GROWING up I would spend hours every weekend watching my father’s eclectic collection of football videos. I had my preferred videos which included: highlights of Glenn Hoddle’s career, a 1990 World Cup review, Manchester United’s 1968 Champions League Final victory and a video tribute to Gazza. Though these were among my favourites, none of them held the top spot in my heart. That lofty position was assumed by a classic: Manchester United Vs Barcelona in the second leg of the 1984 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Still to this day, in my mind the video cover shows the two sides’ talismanic players and captains, Bryan Robson and Diego Maradona, staring each other down from the opposite sides of the case, almost like two heavyweight boxing champions facing off at a particularly tense weigh-in. In reality, however, the cover looked nothing like that. Instead, it was a rather benign affair, a typical 80’s video case decorated with extravagant fonts and colours in addition to the now iconic photo of the two giants of the game exchanging handshakes and club banners.
My imagination does the event more justice. These were, arguably, the world’s best midfielders, if not footballers, about to duel in what can only be described as a clash of titans. On the one side, there was Bryan Robson, British football incarnate and Captain Marvel; a central midfielder blessed with power, energy, industry and leadership. On the other side, there was Maradona, pure South American flair and skill; the best player in the world, capable of doing things with a football that fans had never seen before, he was miraculous and had the ability to destroy opposing teams at will. Thrown into the mix for good measure, you have: the undercurrent of tension between Britain and Argentina caused by the Falkland’s War, both sides’ resurgence as a European footballing powers, a packed out and electric Old Trafford, persistent rumours of Robbo’s impending departure, and United needing to overturn a two goal deficit -thanks to a first-leg defeat at the Camp Nou- against overwhelming favourites Barcelona, who had never surrendered such an advantage before. The stage was set for the performance of a lifetime…
Coming into the game, Manchester United were having one of their best seasons since the heady days of Matt Busby and his babes. They were tussling with arch-rivals Liverpool at the top of the league and after a 4-0 victory over Arsenal on the 17th of March, United were one point ahead of their north-west rivals with ten games remaining. Beating Barcelona was about more than just gaining a victory and progressing in the Cup Winner’s Cup for United. For over ten years, United had been something of a footballing mediocrity considering their size and history. They had failed to win the league since 1966/67 and although they had qualified to play in the UEFA Cup on a few occasions they were unable to make a major impact in that tournament. Everyone involved with the club was tired of the numerous false dawns and a victory over fellow resurgent giants Barcelona was a moment to send a signal, to both rivals at home and in Europe, that would let all know that Manchester United were back at the big boys table and everyone better beware.
Regarding Robson, there was an undercurrent of tension running through Old Trafford. The midfielder, brought to United from West Brom by manager Ron Atkinson in 1981 for a British-Record fee, was a wanted man. The press were suggesting that the United Captain was on his way to Italy at any moment, with Sampdoria, AC Milan and Juventus all reportedly interested in acquiring his services. Not to dissimilar to Maradona at Barcelona, Robson had been brought to United to help usher in a new era of glory, but it had not quite gone to plan. The only silverware had been the F.A Cup victory against Brighton the previous season, which qualified them for the Cup Winner’s Cup, a game in which Robson shone, scoring in the replay leg to ensure the cup went to Manchester. The lack of domestic superiority did not prevent Robson becoming a firm fan favourite, and the 83/84 season was arguably his best in a United shirt. The fans were well aware that he was their best chance of regaining their place at the top of the game and it got to the point where Man Utd fans actually petitioned the club’s hierarchy begging them not to sell their beloved captain. Robson himself admitted that Italy was ‘the place to be’ and he might have eventually moved if any of the clubs had decided United’s £3 million asking price was worth meeting.
Barcelona were following a similar trajectory to that of Manchester United albeit slightly further along. The sort of success the club demanded had evaded the Catalan side and in spite of having squads chocked full of talent and two recent Cup Winner’s Cup trophies in 1979 and 1982, the Blaugrana wanted more. It was unthinkable that a club of their magnitude had still failed to win the grand prize, the European Cup. Those who ran the club turned to Argentina in their desire to bring success back to the Nou Camp. First of all, in June 1982 they spent a then world-record fee of £5 million for the 21 year-old Argentine sensation Diego Maradona. Not long after in March 1983, World Cup winning manager and tactical revolutionary Cesar Luis Menotti followed. In Maradona, and a squad brimming with further talents like: Bernd Schuster, Juan Carlos Peréz Rojo, club legend Jose Ramon Alexanco and many more, Menotti had a side capable of dominating both Spain and Europe. In the remainder of the ‘83 season Menotti and Maradona did manage to bring Barcelona a Copa Del Rey victory over Real Madrid but Barcelona had all the necessary ingredients to become a major European powerhouse and the 1983/84 season was to be the one where everything was supposed to come to fruition.
