Mark Nevin’s book A Deeper Shade of Red tells the story of United in the seventies and eighties from the perspective of a United fan surrounded by Liverpool supporters. In this extract, Mark looks at the Atkinson period and, in particular, the emergence of three players who would come to define the United way more than anyone had for a generation.
It was the introduction of Robson, Whiteside and Hughes to United that, for me, raised the tenure of Atkinson above the level of his immediate predecessors in terms of his role in restoring the identity of United to what it once was. These three were the first United players in a generation to look the real deal in terms of genuinely embodying the club’s true identity and heritage. Robson was like Stiles, Crerand and Charlton rolled into one, equally at home winning the ball on the edge of his own box, making devastating runs to set up attacks and getting decisively on the end of the ball in the opposition area.
Inevitably compared with Best because of his Northern Ireland background and the fact he arrived in the first team at such a young age, Whiteside was actually the least convincing of all of the supposed ‘new George Bests’ we’d seen coming and going at the club and therefore perhaps more immune to the burdens the comparison brought with it than the rest. He became United’s youngest debutant since Duncan Edwards when, as a sixteen year old, he appeared in the first team towards the end of the 1981/82 season before going on to represent Northern Ireland at that summer’s World Cup, breaking Pele’s record as the youngest ever player to appear in the competition.
Initially a forward who converted to a highly combative midfielder, Whiteside even at times surpassed Robson as public enemy number one in the United side during a period in which detestation by Liverpool supporters reached new heights, not only for the robust style of his play but also because of his frequent match winners against the Anfield club in a period in which opportunities for me to put the record straight among Liverpool fans in the pub became gratifyingly regular. ‘A merry Christmas to everyone, with the usual exception of Norman Whiteside,’ said John Peel at the start of his Boxing Day show in 1986, after big Norm had grabbed the winner at Anfield.
The third of the triumvirate, Mark Hughes, emerged from the ranks in 1983/84, and quickly established himself as United’s first genuinely prolific goalscorer since Denis Law, with 25 goals in the 84/85 season and a further 20 in 85/86.
However well these players performed it seemed that no one with an affiliation with Liverpool were willing to depart from the party line that it was simply impossible for United to have a good player. Prejudice is easy. You just stick to the default position and dismiss every piece of contradictory evidence by pointing to selected refereeing decisions, claims of a biased media, a crap England manager or a combination of all three. One Liverpool supporter said to me, completely seriously, that he’d never seen a United goal that was legitimate – that every time we put it in the net it was due to an overlooked foul or something the referee had let go further down the pitch. Seriously. Absolutely deadpan.
When you’re dealing with that kind of individual, logic goes flying out of the window. The reason United’s eventual years of success hit them so hard was that they dismissed every possible sign of it in this way and therefore its eventual arrival was as tumultuous an event as the end of apartheid or the coming down of the Berlin Wall, while they sat there with their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘la, la, la’ with their half and half hats on and history crashing all around them.
Those years of success may have been still some way off, but if the history of United and Manchester teaches us anything it’s that nothing comes about without long-term commitment and belief and that the individual who is, rightly, praised for bringing it about often has someone in the years before them who did a lot of the preparatory work. For Busby, read Gibson. For Ferguson, it’s a more controversial claim but for me, read Atkinson. And for the most vivid sign of our future success look no further than that triumvirate of Robson, Hughes and Whiteside.
What was significant about the emergence of these three players, and the real reason – I believe -for the abnormal levels of vilification of each of them among Liverpool fans, was that they not only represented the true spirit of Manchester United, but all possessed attributes hitherto either unseen or very rare in the English game. Liverpool, with their emphasis on systems and functionality, found a team fired up by key individuals in a way that United had been back in the great days of the fifties and sixties completely alien and indeed threatening. And because fear and ignorance are always fertile breeding grounds for prejudice and intolerance, the level that the Munich taunts reached during that period became predictably deafening. The more they won, the more they seemed to become more unhappy about us, football and life in general.
While Robson’s detractors saw him as no more than a caricature of the over-physical, energetic and ultimately one-dimensional English midfielder, United fans saw beyond that and understood a player who combined a whole range of elements that would provide a model for the box to box midfielder for the English game of the future. Although they criticised him, Liverpool had their own pale shadow of Robson in Steve McMahon, a player who was to become more and more significant a player in their team as the decade wore on (‘their leader’ Vinnie Jones identified him as, before nobbling him). Robson was the forerunner of players likes Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard, only much better.
The young Whiteside scored goals of a kind never seen from a United player or anyone else, exemplified by his semi-final winner over Arsenal in the 1983 FA Cup and the clincher against Everton in the 1985 final. On both occasions, Whiteside scored from positions that other players wouldn’t try a shot from, and it was this contempt for the training manual as well as his ‘Scourge of the Scousers’ reputation that added Whiteside’s name quickly to the pantheon of United greats. Rather pitifully, those self-proclaimed scouse wits on the Kop couldn’t do any better than label Hughes ‘elbows’, allegedly because he only got where he was by fouling his marker. It’s through such examples of legendary scouse humour that I begin to understand how the likes of Jimmy Tarbuck and Stan Boardman reached such dizzying heights in their profession.
Familiar with pigeonholing players in accordance with established and unchallenged models, it was understandably rare if not entirely beyond the experience of fans of other clubs to witness the emergence of players who would foreshadow genuine changes in the way the game was played.
Robson, like Best, Charlton and Edwards before him, did this and that’s why their influence remains stamped on the game to this day. I saw it etched in the faces of Liverpool fans I’d known for years, whose dismissiveness towards United had turned into outright vilification and irrational hatred. Placed before them was a model of football that they couldn’t understand, that operated by unfamiliar and therefore derided rules. We existed in different realms. Liverpool were science. United were art.
A Deeper Shade of Red is available in paperback from Amazon and in all recognised digital formats here.