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May 25, 2022 6 min read

Charge Your Glasses – Arsenal 89

 

In 1992, football in England changed. There were three reasons for it:

  1. The Taylor Report, which recommended safer, all-seater stadia and ultimately persuaded a newly merged satellite TV company to risk its future on flogging dishes to people to watch something they had previous got for nothing
  2. The Backpass Rule, which changed goalkeeping following a low-scoring World Cup in 1990. Chiefly because the ball couldn’t be handled after being passed back to the goalie, Nottingham Forest were relegated and champions Leeds United barely scraped through to survival. Manchester United, with a Danish handball player in goal, were fine.
  3. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, which is topical today.
    Hornby was an English teacher whose link with the club he supported was such that people always thought of him when they thought of Arsenal FC. On evenings and at weekends, Hornby would type away on his little book about his time following the Arsenal, measuring his life in football matches. It was, he writes in the book’s introduction, ‘an attempt to gain some kind of an angle on my obsession’, one which had outlasted romantic relationships and friendships. Fever Pitch invented ‘fan memoir’ as a literary genre, and arguably prompted the intellectualisation of football criticism.

 

Arsenal's Big Match

Near the end of the book, Hornby describes the events of May 26 1989, six weeks after 95 fans died in a crush at Hillsborough. Liverpool, whose players and coaches have spent a month visiting hospital, talking to the bereaved and attending funerals, had won the FA Cup against Everton the previous Saturday. On ITV on a Thursday evening, football fans could watch the climax to a fascinating but horrible season of English football as first played second.

‘It began to dawn on me,’ Hornby writes in Fever Pitch, ‘that Arsenal might never win the league in my lifetime.’ Indeed, since 1975 he hadn’t given it much thought. In 1989, however, Arsenal spent months at the top of the table, going into the third-to-last matchday five points ahead of Liverpool, the league holders. In a typically Arsenal fashion, they lost to Derby and were held at home by Wimbledon. Liverpool, meanwhile, demolished West Ham 5-1. That left the table looking like this:

 

Liverpool           W22 D10 L5      Goals Scored 65              Goals Conceded 26              Goal Difference +39

 

Arsenal              W21 D10 L6      Goals Scored 71              Goals Conceded 36              Goal Difference +35

 

The league would be decided on the final day, with Arsenal having to beat Liverpool by two clear goals to give them the title on goals scored. One-nil to the Arsenal would not be enough, even though a win would be their first at Anfield in 15 years. There would be no place in Europe for either side because the ban on English clubs, which had been imposed in 1985, would not be lifted until 1990 (1991 for Liverpool). Liverpool, playing for those fans who had died at the FA Cup semi-final, were favourites for yet another league title.

Hornby, having bought next season’s home strip, goes into work ‘sick with nerves’. He sits down on the sofa of a friend’s house to watch the match, with David Pleat summarising and Brian Moore commentating. We read Hornby’s appreciation for the Arsenal XI: Paul Merson and his ‘gap-toothed smile and tatty soul-boy haircut’; Alan Smith with his ‘loveable diligence’; David Rocastle and his ‘pumped-up elegance’. And captain Tony Adams at the back.

In his book Addicted, Adams – or Rodders, as Perry Groves nicknamed him after the Only Fools & Horsescharacter Rodney – writes about the title decider. George Graham’s message was ‘pressure, pressure, pressure all over the field’ and to ‘make them kick it long’ so that Adams and Steve Bould could head the ball away. Graham wanted to go in 0-0 at half-time, then win it in the second half.

Adams notes that the Anfield atmosphere was ‘almost eerie – and ideal for us’. As Graham wanted, the first half was goalless but, significantly, Ian Rush strained his groin and was replaced by Peter Beardsley. The best chance came from Bould, whose header was cleared off the Liverpool goalline.

