Ultimate United Articles
Arthur Albiston Heroes, Villains & Legends
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
The latest instalment in this section looks back on the career of a man who made the Old Trafford left back position his own in the late 1970’s all the way through to the mid-1980’s – the three-time FA Cup winner, Arthur Albiston.
Ask any Manchester United fan who the best left back ever to play for the club is, most will say either Denis Irwin or Patrice Evra, and with good reason. They were the two most successful players to represent United in that position. But there is another who served United for almost fifteen years, who, in his prime, would have been a vital member of the squad in any of the trophy-laden teams built by Sir Alex Ferguson. Ironically, Ferguson was the man who showed Arthur Albiston the exit door from Old Trafford.
Throughout his career Irwin was often referred to as the quiet man of Old Trafford, underrated and overlooked, but it’s been said that often now, that it can’t even be said anymore, because nobody underrates him these days. It could definitely be said about Albiston. Two footed, pace and stamina to burn, rarely injured, he would average about 45 games a season, which without the fixture pile ups caused by the Europa and Champions League these days, was usually how many games a season United played back then.
Albiston made his debut at the age of 17 in October 1974, in a League Cup third round tie against Manchester City. United went into this game as underdogs having been relegated to the Second Division the previous season, but won 1 – 0 at Old Trafford. Despite an impressive showing by the young Scotsman, his fellow countryman Stewart Houston was United’s first pick in that position back then. As Tommy Docherty’s new look United romped to the Second Division title, Albiston made just two league appearances, the first of which came two weeks later, against Portsmouth.
The following season, United took the First Division by storm, finishing just four points behind champions Liverpool in third place. It is hard to imagine a newly promoted team doing that these days, but young Albiston would have to bide his time and be patient. Despite Houston still being ahead of him, Albiston’s time would come.
The 1976-77 season would see Manchester United win their first trophy (other than the Second Division title) for nine years, and Albiston begin to stake his claim for a regular spot in the first team. Finishing third the previous season had also ensured European football would return to Old Trafford for the first time since 1969, as United participated in the UEFA Cup. Albiston went on to make almost thirty appearances that season, but the shape of things to come was shown when the 19 year old Albiston was selected ahead of Houston for the FA Cup Final against Liverpool. This was actually his first appearance in the competition, and the young Scot showed no nerves. This was demonstrated when he got stuck into an early tackle in the first few minutes, making it clear that he would not be intimidated by either the occasion, or the opposition. It was a bold decision by Tommy Docherty, but the correct one, as United won 2 – 1 to deny Liverpool any hope of the Treble.
With the removal of Docherty as manager following revelations regarding his personal life, Queens Park Rangers manager Dave Sexton was appointed in the Old Trafford hot seat. In his first game as manager, the Charity Shield at Wembley, Albiston was selected at left back, and would soon be recognised as first choice in that position. Over the next three seasons, Stewart Houston’s appearances became less and less frequent, and when he did play it was usually as cover for Brian Greenhoff or Martin Buchan at centre back, before joining Sheffield United in 1980.
Albiston went from strength to strength, totally unchallenged in his position in the team. In addition to being consistent and reliable defensively, he was also a useful addition to the attack, regularly bombing forward to provide support. While the Old Trafford faithful never really took to Dave Sexton, or his style of play, there was no debate about his decision to make Albiston a permanent first team player.
When Ron Atkinson replaced Sexton in the summer of 1981, he apparently had reservations about a number of players at United, one of them being Albiston. After seeing him in training, he changed his mind and started him in all 45 games of his first season as manager. Atkinson knew he had to replace certain players in several positions, but it soon became clear to him that left back was not one of them. Albiston, already a popular figure at Old Trafford with both players and fans, saw his popularity soar even higher in October 1981, scoring the winner against Liverpool at Anfield, the coolest of finishes from someone who was hardly a prolific goalscorer.
Model of Consistency
Atkinson’s second season saw United reach two cup finals, losing 2 – 1 to Liverpool in the League Cup Final, but beating Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup Final, winning the Replay 4 – 0 after the first match had ended 2 – 2. Once again, Albiston was almost ever present, missing just four games in that campaign, and was rewarded with his first cap for Scotland in 1982.
