League Cup Final: Manchester United, 1983 Calendar

23 Feb 2023

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Manchester United are a club synonymous with success, having won 20 league titles, 12 FA Cups and three of Europe’s top trophies – but League Cup glory eluded them for over three decades.

United declined to participate during the League Cup’s formative years, and only reached their first final some 22 years after the competition came into being. At the start of the eighties, the club was looking to bounce back after a relatively barren decade, and the League Cup (then known as the Milk Cup) was one way to restore some glory.

A barnstorming 4-2 victory at Arsenal in the semi-final first leg set United well on their way to Wembley: a 2-1 win in the reverse leg confirmed their attendance. Steve Coppell had scored three goals prior to the semis: a further brace at Highbury proved crucial, and another at Old Trafford secured a final berth the following week.

It came as no surprise that their opponents in March would be their (vastly more successful) north west rivals. Reigning First Division champions Liverpool had also lifted the League Cup in 1981 and 1982, and were firm favourites to do so again in 1983, having lost just three games between Christmas and late March.

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United manager Ron Atkinson described Liverpool as being perceived as “the great ogres of soccer” that could not be overthrown – “well, not in my book they haven’t. Manchester United will fight them every inch of the way”. The matchday programme alluded to the stars of the late sixties, and drew attention to the fact that Atkinson’s squad was “the most expensively assembled…in British football history”.

Bryan Robson was one of those signings, linking up again with his old West Bromwich Albion manager for £1.5m – then a record transfer fee – but the future ‘Captain Marvel’ sat out the final with damaged ankle ligaments.

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Fellow big-money buys Frank Stapleton and Remi Moses both started, but it was a homegrown talent who made the crucial breakthrough at Wembley. 17-year-old Norman Whiteside had been at United since he was a schoolboy: the Northern Irish forward became the youngest League Cup final scorer in history when he chested down a long ball forward, got the better of Alan Hansen and drove a low shot past Bruce Grobbelaar.

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United held that lead from the twelfth minute, but Liverpool responded fifteen minutes from time via a rather unlikely source. Not Ian Rush or Kenny Dalglish, but Alan Kennedy – a defeated League Cup finalist with Newcastle back in 1976. The left-back had sent a long-range effort just wide of the post earlier in the game, but made no mistake this time around, beating Gary Bailey with a bouncer from 25 yards.

United dragged the incumbent champions into extra time, but could do little to prevent Ronnie Whelan from bagging the winner. On the left-sided corner of the penalty area, the winger’s initial pass was blocked, but his second attempt – an instinctive curling shot at goal – proved unstoppable. It was later ranked as one of Liverpool’s top twenty goals of all time by fanzine This Is Anfield.

United had indeed taken Liverpool every inch of the way, but it wasn’t quite enough to clinch their first League Cup trophy. Instead, it was Bob Paisley’s third and last: the legendary manager retired at the end of the season.

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