United have a long and interesting history of football kits that the club have used sparingly, a few used only the one time for a testimonial game or a cup final. I’m talking about those kits where there has been a visible but subtle difference to the kit, usually on the shirt. I can’t be 100% certain but as far as my research can tell me the first time this happened in United’s history was in 1903, as a show of respect by the club following the passing of Alex Bell’s father. Bell was a Scottish wing half for United who was at United for ten years from 1903 to 1913, playing a total of 278 games for Manchester United. He was signed from Ayr Parkhouse, the same Ayr Parkhouse that in 1910 merged with Ayr FC to form Ayr United. At that time United had been playing in the famous red white and black for a couple of years, those colours succeeding the old home colours of a white shirt and navy blue shorts and socks. To respectfully mark the passing of Bell’s father United chose to play in a kit consisting of a black and white striped shirt with white shorts and black socks for a game with Ashton United of Ashton in Makerfield, a neighbouring club playing their football in the Lancashire Combination. Another example of the changed kit occurred in the early 1960’s when United turned out for a Charity Shield match, that day United played in all blue shirt with white shorts and red and white socks. Testimonials often feature a shirt with added text on the shirt, usually with the name of the person whose testimonial it is and the date of the game. Paul McStay’s Testimonial is one example when United played Glasgow Celtic during the December of 1995. One of the more celebrated examples of the changed shirt of Manchester United came during the close season of the 1983 – 1984 season when United had team photos taken with the players wearing the red shirt with “FA Cup Winners 1983” emblazoned just under the club crest.
Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United were a team filled with some the great players of Manchester United of the modern era, no question about that at all. Top of the class has to Bryan Robson, team captain of United for years who easily earned himself legendary status not only at Manchester United but also for English football and world football per se. Robbo was born in Chester – Le – Street in County Durham, only 7 miles or so from Newcastle.
As a teenager he had a number of trials, namely with Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry City and West Bromwich Albion to name three. During the summer of 1972 the young Robson accepted the offer of the then West Bromwich Albion manager Don Howe; the offer consisted of a two year apprenticeship with the Midlands club. Robson made his debut for WBA during a reserve match against Everton reserves during the 1973 – 1974 season. Back then the Baggies suffered relegation to Division Two just as the young Robson was at the beginning of his stay at WBA. Don Howe’s tenure as team manager was soon to come to an end. Up until the arrival of Ron Atkinson in 1978 the Baggies would have a succession of managers who would only stay for a short time. Former WBA striker Brian Whitehouse was brought in to replace Don Howe in the April of 1975; however Whitehouse himself was replaced by Jonny Giles, the former Manchester United player who was already turning out for WBA in midfield. Giles was player manager for WBA for a couple of years. Despite all this managerial upheaval the Baggies managed to gain promotion back to the First Division at the end of the 1976 – 1977 season, however the game of managerial musical chairs at The Hawthorns was not yet over, in the summer of 1977 in came Ronnie Allen, Allen was another former WBA player having been at the club as a centre forward from 1950 to 1961. Allen was only WBA team boss for a few months, himself being replaced during the Christmas of 1977 by John Wile. A native of Durham like Robson, Wile would enjoy a 13 year stay at WBA. However, Wile’s tenure as team manager lasted only days, being replaced by Ron Atkinson in the January of 1978. Whilst all the managerial change was going on the young Robson was working his way up at WBA, by the time Ronnie Allen was installed as team boss Robson was a regular face in the Baggies first team. However it wasn’t until Atkinson’s arrival that Robson was come to prominence. Atkinson soon got to work at Albion brining in new signings and breathing new life into the side. Robson wasn’t the only emerging star at the club back then, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham were making waves alongside established stars such as Tony Brown and Len Cantello. West Brom were resurgent under Atkinson, the club enjoying good results in Europe and recording good finishing positions in the First Division, they had also given United a bloody nose at Old Trafford winning by five goals to three. Meanwhile, Dave Sexton had recently taken over the manager’s job at United from Tommy Docherty, unfortunately for United and Dave, United didn’t really kick on from the much improved form following promotion back to the First Division after a season in the Second Division. Yes, United reached an FA Cup final in 1979 but it wasn’t enough to save Dave his job, he was sacked by the United board of directors during the April of 1981, an impressive end to that season was too little too late for Sexton. Sexton would be offered the manager’s job at Coventry City and after witnessing what Atkinson had done at WBA, the United board of directors turned to Ron Atkinson to fill the vacant manager’s job at Old Trafford. On the 9th of June 1981 Ron Atkinson was announced as the new team manager of the Red Devils. The United board wanted to bring back the old playing traditions of the club, quick attacking football, exciting and entertaining to watch, the kind of football encouraged and demanded by Sir Matt Busby and brought back by Tommy Docherty, the conservative and unadventurous football played by Sexton’s United just wasn’t the United way. Surprising really, when you think of the players that Dave Sexton had at his disposal, it has you scratching your head as to why United had looked for the majority of the time so pedestrian.
