In the first season of the 1980s, United finished just two points behind Liverpool in the First Division as their northwest neighbors continued their incredible run of success in the league. The club dropped down the table to eighth the following season, and manager Dave Sexton was sacked after four seasons without any major honors.
Ron Atkinson took over at Old Trafford after arriving from West Bromwich Albion in 1981. In his first season at the club, Atkinson signed Bryan Robson from his former club for £1.5 million, the British record fee at the time. Robson is still widely regarded as one of the greatest players to wear the United shirt.
A midfielder of unquestionable talent, Robson's leadership earned him the nickname Captain Marvel, wearing the armband both for United and England in the 1980s.
He was the heartbeat of that United team, and he became the engine in midfield. The praise from those who saw him is immense. He was a box-to-box player, and one of the most complete midfielders in the game.
Robson possessed all the skill you could dream of in a midfielder—passing, tackling and shooting along with the pace and strength of a natural athlete.
United crawled back up the table to third place in 1981-82, Robson's first season at the club. Unfortunately, the First Division would prove elusive for most of his United career. Despite finishing third again in the league the following season, Robson captained United to the 1983 FA Cup final where they defeated Brighton & Hove Albion 4-0, including two goals from Captain Marvel himself.
In 1984, United reached the semifinals of the European Cup Winners' Cup having defeated Barcelona 3-0 at Old Trafford in the quarterfinals, advancing 3-2 on aggregate. Off the pitch, United legend Bobby Charlton was invited to join the board of directors after the resignation of Sir Matt Busby, a position which Charlton accepted and still holds today.
Robson captained United to another FA Cup final two years after the 1983 triumph, this time beating Everton 1-0 in the final to deny the Merseyside club a Treble. Norman Whiteside, a promising young talent from Northern Ireland, scored the winner as United secured another FA Cup success.
Another famous member of that squad was Mark Hughes, a Welsh striker who came through United's youth academy. Partnering Frank Stapleton in attack, Hughes was a lethal force in front of goal until his departure to Barcelona in 1986.
Although he had led the club to two FA Cup victories, Atkinson struggled to take United to the next level and win the First Division. By November 1986, the board of directors had lost patience and Atkinson was sacked.
Two days after the dismissal of Atkinson, United appointed Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen. The club was second from the bottom when he took over, and the state of the squad was worrisome. Ferguson brought a new sense of discipline to the club, putting increased emphasis on fitness and cutting out the drinking culture among some players.
Ferguson guided the club out of the relegation zone and finished the 1986-87 season in 11th place. In his first full season as the manager, Ferguson made some important changes to the squad, which would lay the foundation for future success.
Defender Viv Anderson joined from Arsenal to become Ferguson's first signing at United. The arrival of Anderson was followed by Brian McClair from Celtic, who would lead the club with 31 goals in all competitions his first season. McClair currently serves as Director of Youth Academy at United.
Ferguson also signed Steve Bruce from Norwich City, an excellent defender who would later captain the club through a highly successful period. United finished second place behind Liverpool once again in the First Division, resulting in another the season without silverware.
Hughes returned to United the 1988-89 season after short spells playing abroad for Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He would be the club's joint top scorer along with McClair, each scoring 16 goals as United finished 11th in the league. The club ended the decade with another season devoid of silverware.
After nearly three seasons at Old Trafford, Ferguson had failed to deliver any major trophy. Frustrations would begin to build at the club, and speculation would soon surround his future with United. The manager would prove such concerns unwarranted in the coming decade, however, as the club entered a period of unprecedented success in the 1990s.
FA Cup: 1982-83, 1984-85
FA Community Shield: 1983