Such was the intensity of Manchester United’s thrilling comeback against Barcelona on March 21, 1984, those that were there still claim to this day that the ground was actually shaking with excitement.
Liverpool may have been the top dogs in English football back in the 1980s, as well as dominating on the continent, but when it came to producing drama and excitement there were few sides better than Manchester United under their flamboyant manager Ron Atkinson.
Atkinson had taken over from the somewhat dour Dave Sexton in 1981, relieving Reds fans of almost five years of turgid and at times trying football which had bored most United regulars to tears despite an FA Cup final appearance and a second-place finish in the league.
His impact was infectious and just two years after his arrival United had won their first silverware for six years by beating convincingly beating Brighton & Hove Albion 4-0 in the FA Cup final replay after a far less comfortable 2-2 draw in the first game.
And with the glory of a first domestic trophy since 1977 came the opportunity to play in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, seen by many as Europe’s second club competition behind the European Champions’ Cup in a pre-Champions League era.
United were no strangers to big European nights, having been pioneers of continental competition under Matt Busby in the late 1950s, and the club’s finest hour – the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley in 1968 – was still fresh in the memory of many Reds some 16 years later.
Having exited the FA Cup at the first hurdle following a shock defeat to Bournemouth and lagging some way behind Liverpool in the title race, the Cup Winners’ Cup provided United with a welcome distraction. They progressed to the Quarter-Finals with wins over Dukla Prague and Sparta Varna to set up an appetising encounter with Barcelona with some supporters daring to dream of European glory once more.
However, after a humbling defeat in front of a 100,000 crowd at the Nou Camp, courtesy of a Graeme Hogg own goal and a thunderbolt from Juan Carlos Rojo, few of the those attending the second-leg gave the Reds a chance of overturning the deficit against one of the greatest sides of the time.
Barcelona, led by César Luis Menotti, the World Cup winning Argentinian coach, had a host of household names in that side, including Bernd Schuster and a certain Diego Maradona; who was viewed by many as the greatest player in the game and had signed for a record fee of £5million following the 1982 World Cup.
But the star of that Manchester night was one of United’s great ever heroes, captain Bryan Robson who was instrumental in orchestrating one of the greatest comebacks in the club’s history and at his swashbuckling best took the game to the Catalan giants from the start.
In the 22nd minute United won a corner at the Scoreboard End and sensing their opponents were rattled after an early mix-up from ‘keeper Urruticoechea sent the big guns up to cause maximum mayhem in the visitor’s box and as Ray Wilkins swung a cross in from the left, central defender Graeme Hogg flicked the ball on to Robson who nodded home on the line.
The noise inside Old Trafford was more of a scream than a cheer as 58,000 Reds sensed that the most unlikely of comebacks imaginable was well and truly possible while their opponents looked-on in disbelief; a tame shot from Maradona just before half-time was their only meaningful response.
If Barcelona looked shaken in the first period they became more rattled in the second and committing footballing suicide with 50 minutes on the clock as a series of nervous looking interchanges ultimately led to United’s equalizer.
Hassling and harrying their opponents United forced the Barca defence into a game of keep-ball on the edge of their own box and it was only a matter of time before a loose back pass was spilled by Urruticoechea before falling to Remi Moses whose low cross was eventually turned-home by Robson again after another howler from the ‘keeper.
If the first goal had prompted mass scenes of celebration the equalizer cranked things up to an even higher level but the Old Trafford faithful barely had time to catch their breath before United were on the attack again.
A minute later, with the atmosphere now incredible, a rampant United swept forward again through Bryan Robson and after Norman Whiteside headed an Arthur Albiston cross straight into the path of Frank Stapleton, the Irishman fired home United’s third: “It’s a glorious night for Manchester United!” screamed ITV commentator Martin Tyler.
It was indeed a glorious night and surely the club’s greatest since winning the European Cup in 1968, it was also the first time ever that Barcelona had been defeated after holding a two-goal lead going into the second-leg of a European tie.
The victory sparked mass scenes of celebrations as fans poured onto the pitch from all sides and United’s Captain Marvel himself, Bryan Robson, was hoisted shoulder high and carried off the pitch.
“I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.” United’s full-back that night, Arthur Albiston, told The Guardian some years later. “I didn’t think the crowd would be able to keep it up for 90 minutes but we were lucky enough to score goals at exactly the right time.”
Bryan Robson, the man who arguably orchestrated one of the most magnificent fight-backs of all time claimed it was: “The best atmosphere I have ever witnessed at Old Trafford,” while United Boss Ron Atkinson told reporters: “That was one of the great Old Trafford nights, that’s what European football is really about.”
United would eventually bow-out of the competition at the Semi-Final stage, going down to Michel Platini and Juventus; but for those who were there on the night of March 21, 1984, it remains one of the most memorable nights of their lives and one which is still spoken about enthusiastically now as it was back then.
Article written by: Matthew Crist