As the decade limped along into its second half, the more things changed the more they stayed the same. As 1986 was ushered in so was steady if not rising unemployment, a Conservative government, disenfranchisement, and a Liverpool title challenge.
The first of January saw Manchester United on 49 points after 23 games leading the First Division, two ahead of Chelsea and three ahead of both Everton and Liverpool. However, the wheels were beginning to fall off, after a fantastic start that had seen United win their first ten games and take 35 points from the first 13 games.
Liverpool and Everton had made steady starts to the season, Everton being defending champions and Liverpool settling down to the first season in their history of having a player-manager in the guise of Kenny Dalglish. Meanwhile, Chelsea, managed by John Hollins, and West Ham United, led by the ever-popular John Lyall, were flying the flag for the capital, and the title race was shaping up to be one of the most exciting and open in recent years.
England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all had the World Cup in the summer to look forward to, and so as Shakin’ Stevens welcomed in the year from his perch at number one in the charts with “Merry Christmas Everyone”, there was much to look forward to.
In the Second Division, Norwich City were making a determined effort to reclaim their top-flight status following relegation in 1985. This demotion came in the same season that the League Cup was won at Wembley, and although the Canaries were well on track for a return to better days, their vanquished cup final opponents were siding spectacularly. Relegated alongside Norwich in 1985, Sunderland were expected to bounce right back following the appointment of Lawrie McMenemy as manager, but instead, they found themselves embroiled in a second successive relegation battle and would end the season avoiding the drop to the third tier by a mere two points.
Heading in the opposite direction were Wimbledon. Only elected to the league a short nine years earlier, the Dons were pushing for promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history. That they were ultimately able to secure the third and final promotion slot was seen as one of the greatest footballing stories of the era.
Back to the First Division and the battle for the title continued. Manchester United and Chelsea fell away leaving a three-way scrap for the championship between the Merseyside rivals and West Ham. Battling to avoid the drop was, amongst others, Oxford United, Ipswich Town and Leicester City.
On a balmy May evening, three matches were played in the First Division. At Oxford United’s Manor Ground stadium the hosts welcomed Everton; at Filbert Street, Leicester, Kenny Dalglish’s men arrived sitting atop the table; and at Upton Park, West Ham took on Bobby Ferguson and his Ipswich Town side.
On a night in which the destiny of the title turned, Liverpool and West Ham emerged unscathed with three points, while Everton disastrously fell to the only goal of the goal and in doing so practically conceded the title to Liverpool.
After Liverpool did indeed clinch the title the following Saturday by winning away to Chelsea, Everton had the chance to take some measure of revenge when the two sides met in the FA Cup Final a week later. Unfortunately for Howard Kendall and the Goodison Park outfit, Liverpool prevailed once more in a 3-1 triumph.
With the double safely secured, Liverpool fans could sit back and watch Steve Nicol and Jan Molby strutting their stuff in Mexico as the tournament finally kicked off. England were in a group with Portugal, Poland and Morocco and were not anticipated to experience many if any difficulties in negotiating a safe passage.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way and the first two games saw just a solitary point garnered, courtesy of a goalless draw against Morocco. Worse still for England was the departure of captain Bryan Robson through injury, and the suspension of his deputy, Ray Wilkins, following a red card for throwing the ball in the referee’s direction.
Needing to beat Poland in the final group game, England finally came good. Peter Reid settled into the centre of midfield and Peter Beardsley came into the side to partner Gary Lineker upfront. The results were immediate, with Lineker adding to the 40 goals scored in the domestic season with Everton by grabbing a first-half hat trick to ensure safe passage to the last sixteen.
A routine 3-0 victory over Paraguay with Lineker scoring twice more, set up a quarter-final clash with Argentina.
On the social and political front, Margaret Thatcher was three years into her second term as Prime Minister and her austere economic policies were beginning to bear fruit. A seismic shift in the country’s outlook had taken place and the era of the yuppy was on the way. The London Stock Exchange was deregulated, thus allowing computerised shares dealing and private enterprise was being encouraged. Unemployment, although still high, was at least beginning to level off, while inflation continued to do its worst.
In the USA, Ronald Reagan was coming to the mid part of his second and final term as President and was about to be mired in the Iran-Contra Affair. This involved the President administration selling arms to Iran, an avowed enemy, at the same time that Americans were being held hostage in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a militant Shi’a organization loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini. Somehow, Reagan survived the scandal and even more remarkably, his Vice-President, George Bush, would be elected to the presidency two years later.