Prior to the game at Old Trafford, Barcelona’s starlet’s season had been severely disrupted owing to a brutal tackle in September from Athletic Club defender Andoni Goikoetxea -The Butcher of Bilbao- which left Diego’s left ankle in tatters. It was quite emblematic of Maradona’s time in Catalunya with him barely ever being able to get into full stride as a result of the injuries, illness and well-documented outside issues that continually dogged him. Nonetheless, Maradona was easily the most talented player in the world and he had no equal in terms of pure ability. He returned from injury in January 1984 and by time the match against United came around he was starting to reach full strength again.
The previous leg at the Camp Nou had left Man Utd with what many believed to be an unassailable mountain to climb. An own-goal from Graeme Hogg, who was making his European debut, and a truly wonderful effort from Juan Carlos Rojo in the final minute meant the Red Devils were 2-0 down on aggregate. United’s players, however, didn’t feel the tie was completely lost. Although the loss was serious, it wasn’t devastating. As far as they were concerned, Barcelona had some glaring frailties, especially in terms of their ability to defend crosses and set-pieces, and the 2-0 final scoreline flattered the Catalans.
In all likelihood, Barça, with such a strong advantage, would have been expecting a routine game; a quick passage to the semis and a quicker return to the Spanish sunshine. All hope of an easy night would have evaporated as soon as they stepped out of the tunnel and took in the crowd at Old Trafford. 58,350 had crammed into the iconic stadium, the Stretford End was rocking and it seemed the home fans were determined that Man Utd would not leave this tournament without a fight. Many have noted since that the atmosphere during this game was the most intense that they have ever witnessed.
It didn’t take long for the game to come to life, Norman Whiteside was unfortunate to not grab the first goal when he struck the crossbar after capitalising on a fumble from Barça keeper Urruti, who had failed to deal with a cross. United had sniffed a weakness, there was a hesitancy in Barcelona’s play and United were set on taking advantage and unsettling them further. Every time a Barcelona player gained possession, he would be harassed by at least a couple of United players. It didn’t take long for United to break the deadlock, in the 22nd minute an inswinging corner from Wilkins was sent to the near post, it was met by the head of Hogg, he flicked it on to an unmarked Bryan Robson at the back post, who dutifully finished with a diving header. There was no time for celebrating, Robson was almost immediately back on his feet and ordering his troops back into the United half. Barcelona persevered, an away goal would have effectively killed the game, but United were relentless, every pass was intercepted, Barcelona players were closed down with a fury and Barça botched the chances that did come their way, such as when forward Marcos Alonso, after some poor defending, struck a shot over the bar from inside the box.
Whilst Robson was bossing the game and leading from the front, Maradona was non-existent, the game was completely passing him by; perhaps he was not as fully recovered as had previously been thought. But he was still Maradona, probably there was a hope that even at sixty per cent he could conjure up some magic and give Barcelona the game, which he nearly did in the dying minutes of the first half. He received the ball on the edge of the box with his back to the goal, a deft touch with his right foot takes the ball away from his marker, a second helps him drive the ball into the box and the third was a fierce shot hit straight at a grateful Gary Bailey.
Early into the second half, United’s high-pressing game paid dividends again. Schuster pressed by Robson sent the ball across goal to Victor, he sent a careless pass back to Urruti both apparently unaware that Whiteside was lurking, looking to cut out the pass. Urruti got the first touch but he could only manage to clear it to the right flank and Remi Moses. Moses drove in a low cross which was met with powerful first-touch shot from Ray Wilkins (whose own performance in the game probably doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves), Urruti mishandled and the ball fell into the path of the man of the moment Robson, who once again was in the right place at the right time and poked the football into the back of the net. Old Trafford absolutely erupted, somehow Manchester United were back in this game and there was pandemonium in the stands.
The game restarted and once again Barcelona pushed forward but they could only manage a long shot, which Bailey saw well wide. A minute later, United were in possession of the ball once again. Wilkins made a swinging motion with his arms urging his full-backs forwards whilst simultaneously whipping his willing crowd into a frenzy. United were on the ascendency, they had the momentum and Barcelona were shaken. Wilkins passed forward, Whiteside touched the ball back to Robson and he sent an angled pass to the left flank and into the path of the surging Arthur Albiston. A sumptuous cross was sent to the back post, where Norman Whiteside out jumped his markers and nodded it into the path of Frank Stapleton who was on hand to usher the ball into the goal. Barcelona’s defensive weaknesses had been thoroughly exposed. The comeback was complete, Barcelona were stupefied and Old Trafford was wild with delight. The game, however, was not over yet. Barcelona still only needed one goal, an away goal, and Man United would be forced to score two more.
