The problem when it comes to looking back at classic United versus Chelsea encounters prior to the mid-1990s is that there aren’t actually that many games that stick in the memory.
Yes, in recent seasons Sky and ITV have salivated each time the two big Premier League heavyweights have met in title deciders, cup ties and European clashes in a rivalry also intensified by big spending and even bigger egos on both sides.
But in the 1970s and 80s, such a fixture generated little interest among those outside Manchester or London, on the pitch at least.
This was mostly due to a combination of Chelsea yo-yoing between the first and second division at the time, and United being involved in a dour battle with mid-table obscurity on an almost annual basis.
Never more was this apathy evident than when the two clashed on September 28th 1986 in front of a live TV audience.
The 1986/87 season couldn’t have begun worse for United. Having lost their first three games of the campaign, including a 1-0 defeat to Charlton, which Ron Atkinson described as “pathetic,” a 5-1 win at home to Southampton gave some Reds hope that the corner had been turned. Only for a 1-0 defeat to Watford would soon bring everyone down to earth, as well as United to the depths of the First Division table.
And in the first of two consecutive live Sunday afternoon TV games that September (a rarity back then) United were beaten 3-1 at Goodison Park and never looked like getting anything out of the game with the team that would go on to win the league.
So the following week when ITV’s Big Match cameras arrived at Old Trafford to televise the encounter with Chelsea, who themselves weren’t fairing to well in the league, the nationwide audience could hardly be accused of being served up an appetising lunchtime encounter.
United had beaten Port Vale a few days earlier in the Littlewoods Cup in a game which saw skipper Bryan Robson miss a penalty, but confidence was far from high going into this one.
And as for Chelsea, they had been hit for six at home to Nottingham Forest in their last game. Maybe that’s why a crowd of just over 33,000 bothered to turn up?
With Brian Moore claiming both sides were on the brink of a crisis as the teams lined up to get the game underway being, TV viewers could well have been excused for reaching for the remote.
However, what was about to unfold was to be more of a memorable encounter than most people watching could have ever expected.
In a season that had seen United struggle to score goals, Atkinson persevered with his combination of Davenport and Stapleton up front, while relying on Whiteside, Moses, Strachan and Robson to supply the creative flair that had so far been lacking.
But after just 2 minutes they found themselves in the familiar position of being a goal behind when Old Trafford nemesis Kerry Dixon latched onto a through ball and slotted his shot past Chris Turner with a defence containing Kevin Moran and Paul McGrath left looking on.
If anything the early goal seemed to spur United on and, as toothless as they were up front, at times they had Chelsea pinned in their own half, who offered little in the way of chances.
But it was mid way through the second half that the game came to life in a bizarre three minute spell.
Having thrown tricky winger Jesper Olsen into the fray to partner Gordon Strachan in a two pronged attack down both wings, it could be claimed that the Dane made something of an immediate impact – but for all the wrong reasons.
After United’s umpteenth corner of the game something of a scramble ensued in the Chelsea six yard box which eventually saw Peter Davenport lash the ball into the roof of the net, only for referee George Courtney to rule out the effort, but point to the spot instead.
The decision seemed harsh on both sides. United had, been awarded a penalty, yet had a goal chalked off, while goalkeeper Tony Godden, who had barely touched Bryan Robson, had been found guilty of shoving the England skipper.
Either way, a penalty it was and as the Stretford End prepared to celebrate a certain goal, which many thought would be the first of many that day, even commentator Bryan Moore told the nation how Ron Atkinson had recently claimed “there was no better penalty taker in the world than Jesper Olsen.”
But after what seemed an eternity as players argued, were subsequently booked and referee Courtney made sure the ball was placed correctly on the spot, Olsen pushed his penalty at Godden so softly the keeper could have thrown his cap on it.
“Nothing goes right for United!” exclaimed Moore, as amateur statisticians everywhere reached for their history books to see if a player had ever missed a penalty with his first touch of a game.
But before they had the chance to find the answer another United player found himself being toppled in the box, yes, you’ve guessed it, Jesper Olsen. Mr Courtney was again in no doubt and pointed defiantly to the spot.
Olsen’s reputation as the “best penalty taker in the world” was obviously not shared by his team mates, because as the little winger was still picking himself up off the ground, Gordon Strachan was demanding the ball and marching towards the spot.
But unbelievably the result was to be the same, this time Godden throwing himself to his right to push the Scot’s weak effort round the post.
And as Bryan Moore roared “You would not believe it, how can you miss three penalties in a week?” into his microphone, the excitable commentator’s words were being echoed by flabbergasted United fans around the ground and indeed the country.
Bizarrely, prior to the match Ron Atkinson had claimed in his programme notes that his team had been unlucky thus far and it wasn’t unthinkable for them to win their next ten games and propel themselves up the table.
But as the final whistle sounded on a breathless yet fruitless encounter for ‘Big Ron’ and his players and the near half-empty stadium cleared, everyone that witnessed the game knew the performance was typical of this bit-part United team, and rather than mounting a title challenge, a relegation battle would be the more likely outcome that autumn.
Like Brian Moore had said in commentary, nothing had gone United’s way, but everyone knew this wasn’t down to bad fortune and something needed to change.
Just five weeks later change it did. Atkinson’s luck finally came to an end as United replaced the larger than life character with Alex Ferguson.
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