Ashley Grimes: A Prince Amongst Triers
Ashley Grimes: A Prince Amongst Triers
From the Republic of Ireland, Augustine Ashley Grimes played for Irish side, Bohemians, from 1973-74 until 1976-77 when, age 20, he was transferred for ₤35,000 to Manchester United, then under the stewardship of manager, Dave Sexton, who’d inherited a left winger, England’s Gordon Hill, from previous manager, and former Scotland boss, Tommy Docherty, whose inspired move to obtain from Third Division Millwall for ₤70,000 a skillful provider of crosses to center forward, Stuart Pearson, helped the team maintain a competitive challenge for the 1975-76 First Division title, after the club recovered from their 1973-74 relegation season, to win the Second Division championship of 1974-45. Docherty exceeded expectations in the club’s return to the First Division, reaching the FA Cup Final of 1976, but losing a match everybody believed was a foregone conclusion against Second Division Southampton, who confounded all of the armchair pundits, and a lot of United pressure, to win the trophy at London’s national stadium, Wembley, 0-1, through an 83rd minute goal from Bobby Stokes. Jim McCalliog, a Scots’ international and valuable central midfielder for United in their Second Division championship winning season of 1974-75, although with Macari and McIlroy in midfield, he was transferred to S’ton before season’s end, put Stokes through on the United goal, and the left midfielder slotted the ball across ‘keeper, Stepney, and into the far corner of the net. Despite the team’s return to Wembley for the 1976-77 FA Cup Final against Liverpool, who they beat, 2-1, ‘The Doc’s’ team was felt to have remained Second Division, and Queens Park Rangers’ Sexton was appointed manager for the 1977-78 season.
Although Grimes had a trial with United in 1972, when Frank O’ Farrell had been manager, he’d returned to Ireland, and Bohemians, where the Irish club were enjoying local success; winning the title in 1974-75; the League of Ireland Cup; the Leinster Football Association (LFA) President’s Cup, and the Leinster Senior Cup; the FAI Cup in 1975-76; the LFA President’s Cup, and the Leinster Senior Cup, and in 1976-77, the LFA President’s Cup. Consequently, Sexton wasn’t deploying an inexperienced left foot when Grimes made his debut in the 1977-78 season, witnessed by his debut for Ireland on April 5th, 1978, in a defeat of Turkey, 4-2, at Lansdowne Road (Aviva stadium), Dublin; the first of Grimes’ 14 caps for Ireland while playing for United. Moreover, Sexton’s decision to sell Gordon Hill to Derby County for ₤250,000, despite the England international being top scorer that 1977-78 season, with 17 goals, as he’d joint top scored along with Pearson the previous 1976-77 season, with 15, suggested that Grimes was in his mind to replace Hill, known as ‘Merlin’ at Millwall, for his wizardry out wide on the left, as a less unpredictable and more instructable force, which was ultimately Sexton’s downfall. The club finished 10th in the league, and Sexton moved to sign Mickey Thomas for the left sided midfield position from Wales’ Second Division Wrexham, where Thomas had already scored 6 goals in 16 appearances for ‘The Dragons’ at the start of the 1978-79 season. However, although United reached the FA Cup Final of 1979, defeat to Arsenal, 2-3, demonstrated that Hill’s striking ability from the wing was sorely missed.
Able to be used as a midfielder or a left back, Grimes had made 13 league appearances for United in 1977-78, scoring 2 goals; against QPR on April 8th at Old Trafford, 3-0, and again at home on April 22nd against West Ham, 3-1. In 1978-79, he made 16 appearances, and the club finished 9th in the league. As Thomas’ skill on the left, and ability as a goal scorer, proved superior to Grimes’ industry, and ability to direct crosses, Ashley received an FA Cup Final runners up medal as an unused substitute against Arsenal, although he had contributed to the team in the earlier rounds; for example, scoring in the defeat of Chelsea at home in the 3rd round, 3-0.