Back to the World Cup, and with Northern Ireland and Scotland both eliminated at the first stage, it was left to England to fly the flag for the home nations. As they geared up for the quarter-final clash with Argentina there was still no Bryan Robson but Ray Wilkins was on the bench after having served a two-match suspension.
Argentina were, if truth be told, the better side for eighty minutes of a match played under the blazing midday sun and were two goals to the good as the game ticked past the eighty-minute mark. The recently departed Maradona was, of course, responsible for the two Argentine goals, both of which have passed into the World Cup Hall of Fame. The first was a blatant handball that the Tunisian referee and his linesman failed to spot, and the second a mazy run past the entire Three Lions team.
John Barnes, thrown on as a late substitute, got England back into the match with a perfect cross from which Lineker couldn’t fail to score his sixth goal of the tournament. In the dying embers of the game, Barnes once more made the perfect delivery and Lineker seemed certain to equalise and take the game into extra-time. Unfortunately, the ball ended up just the wrong side of the post and England were out.
Argentina would go onto take the trophy, their second World Cup triumph, with a 3-2 victory over West Germany in the final.
Also away from football, Boris Becker, the eighteen-year-old West German tennis wonder kid, successfully defended his Wimbledon title and also reached the semi-finals of the US Open in a summer dominated by the dulcet tones of his (near) namesake, Boris Gardiner, intoning to an unidentified woman his desire to ‘Wake Up With You”, and Chris De Burgh identifying a ‘Lady in Red’ he wished to make better acquaintance with.
Talking of Red Ladies, 1986 was the year Sarah Ferguson married Prince Andrew. Whether they celebrated their nuptials in Pizza Express has not been recorded.
The summer of 1986 saw another Ferguson in the national spotlight. After the tragic death of Jock Stein in 1985, Alex Ferguson (presumably also no relation to Sarah) was given the temporary reigns of the Scottish national side, and it was under his austere leadership that Scotland headed off to the Mexico World Cup. Drawn in the (obligatory and tiresomely named) Group of Death, the Scots were paired with Uruguay, West Germany and Denmark.
Weakened by the last-minute withdrawal from the squad by Liverpool player-manager, Kenny Dalglish, and missing his club mate Alan Hansen, whom Fergie had surprisingly left out of the squad, Scotland struggled. Only one point from three games was gained and, par-for-the-course, Scotland exited the tournament at the first stage.
The new season started with several managerial changes. Alex Ferguson stepped down as Interim/Caretaker manager of Scotland in anticipation of a job in England becoming available. He didn’t have to wait long. Peter Shreeves was dismissed as Tottenham Hotspur manager and replaced by David Pleat who was poached from Luton, and replaced as manager at Kenilworth Road by coach John Moore. Billy McNeil started the season as manager of Manchester City but quit after a handful of games with City in the relegation zone. He turned up a matter of days later unveiled as the new manager of Aston Villa, also battling relegation, and was succeeded as Maine Road boss by Jimmy Frizzell.
Most importantly, perhaps, was the appointment of Millwall manager, George Graham, to the hot seat at his old stomping ground Arsenal in succession to Don Howe.
Manchester United started the season very poorly and after thirteen games were only out of the bottom three on goal difference. Martin Edwards and the United board of directors acted decisively and sacked the incumbent manager, Ron Atkinson, and replaced him with Alex (not Sarah’s dad) Ferguson.
As autumn drew to a close and the title race started to hot up, so did the plot lines in Eastenders. Since hitting the screens in early 1985, the BBC produced soap had steadily been rising in the ratings. This was helped largely by the on-screen storylines of the show’s two main protagonists, Den Watts and his wife Angie, the co-landlords of the Queen Victoria pub. Their relationship was a volatile one at the best of times and when Den served Angie with divorce papers on the Christmas Day episode of the show, ratings went through the roof.
By now George Graham’s young Arsenal side was beginning to click into gear and show promise. A storming run in the last two months of the year saw the Gunners climb to the top of the table and establish a seven-point lead over Everton and Liverpool as the New Year was being welcomed in.
So, 1986 concluded with The Communards responsible for the year’s top-selling single with a reworking of the old classic, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, and another old record, ‘Reet Petite’ by Jackie Wilson sitting atop the charts. Amongst the biggest grossing films were Top Gun, the Karate Kid 2, The Fly, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Other notable moments of the year included Joe Johnson winning the World Snooker Championships, the first airing of the Oprah Winfrey Show on network television, the discovery in England of Mad Cow Disease, the emergence of a ferocious young boxer going by the name of Mike Tyson and the Chernobyl and Space Shuttle disasters. Quite the year.