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Remembering Leicester: when it all went wrong for Big Ron

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Come back in time to the 1980s, when United were leading the first division, and Ron Atkinson was surely set for the title ...

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Welcome to a new, occasional series in which tBB revisits a old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, Leicester, and a defeat that presaged one of the great collapses ...

Should anybody be writing columns like this twenty years from now — if they have the time between their double-shifts down the mines under the unblinking, multi-faceted supervision of our new insect overlords — then chances are Leicester City 5-3 Manchester United will crop up at some point. Angel di Maria! Radamel Falcao! A back four! And five conceded?! Who would have known, back then, that Louis van Gaal would go on to win four consecutive Champions Leagues?

But it's only been a few months since that inexplicable collapse, so it doesn't really work for our purposes. Instead, let's amble backwards twenty years, to the previous time Leicester overturned United at home. November 23, 1985, and a 3-0 nil defeat that, like its modern reenactment, didn't make a huge amount of sense.

United began the 1985/86 season like a train, except a train that was really good at football, so not much like a train at all. The campaign began with ten straight victories and, by the time November rolled around, United were ten points clear of Liverpool and unbeaten through fifteen games; they'd scored 35 goals and conceded just six. They were, in short, flying; another thing, like football, for which trains are very poorly designed.

However, perfection's a wearying business and, by the time the trip to Leicester's venerable Filbert Street rolled around, United had encountered something decidedly hiccup-like. A first defeat of the season came on November 9, 1-0 away at Sheffield Wednesday, and though that was hardly a disaster — Wednesday were a decent side, in third at the time — it was followed up with a nil-nil at home to Tottenham. United, all of a sudden, had gone from a team scoring three a game to two blanks in a row, and that ten point lead was down to five. Still, a trip to 19th place Leicester looked like a good opportunity to get things back on track. (Trains run on tracks! We can save this cliche yet!)

It wasn't to be. Rather like their present-day counterparts, United defended like a collection of clanking buffoons, though this time they didn't even have the good manners to score a few first. After just six minutes, a young Gary McAllister jinked his way through the United defence to open the scoring. Then, just a few minutes later, Graeme Hogg decided that this was a good moment to pass the ball back to Gary Bailey in goal:

leicester backpass

We're not sure if it's the worst backpass of all time, but we're struggling to look beyond it. Alan Smith, later of Arsenal and the Sky Sports studio, was so surprised that he hit the post with his first attempt, though sadly not the second. Two down after 13 minutes, and the best team in the country were falling apart. The third — Smith again — came after yet more questionable defending, and the result added up to what the Times called "the latest manifestation of Manchester United's new-found frailty". Meanwhile Liverpool, away at Birmingham City, were coasting to victory:

To Manchester United it must seem like a nightmare: the faster they try to run, the more bogged down they become, while the red monster gets ever nearer. Now he is within touching distance, two points behind.

Like Louis van Gaal (reportedly) some twenty years later, Atkinson and his squad followed up a defeat with a barney; Smith later recalled that United were "locked in Filbert Street's away dressing room for a good hour as the riot act was read". It didn't do much good, though. Two days later, United exited the Milk Cup after a 2-1 defeat at Anfield. In the league, though they held on to the top spot until the end of January, they eventually finished in a disappointing fourth, behind West Ham, Everton, and champions Liverpool. Having won ten in a row, Atkinson's men didn't manage to put together more than two consecutive wins for the rest of the season; the bullet train reduced to a stopping service.

As to why everything fell apart, well, that depends who you ask. Bryan Robson blamed a raft of injuries, including a twisted ankle for Remi Moses and a hamstring, picked up on England duty, for the captain himself. Frank Stapleton blamed the playing surface at home — "the Old Trafford pitch was gone by November and that affected how we played" — and also pointed to Liverpool's remorseless, relentless pursuit. As for Atkinson, he later lamented the one missing piece of the jigsaw:

The only thing missing was a truly instinctive predator. Stapleton, unquestionably, was an impressive line-leader, arguably the best centre-forward in the land for a time. Young Hughes was very similar, a link-man and linchpin of the attack who created the spaces for other people. Neither was, though, the out-and-out goal poacher I felt we needed. [...] Oh, for a Lineker. A footballer able to turn candidates into champions.

Atkinson, so the story goes, offered his resignation to the board in spring of 1986 once it became clear that United were out of the title race, though he changed his mind over the summer and decided he had one more campaign in him. Whether the board agreed isn't entirely clear — Atkinson later recalled being told over the summer of 1986 that Alex Ferguson had already been approached, and the money for transfers mysteriously dried up — but, either way, come next November United were in the relegation zone, and he was gone. Fortunately, Ferguson turned out to be something more than just a rail replacement bus service.