Atkinson soon got busy with the cheque book at Old Trafford bringing in combative midfielder Remi Moses from his old club. Remi was a very welcome addition to the team, a local boy from Miles Platting who grew up a United fan he would go on to serve United very well indeed. Only days later Ron raided his old employers again bringing in Bryan Robson for a then record fee of £1.5 million early in the October of 1981; we’ve all seen the famous photograph of Ron, Robbo and the then club Chairman Martin Edwards sat at a table on the Old Trafford pitch with club secretary Les Olive standing just behind them. I was in the Stretford End that day, a young kid witnessing the arrival of a soon to be club legend who had come in to the club to replace an outgoing club legend in Sammy McIlroy. Sammy would soon sign for Stoke City after being at United since 1971, an ever present workhorse in midfield all the way through the 1970’s being part of a side that had suffered relegation and surged back to the top flight in magnificent style. Winning silverware, playing in big European games, sharing in the highs and lows with the United fans, Sammy was the quintessential United player. Robson has often been asked about that day, becoming a United player on the pitch right before the 5 – 0 rout of Wolverhampton Wanderers with Sammy Mac scoring a hat trick, when asked about it talking to the clubs website, he said…
“It was definitely the chairman, Martin Edwards, who came up with the idea for me to sign for Manchester United on the pitch. I was a little embarrassed about it and asked: “Can we not do it a bit quieter and let me just sign the contract and watch the match?”. But the chairman had it in his mind that he wanted me and Ron Atkinson to go onto the pitch and sign in front of the fans. I think it was meant to give the fans a bit of a boost. My transfer fee was one-and-a-half-million pounds and the club wanted to publicise it and show the fans we were making a real go of it. If you notice the gold pen in the photo - that was obviously Ron's! As for my permed hair, that was all the craze in those days. Some of the Liverpool players got me into it, like Graeme Souness and Terry McDermott. I used to go for a pint with Terry Mac now and again so I had a bit of influence from them. I'll always remember the media on the day of the match were all going on about Bryan Robson signing for United and how it would lead to Sammy McIlroy leaving the club. We played Wolves that day and I sat in the stand and watched as we won I was thinking, 'Flipping heck, I'm going to have to be some player here to replace him!' After the game, I said to Sammy: “Congratulations - and thanks a lot. No pressure on me now is there?” Signing for United was, of course, a great moment for me. Even then, it was one of the biggest clubs in the world. It probably is the biggest now with the fanbase, commercial aspects and the trophies won over the years. Joining the club was the right choice for me and I had a great time here as a player.”’
Robson made his United debut about a week after his signing during a 1 – 0 League Cup defeat at White Hart Lane, his league debut came against neighbours Manchester City, the game finishing goalless. That game with City was the first time Robson wore the number 7 shirt, a shirt he would go on to make his own, the shirt he would become synonymous with, not only for United but also for England. Robson would go on to put in many brilliant games for United, the Cup Winner’s Cup game with Barcelona is one that easily springs to mind. Trailing 2 – 0 on aggregate Robson captained United to a magnificent come back at Old Trafford against Diego Maradonna’s Barcelona during the spring of 1984. Another FA Cup winner from 1983 was United Great Mike Duxbury. Duxbury was originally from nearby Accrington in Lancashire. The defender signed for United on school boy terms in 1975 and would spend 14 years in the first team squad at Old Trafford. Kevin Moran was a centre back to fear for opposing teams, on the pitch Moran would soon gain a reputation for going in where angels fear to tread. The downside to that being he would often sustain injury. In goal was Gary Bailey, the son of former Ipswich goalkeeper Roy Bailey. Although born in Ipswich Gary grew up in South Africa, he arrived at United in 1978, coming in as a replacement for United legend Alex Stepney who was coming to the end of his career. Bailey would make nearly 300 appearances for United, not only winning an FA Cup in 1983 but also in 1985. Partnering Kevin Moran in the centre back role was Gordon McQueen.
McQueen began his career in Paisley, Scotland, at St Mirren. The towering 6ft 3 defender was brought to United in 1978 for a fee of around £495,000. Gordon is famous for his fantastic quote…
“99% of players want to play for Manchester United and the rest are liars.”