In 1979-80, Grimes made 20 starts, and 6 substitute appearances, scoring 3 goals for ‘the red devils’. September 8th, 1979, saw Grimes score from the penalty spot in a defeat of Aston Villa away, 3-0, although a goal from Mickey Thomas, who’d net 8 times that season, meant Grimes had competition for that left midfield berth. That Grimes was able to compete was evidenced from his getting the only goal of the game from open play against Derby County, 1-0, at ‘the theater of dreams’ on September 15th, 1979, and again at home against Ipswich Town, 1-0, on October 20th, 1979.
United finished runners up to Liverpool in the league with 58 points to the Merseysiders’ 60, and although it was all over on May 3rd, when Liverpool beat Aston Villa at home, 4-1, while United lost away at Leeds, 0-1, if ‘the red devils’ had beaten Leeds in their final game of the term, so making the championship contenders level on points, Liverpool’s goal difference was far superior, that is, 81 for, and 30 against (+ 51) in comparison with United’s 65 for, and 35 against (+ 30), so the Merseyside reds would have won anyway, and could afford to lose, 0-1, away to Middlesboro at Ayresome Park on May 6th, while still winning the league title, because they couldn’t lose it after beating Villa. However, although it could have been different for Sexton, United’s failure to take advantage of teams they should have beaten, easily, ultimately cost him his job. Losing at home to a 45th minute goal from left sided striker, Melvyn Eves, against Wolves on the stroke of half time, February 9th, 1980, might be construed as the turning point, especially as Sexton substituted England captain and midfield playmaker, Ray Wilkins, with Grimes after half time on 46 minutes, in what appeared to be a panic move. However, United’s loss, 0-6, against Ipswich on March 1st, 1980, was an indication of the side’s resilience in coming back from setback to seriously challenge Liverpool for the championship, but it wasn’t to be United’s season, and subsequent events proved equally fateful.
Although 13 goals from top scorer, Joe Jordan, indicated that the side lacked firepower up front, the addition of the silken midfield skills of Ray ‘Butch’ Wilkins from Chelsea at the beginning of the 1979-80 season for ₤750,000, undoubtedly established United in an improved league position, and only 35 goals conceded suggested that Gordon McQueen, the center half that Sexton had persuaded to depart Leeds in February 1978 for ₤500,000, after no-nonsense Leeds center forward, Jordan, had already arrived for ₤350,000 in January 1978, marshaled a mean defense. However, Sexton’s decision to bring prolific Nottingham Forest forward, Gary Birtles, to Old Trafford for ₤1. 25 m at the start of the 1980-81 season, backfired when Birtles made 25 starts without scoring, while Jordan, left to shoulder all of the striking burden, bludgeoned his way to hitting the back of the net 15 times.
The club finished 8th in the league, and Sexton was replaced for the 1981-82 season by West Bromwich Albion boss, Ron Atkinson, who moved quickly to take England midfield powerhouse, Bryan Robson, to Old Trafford for ₤1. 5 m, and center forward, Frank Stapleton, from Arsenal for ₤900,000, who top scored with, 13 goals, ironically, as that return was less than Joe Jordan’s in the previous season’s campaign, and Joe was let go to Italy’s A.C. Milan, because of a perceived lack of goals coming from him as the main striker. Although Ron managed to get Birtles scoring, and he got 11 goals that term, he’d be sold back to Forest, while the club’s final position in the league table improved to 3rd.
Mickey Thomas left for Everton, so wasn’t a part of Atkinson’s plans. However, Ashley Grimes, not entirely ignored by ‘Big Ron’, made 9 league starts, together with a single appearance from the substitute’s bench, as a utility player who could fill a role on the left of midfield at need, or at left full back. Grimes scored 1 goal away, during a draw with Everton on April 10th, 1982, 3-3, while sharing the competition for the midfield birth alongside Wilkins and Robson, with Remi Moses, also bought from West Brom for ₤500,000, who made 20 (1) league starts, Lou Macari, who made 10 (1) starts, and Sammy McIlroy, 12 starts.