 

Arsenal's Big 45 Minutes

Eight minutes into the second half, Arsenal opened the scoring thanks to Alan Smith heading in a Nigel Winterburn free-kick. ‘We tried it so much in training, it never came off!’ Alan Smith has said. Ray Parlour recalls in his memoir that he watched the game at Romford dog track, with Arsenal ‘massive underdogs’ (probably no pun intended) and achieving something that was even bigger than Manchester City’s win in 2012. It helped them that Liverpool had played two games in the week already, one of which was an FA Cup final against Everton.

Rather incredibly, ten of the Arsenal starting XI are English, with sweeper David O’Leary the odd man out. The Gunners had only used 17 players all season. Perry Groves came off the bench 19 times in all, including at Anfield, where he entered midway through the second half. He recounts in his memoir We All Live In A Perry Groves World that until his introduction, he had ‘almost forgotten the importance of the game. I was just enjoying the occasion.’

Both Adams and Groves note that Liverpool would have appealed for anything but their protests were without foundation and it was 1-0 to the Arsenal. Later in the half, needing a second goal, Arsenal go for broke and bring on two attackers knowing that Liverpool can score on the counter.

There were chances for both sides. John Aldridge was flagged for offside before he puts ball in net, as Arsenal breathe again. Michael Thomas snatched at a shot thinking he needed to get it away quickly. ‘I panicked,’ he told a Sky Sports feature marking 30 years since the fixture, played in a time before Sky Sports.

 

Arsenal's Big Moment

Steve McMahon told his team-mates there was a minute left, holding up a finger. TV viewers across Britain were glued to their seats, as were the 41,000 fans in the stadium.

Kevin Richardson picked up an injury but, with Arsenal having used both their allotted changes, had to hobble on. It was he who dispossessed John Barnes in the Arsenal area and, within the rules at the time of course, passed the ball back to keeper John Lukic. Adams told him to kick it long, just as England’s players wanted Bobby Moore to kick the ball out rather than up the pitch to Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup final.

Lukic threw the ball to Lee Dixon, who hit a 50-yard pass to Alan Smith, who passed it to Thomas. As he controlled the ball, it hit him, then hit Steve Nicol then hit Thomas again and bounced away from the pair of them, as if God is a Gooner. Thomas was one-on-one again with Bruce Grobbelaar, who hit the ground first. Thomas’ gamble paid off and he chipped the ball into the net. ‘I didn’t panic the second time!’ he smiled.

‘He had a massive heart,’ Groves writes with admiration; ‘he also had the balls to go for it in the first place,’ referring to the shot. Instead of diving onto his team-mate, and getting himself a photo op, Groves chose not to do so.

To their great credit, the Anfield crowd applauded Arsenal on their title win and the home staff sent over the bottle of champagne they were keeping chilled in case Liverpool held on. They would take the title in 1990, with Arsenal winning it back in 1991, before Manchester United dominated the early years of the Premier League.

Having gone through every comparison before realising that it is the ‘communal ecstasy’ of such a moment that makes it incomparable to love or a lottery win, Hornby concludes that ‘there is literally nothing to describe’ his delight at Arsenal winning the First Division. As happened at the end of the film adaptation, Hornby heads to the street, ‘arms outstretched like a little boy playing aeroplanes’. He buys champagne from the offie, marvelling at the ‘joyful, almost Latin explosion’ of emotion close to Arsenal’s Highbury stadium.

The Arsenal team coach arrived back in London at 2.30am and the team headed to a nightclub to party the night away. Groves notes that ‘there were people on the streets cheering us…it was mayhem. The fans wanted your tie, blazer, everything.’ A news report shows these happy Gooners, hooting horns and popping champagne for which they may also have been overcharged.

‘If you wrote it down, you wouldn’t believe it,’ sighed John Aldridge in that Sky Sports, where he regrets not putting his arms up to block Lukic’s pass to Dixon. Perhaps this weekend’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, watched by hundreds of millions worldwide, will share the drama and excitement of that Friday night at Anfield.

Arsenal fans, meanwhile, are invited to charge their glasses to the team of ’89, who won the First Division with one of the last kicks of the season.