Playing in the left back position in the 1983 FA Cup final was Arthur Albiston, another player who would prove an excellent servant for Manchester United. Albiston began his professional career as an apprentice at Old Trafford, making his debut in a League Cup match against Manchester City. Arthur was a member of the Division Two title winning side in 1975 and went on to win another FA Cup winners medal in 1985. Accompanying Robbo in midfield was Dutch master Arnold Muhren, Ray Wilkins and Alan Davies. Our midfield was world class back then, absolutely no question about that at all. Muhren came from a footballing family; his brother Gerrie is an Ajax and Holland legend. Muhren began his career with Ajax where his brother was already an established star of the team. Whilst at Ajax Arnold picked up a clutch of winner’s medals including two Dutch titles, a European cup winner’s medal and a European Cup winner’s medal after he went back to Ajax after leaving United. The guy was world class from top to bottom; along with Robson Muhren was by far the most accomplished midfielder during his time in the English game. Ray Wilkins was a class act, all day long. Wilkins was born in Hillingdon west London and spent the first six years of his career at Chelsea. Wilkins arrived at United in 1979 still waiting to get his hands on some silverware, his six years at Chelsea yielding no winner’s medals. All that would change for Wilkins in 1983. Mancunian Alan Davies was at United from 1978 until 1985, he was a respected and capable midfielder, particularly good on either wing, tragically he committed suicide in 1992. Playing up front for United in the 1983 FA Cup final was Frank Stapleton and Norman Whiteside. Frank had actually tasted FA Cup final success previously with Arsenal in 1979, beating Manchester United with virtually the last kick of the game or in this case, the last header of the game as Alan Sunderland’s winning effort broke United hearts. I’ve only cried twice in my life where footballs concerned, the first time was when Alan Sunderland’s header won the cup for Arsenal back in ’79; the other time was when we beat Barcelona in the Cup Winner’s Cup final in Rotterdam. Yeah, that ’79 final was a tough one for United fans.
Frank was yet another class act on the pitch, believe it or not but Stapleton had already been turned down by United as a young trialist; however our loss was Arsenals gain as he signed apprenticeship forms for the North London team in 1972. Atkinson brought Frank to Old Trafford in 1981 for a fee of £900,000 and Stapleton quickly settled into life in Manchester and during his 6 years at Old Trafford proved himself, as I’ve already said, a class act on the pitch. Norman Whiteside is another name you put on the list of class acts of Manchester United, however that doesn’t even begin to tell half of Norman’s story. Big Norm was born in Belfast in 1965, growing up on the Shankill Road. United fans would go on to christen Norman “The Shankill Skinhead”. Even as a kid Whiteside was drawing attention to himself for his football skills. Bob Bishop, the United scout who also “discovered” Sammy McIlroy and George Best for United had unearthed another diamond in Norman Whiteside. Norman often got himself in the record books, youngest player to play in the world cup, youngest player to score for United, youngest player to score in the League Cup final and the youngest player to score in the FA Cup final, all records he still holds today.
On the subs bench for United for the FA Cup final of 1983 was Ashley Grimes. Ashley was another great player to be discovered for United over the Irish Sea, although Ashley’s passage to United wasn’t a quick one. Aged 17 years of age Grimes signed for Dublin club Bohemians, The Gypsies of Irish football. During the summer of 1972 Grimes had a trial with United, maybe it didn’t go to plan as he returned to his Dublin club soon after. Happily though, in 1977 he eventually signed for United for a fee of around £35,000.
As we all know Jimmy Melia’s Brighton &Hove Albion took United to replay back in 1983. The Seagulls actually took the lead in the first game, quite early in the game via a goal by Gordon Smith, thankfully Frank Stapleton leveled the game 10 minutes or so after halftime. Franks goal made him the first player in history to score in the FA Cup final for two different clubs as he netted for Arsenal against United in the 1979 final. Ray Wilkins put United ahead in the game with one of the best goals scored in a cup final by United, a beautifully curling effort from the edge of the box. With only about 3 minutes of the match remaining, Gary Stevens made sure a replay would be needed after equalizing for Brighton. United gave Brighton a bit of a leathering in the replay, winning the game 4 – 0, setting another record for the highest FA Cup final. Robbo did a captains job scoring two with Norman Whiteside and Arnold Muhren getting a goal each, Muhren’s goal coming via a penalty, Brighton came crashing back down to earth that night.
Richard Fenton. August 2018.