Ron Atkinson’s United teams were fantastic to watch, and although they never found the consistency to finally win the league title, they played some memorable matches, and Albiston featured in all of them. He was so consistent that there was no need to provide any competition for him. When United played Barcelona in 1984, a team full of superstars led by the best player in the world at that time, Diego Maradona, the Spanish side were smashed 3 – 0 at Old Trafford, overhauling a two goal deficit from the first leg. Like all of his team mates that night, Albiston was magnificent, by this time at the peak of his powers.
The 1984 – 85 season was memorable for so many reasons. For once, it was Everton who would be crowned as kings of England, while United would still struggle to find the consistency to make a decent challenge for the title. There was, however, consolation in the form of the FA Cup, as Norman Whiteside’s curling effort in extra time defeated the newly crowned champions in the Final. This ensured that Albiston completed a personal Hat Trick of FA Cup winners’ medals, the first United player to achieve this.
United now had a quality team, with top class players in most positions, and came flying out of the traps at the beginning of the 1985-86 season, winning their first ten league games in a row. In this time, Albiston scored a fantastic 25 yard strike against City at Maine Road, in a 3-0 derby victory. Unfortunately for Atkinson, and United, injuries to key players, plus the ridiculous decision to agree a deal with Barcelona in January that would see Mark Hughes transfer to Spain the following summer (despite the fact that Hughes wanted to stay), saw the Reds overhauled at the top of the table and finish fourth for the second successive season. While Albiston was again the model of consistency, the team couldn’t keep it up for the entire season, and United fans would once against cast envious glances to Merseyside, where the league trophy resided almost permanently during this era.
It felt like United had missed their best chance to win the league title in almost twenty years, and the word on the street was that Atkinson was on borrowed time. With English clubs banned from Europe, there was less exposure and less income. In stark contrast to the previous season, United won just two of their opening ten league games in 1986-87, and were hovering around the relegation zone. Following a disastrous League Cup exit, a 4 – 1 thrashing at Southampton, Atkinsons’ time was up. The board moved quickly to appoint Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen.
Albston had started all seventeen games for United that season, but despite playing in Ferguson’s first game as manager, he was promptly missing for his second, as he required a hernia operation, and Ferguson believed he was never quite the same player following it. Over the next year and a half, Albiston would not even start a dozen more games, as the new manager tried out other full back options such as Mike Duxbury, Colin Gibson and John Sivebæk.
In total, Albiston made 485 appearances, and scored seven goals. Quite rightly, he was rewarded with a testimonial when his Old Trafford career came to an end.
After a frustrating eighteen months under the man who would become the clubs most successful ever manager, Albiston, now 31 years old, left Old Trafford in the summer of 1988 on free transfer. He joined his old boss Ron Atkinson, who had now returned to West Bromwich Albion. He played one season at The Hawthorns, later transferring to his native Scotland with Dundee. He later represented Chesterfield and Chester City, and a spell with Norwegian club Molde (they of selling United a certain Ole Gunnar Solskjær fame). He retired from professional football in 1994, bringing down the curtain on a playing career of just under twenty years.
Albiston later managed local club Droylsden F.C. and following that returned to Old Trafford coaching the juniors. He now works as a pundit for MUTV, mainly as a commentator on the youth and reserve team matches.
Looking back its quite surprising that Albiston, with over ten years’ experience at Old Trafford didn’t feature more prominently under Ferguson in his first few months. Just months before his arrival, Ferguson had selected him for the World Cup in Mexico, during his stint as manager of Scotland, however, he did only play once. Ferguson has, however, stated that United did have too many players over the age of thirty, and he was trying to lower the average age of the squad. If Ferguson had arrived at United five years earlier, he would most likely have made Albiston his first choice left back, just as his predecessors had. Given that United’s first choice left back is Ashley Young this season, and as well as he has played, it is probably fair to say that José Mourinho would probably like to have such a player at his disposal.
It’s a bit of shame that United weren’t a bit more successful during the years that Arthur Albiston played for the club. He was such a good player that you could have put him in any of the title winning sides during that time, and he wouldn’t have weakened them – in some cases, he probably would have made them stronger. You don’t play nearly 500 games for England’s biggest club if you aren’t a good player, you’ll always get found out in the end. He may not have scored too many goals, but, in addition to the many that he created when bursting forward to support the attack, he can boast two against City, and a winner against Liverpool at Anfield. So while Albiston did not end his career with the amount of honours he probably deserved, he can look back and honestly say that he was first choice left back for Manchester United for almost a decade.
Surely that makes him a legend, albeit, a much underrated one.
Added by Philip Meese on 02/12/2017 10:58:09