At this point Maradona was being utterly outshone by his British counterpart, perhaps it was the deafening noise of the Old Trafford, the Manchester March weather, an injury complaint or United’s suffocating pressing game but the Argentinian genius found himself -as the commentator stated- very much on the periphery. Nonetheless, Barcelona pushed forward, they tried to play Maradona into the match and desperately sought that vital away goal, but it was all in vain. Man Utd’s defending was as strong and resolute as it was fortunate; every bounce of the ball seemed to go in favour of the home side.
In fact, the Reds themselves had a couple of chances to kill off the game. First, with a strike by Remi Moses that was turned wide by Urruti, and then Robson missed an opportunity to complete his hat-trick after a trademark marauding run into the box saw him get on to the end of a Whiteside cross which was then headed over the bar. Barcelona almost threatened to ruin the party when Julio Alberto was set off down the left wing by a shrewd Maradona pass but his shot saved by Gary Bailey. The only other significant moment for Barcelona came when some sloppy defending saw Schuster left unmarked in a decent position but the blonde-locked German maestro’s curling shot just skimmed Bailey’s left post as it sailed wide.
The game ended after Barcelona wasted a corner in the last minute. Manchester United had achieved the impossible; Robson had inspired his side to a most memorable victory. Some of the United crowd rushed the pitch, they headed straight toward their Captain and hero and carried him off the pitch. In the end, Robson came out on top in this clash against a seriously underwhelming and sub-par Maradona. Barcelona simply couldn’t cope with Robson’s work ethic and dynamism, and his performance rightfully takes it place as being one of the greatest individual showings on a European night.
Unfortunately for Manchester United, Maradona proved to be one world-class midfielder too far and in the semi-finals. With Robson missing both legs and other influential players such as Arnold Muhren, Remi Moses and Ray Wilkins only able to play in the 2nd leg in Juventus, United were unable to overcome the eventual winners, an extremely strong Juventus side containing the likes of Michel Platini, Cesare Prandelli and Zbignew Boniek. That being said, United pushed Juve until the very end and were only denied extra-time thanks to a last minute goal from Paolo Rossi. On the domestic scene, United’s season petered out. They had been pushing eternal rivals Liverpool but a poor run in at the end of the campaign saw them drop from 1st place to an eventual 4th,six points off champions Liverpool. Robson signed a new contract with the Red Devils and put to bed all the rumours of his departure to Italy. He would have to wait a further seven years to win a piece of European silverware but he finally achieved that 1991 when Manchester United beat none other than Barcelona in the same competition.
As for Barcelona and Maradona, their season ended in quite spectacular fashion. In the Copa Del Rey Final, Maradona once again fronted up against Athletic Club. It was a tempestuous match, full of hard challenges, insults, and an infamous full-time brawl. After being taunted for most of the game, Maradona lost his cool, he head-butted one player, before elbowing another and then delivering a ferocious knock-out knee to another. Chaos ensued as players and staff from each side joined the melee looking to protect their own. The occasion was a national scandal and Maradona took the brunt of the blame. This coupled with other well-publicised off-field issues meant Barcelona sort to sell Diego and in June 1984 he was sold to Napoli for another world-record fee.
For Manchester United fans, the Quarter-Final remains one of the club’s greatest European moments apart from the obvious title victories and in general it is still seen as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. For many, the match was also Bryan Robson’s finest hour and the defining game of his career. There weren’t many who believed that Man Utd could overcome a two-goal deficit against a Barcelona side that included, arguably, the most talented footballer to have ever graced the game. Robson and Manchester United, however, had very different ideas.
The greatest shame of all is that Diego Maradona and Bryan Robson would never play against each other again and there would never be another ordinary video cover for my vivid imagination to distort. Football fans were robbed of the opportunity thanks to a freak accident that led to Bryan Robson sustaining a broken collarbone and being ruled out of the 1986 World Cup, where he was unable to prevent Diego from living out a couple of his own career defining moments in another quarter-final. There are many who contend that if Robson had been available, that match might have had a different outcome. Conditionals aside, we are blessed that they were able to line-up on opposing sides at all, even if it was only twice.