty years ago, was decimated due to bad weather.

The Reds played only once throughout the entire final month of 1981, at a time when manager Ron Atkinson was hopeful his team could end the long wait for a league title.

Instead, we ended up finishing third with Liverpool's strong second half to the campaign ensuring another championship for the Merseysiders and there was not much Christmas cheer for supporters with so many games falling foul of the big freeze.

Southampton celebrate scoring against the Reds in 1981.

Five days into the month, United were beaten 3-2 at Southampton in a ding-dong battle at The Dell. Frank Stapleton converted a John Gidman cross for the opener, only for Steve Moran and Kevin Keegan to turn things around before the interval. Bryan Robson levelled seven minutes into the second half but David Armstrong claimed a winner at the death for the home side.

Remarkably, the Reds did not play again, competitively, until 2 January 1982. Matches against West Brom and Everton, on Boxing Day, were among those to be postponed. While neighbours Manchester City enjoyed the benefits of undersoil heating, Old Trafford did not have it at the time.

"The big problem for us is that the players are inactive and not getting any match practice," said secretary Les Olive. "But, just like every other club, we are concerned about cash flow, as well as a pile-up of fixtures."

Hibernian's facilities did allow a friendly against Atkinson's men to take place in Edinburgh, with a 1-1 draw watched by a crowd of around 12,000, and the situation did generate debate over a winter break or widespread undersoil heating at grounds.

"I am still not convinced that this is the answer and I believe that football should close down during these bad months," commented Football Association chairman Bert Millichip. "I am not in favour of undersoil heating. If we had that system at The Hawthorns, we would still not have been able to play Manchester United as our car parks are all snowed in and supporters would just not have been able to get into the ground. This is the aspect everybody seems to forget."

The programme cover from United's sole game in December 1981.

United also looked to arrange a friendly with Portsmouth but the long pause in action was never going to be easy to deal with. There were concerns a bumper Boxing Day crowd against Everton at Old Trafford was a big blow financially. More than 40,000 did turn out when it was eventually staged on 6 January but this was some way down on the biggest attendance of the season - 57,830 for the Manchester derby.

At the time, Atkinson had been bullish about our prospects of winning Division One, after topping the table earlier in the campaign.

Responding to City reaching the summit when getting fixtures played due to Maine Road's undersoil heating, he said: "They might be keeping our place warm. I haven't seen a better team than United all season so I am very optimistic about our chances."

United keeper Gary Bailey in action during the FA Cup third-round defeat at Watford.

However, things went south for the Reds, starting in the first game of the new year at Watford in the FA Cup third round. Jan Lohman's goal on the stroke of half-time condemned Atkinson's men to a 1-0 defeat and an early exit in the prestigious competition. Memorably, we would lift the trophy in the following season but the league challenge faded in 1981/82.

United ended up in third, behind runners-up Ipswich Town and champions Liverpool, who were nine points clear of the Reds at the end. Defeats to both those sides in April killed off our hopes and a late run of five wins in the final six games was still not enough.