The club finished 3rd again in 1982-83, with Stapleton as the top scorer with 14 goals. Although Grimes made 15 (1) starts, scoring away to draw against Luton Town on October 2nd, 1982, 1-1, and a penalty in a defeat of Watford at Old Trafford, 2-0, he wasn’t selected for the team to contest the 1983 FA Cup Final, because Ron now had the distributive ball skills of Dutch left midfielder, Arnold Muhren, signed from Ipswich Town at the beginning of the season, where he’d won the UEFA Cup in 1981, 5-4, on aggregate against Dutch side AZ ’67, alongside center forward, Alan Brazil, who Ron would bring to Old Trafford for the 1984-85 season for ₤625,000 from Spurs.
However, a combination of injury, lack of success in front of goal, that is, 5 goals in 17 starts and 3 as sub, and 1 start and 10 substitute appearances for 3 goals in 1985-86, before he was sold to First Division Coventry City, and the emergence of Atkinson protégé, Norman Whiteside, meant Brazil wouldn’t make the team for the 1985 FA Cup Final against Everton, which was won by Whiteside, wide on the right, cutting in to curl the ball with the inside of his left boot, around Wales’ left back, Pat Van Den Hauwe, with Wales’ ‘keeper, Neville Southall, unsighted, and into the left corner of the net, 1-0, a.e.t., in the 110th minute.
The 1983 FA Cup Final ended in a draw, 3-3, with Atkinson’s then teenage Northern Ireland center forward, 18 year old Norman Whiteside, who got 8 league goals that season, scoring with a header. Grimes, age 25, wasn’t selected for the replay either, which United won, 1-0, through a strike from left full back, Lee Martin, and a disappointed Ashley was left accepting a ₤200,000 transfer to play for Coventry at the commencement of the 1983-84 campaign, which saw United lose to Italy’s Juventus in the semi final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup after a draw at Old Trafford, 1-1, and a defeat away in Turin, 1-2, that is, 2-3, on aggregate.
In the league United finished 4th, while future star forward, Mark Hughes, scored 4 league goals in 7 starts, and 4 substitute appearances, and a goal on his debut for the club in a draw, 1-1, away at Oxford United in the 4th round of the League Cup on November 30th, 1983. Frank Stapleton again top scored with 13 goals, and Arthur Graham, a goal scoring left winger, bought from Second Division Leeds for ₤45,000, gave the team the width they’d lacked since Thomas and Grimes were sold, and made 33 league starts, with 4 appearances as substitute, for 5 goals. However, it was Atkinson’s decision to sell Ray Wilkins to A.C. Milan at season’s end for ₤1. 5 m that upset the fans.
Although Scots’ right winger from Aberdeen for ₤500,000, Gordon Strachan, and Denmark’s left winger, Jesper Olsen, for ₤350,000 from Ajax Amsterdam of the Netherlands, had arrived, United’s again finishing 4th in the table, and victory in the 1985 FA Cup Final against Everton, 1-0, courtesy of Whiteside, despite United’s being reduced to 10 players, after Ireland center half, Kevin Moran, was sent off in the 78th minute for a horrendous tackle on England midfield strong man, Peter Reid, the writing was on the wall for ‘Big Ron’, whose side had lost to Hungary’s Videoton in the quarter final of the UEFA Cup, 4-5 on penalties, after winning much more easily than the final score indicated at Old Trafford, 1-0, through a Stapleton headed goal from a cross on the right by Strachan, before that heartbreaking loss away, 0-1.
Atkinson would compound his sin of selling Wilkins by transferring top scorer, Mark Hughes, with 16 goals that season, after his top scoring again the following 1985-86 season, with 17 goals, as the club finished in 4th place in the league, and no other forward, including Olsen with 11 goals that campaign, ever looked like scoring enough, whereas Hughes always would. Mark went to Barcelona for ₤2 m before the 1986-87 season began, and Atkinson was replaced as manager by Aberdeen’s Alex Ferguson on November 4th with United, then in 19th position in the English championship, eventually finishing 11th, and the Ferguson era had begun.