December 1984 saw United not doing so well on their travels. They met Nottingham Forest at the City Ground on 8th December and lost 3-2, Gordon Strachan’s brace not enough to earn the reds any points. Then our Boxing Day fixture at the Victoria Ground saw United surprisingly on the end of a 2-1 defeat away at Stoke City with Frank Stapleton grabbing the consolation goal for the reds.
November had already ended with a 3-2 away defeat at Sunderland, so when Atkinson’s side were playing away from Old Trafford that winter, they seemed to be scoring the goals but were leaking even more. Chelsea, who were back the top flight that year as Division Two champions, seemed like the perfect side against whom to exorcise those away day demons.
It was a cold afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Ron Atkinson named a starting line up of 11 full internationals, welcoming back Paul McGrath to the centre of defence alongside Gordon McQueen. Full back Mike Duxbury had filled in at centre back against Stoke, and maybe this more orthodox back four would see United not concede.
Five minutes in to the first half though, it looked like United’s away day blues would continue, with the home side going 1-0 up through new signing Gordon Davies. Davies had scored a hatrick against then leaders Everton in a 4-3 win over the Christmas period, and his new partnership with Kerry Dixon was certainly hotting up.
United needed to fight back. They could only manage a draw against the Division One new boys when they met at Old Trafford the previous September, and needed to do better here.
They grew to force in the first half though, and it was Mark Hughes who drew United level after 23 minutes in what was his 45th appearance for the club.
And it wasn’t long before United would strike again. United’s no-nonsense midfield consisting of Remi Moses and Bryan Robson, the two signings Atkinson made from his former club West Bromwich Albion three years earlier were to play a huge part in United getting a grip on this game. Robson had already set up Hughes for the equaliser and he was to do his midfield partner the same favour three minutes later. A nice feed from the England captain allowing Moses to put United in front in style.
Lester Shapter of Torquay was the man in the middle, and former United winger Mickey Thomas was starring for Chelsea as they tried to force an equaliser. Shapter would be called in to action midway through the second half, separating a fighting Remi Moses and Mickey Thomas. A lunging tackle on Thomas was followed up by an exchange of punches to the face and grabbing of necks…both players stayed on the pitch.
United had fallen from leading positions 10 times already in the 84/85 season, but it wasn’t to be this time and the game was wrapped up in the 63rd minute. Frank Stapleton put the Reds 3-1 up after a bit of a scramble in the goalmouth, and with less than half an hour to go all three points were in the bag.
Chelsea’s misery was complete when Kerry Dixon missed from the spot in front of the 42,000 spectators 10 minutes from time.
United finished the year in 3rd place. On the same day Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, who occupied 1st and 2nd place respectively, both won as well so although United failed to make up any ground on the leaders, they kept themselves firmly in the picture, and put their recent disappointing away form behind them.