When a gas attack overshadowed Liverpool vs. Man United
The rivalry between Manchester United and Liverpool has always been intense and it has occasionally crossed the line of acceptable behaviour. As fractious as things might become between Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp and their teams, it's unlikely that either manager or their players will experience anything like United's officials and squad suffered in 1986. The team were attacked with gas when entering Anfield.
Ron Atkinson was the United manager 32 years ago. He always knew his side were in for a difficult day when they faced Liverpool as their games were extremely combative. "I'd say to the players: 'Don't moan about them kicking you. Kick them first!' It was war in a positive sense," said Atkinson. On a February day, things took a more menacing turn.
It was a pivotal point in the campaign. United had started the 1985-86 season by winning their first 10 league matches. They went another five games unbeaten, but then things began to fall apart. At one point the Red Devils were 10 points clear of Liverpool at the top of the table and 17 ahead of Everton, the reigning champions. By the time they went to Anfield, United had slumped to second place behind Everton.
Pressure was building on Atkinson. This was his fifth season as manager at Old Trafford. He had led United to two FA Cup wins but it was 19 years since the club had last won the league and their superb start to the season had raised hopes that the title drought was about to end. They desperately needed a victory on Merseyside to arrest their slump.
The match was played on a Sunday. There had been some stadium refurbishment at Anfield, which caused a slight change to the way the team arrived at the ground. "In previous years, the coach used to pull right up to the players' entrance," said Atkinson. "You'd be right up against the door, down the steps and into the ground."
This time the team bus couldn't get so close. "There was now an overhanging shelter above the players' entrance," said Atkinson. "You couldn't get the coach as close to the door because of it. We were parked about 25 yards away. We had to go through the crowd."
United expected the reception committee to be hostile and vocal but they never expected to be gassed.
"I felt something wet on my hand," said Atkinson. "I thought for some reason it was wet paint. It wasn't. It was some kind of gas spray."
Panic broke out in the crowd. There were scores of children at the front, hoping to get autographs from the players, and they bore the brunt of the attack as much as the United team.
In the chaos, Atkinson charged towards the safety of the dressing room, blindly scattering anyone who was in his way. Looking back, he can laugh about the very serious incident and his response. "I ran inside and don't remember much about it," he said. "My eyes were stinging. Mick Brown, one of my assistants, said I was throwing people out of the way. I didn't see who it was. Mick said I hurled Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen aside."
Liverpool's player-manager and captain were as shocked as any onlookers when Atkinson came barrelling past them. Bryan Robson, United's talismanic skipper, was injured and helped some tearful children and their panicked parents to recover in the United dressing room. His teammates rushed straight out on to the pitch in search of fresh air.
Atkinson's squad were bemused by the situation, none more so than John Sivebaek. The 24-year-old had signed for United days earlier and immediately drafted into the team because of an injury crisis.
Sivebaek was one of those unlucky enough to be in Atkinson's path as the manager stormed towards the dressing room. "I threw Johnny out of the way, too," said Atkinson, laughing at the memory. "The kid was making his debut at Anfield, I was playing him out of position and he couldn't speak a word of English... and I was manhandling him out of my way."
No one was sure whether the spray was ammonia or CS gas. A 12-year-old was taken to hospital and released unharmed; 22 supporters in all, many of them children, were affected. The attack had little impact on the United players, who took it in their stride. "We just got on with it," said Atkinson.
The subsequent game itself was drab. United led with a Colin Gibson goal but John Wark equalized for the home team in a 1-1 draw.
That attack was the low point in relations between the two clubs. Liverpool-born Atkinson, now 78, still does not understand the antipathy. "We had a great rapport," he said. "After the match it was back to my office for a drink or the Boot Room for a beer. The players got on great, too. It was a battle on the pitch but friendly off it."
United never pulled out of their slump. The one-time runaway leaders finished fourth at the end of the season and Atkinson was sacked early in the next campaign. Liverpool, in Dalglish's rookie season as manager, won the league and FA Cup Double, edging out Everton in both competitions. The relationship between Liverpool and United changed for ever, though.
The next time the Red Devils came to Anfield, on Boxing Day 1986, Bob Paisley, the most successful manager in Liverpool's history, rode on the United coach as a sign of solidarity and to discourage any similar attacks. Seated next to Paisley was a 45-year-old Scot who would shift the balance of power towards Manchester. That man, Alex Ferguson, would give United their revenge on the pitch, the only arena where clashes between the clubs should take place.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.