Is 20 years a long time in football?
I think so.
1989 was before Sky, before the Premier League, before the ghastly VAR.
1989 by Amy Lawrence is a book written for gooners about a match played in unique circumstances, having been postponed because of the Hillsborough tragedy.
The last league game of the 1988-89 season took place on a Friday night, when the game was screened live by ITV with Brian Moore commentating.
Extensive interviews, mostly conducted during the filming of the documentary, supply the whole inside story of that remarkable event, as experienced by the Arsenal players, staff and supporters, who include celebrity fans like Nick Hornby and Alan Davies. Referee David Hutchinson is extensively quoted and what he says is very interesting.
Liverpool were league leaders and Arsenal were in second place and a draw was no good and a 1-0 win was no good. Neither was a 2-1 win.
But who wins 2-0 at Anfield? It looked like mission impossible. Arsenal needed a 2-0 victory to win the league on goal difference. How do you win away against the league leaders when they don’t need to beat you?
George Graham had been an Arsenal player in 1971 when they won the League and FA Cup double but when he returned as manager in 1986 the club was going nowhere and crowds were shrinking. He decided to build a new team that was hungry and highly organised.
A formidable tactician, George realised Anfield was going to be a psychological battle as well as a tactical one. He knew that an early goal by Liverpool, or any goal by them in the first half, would have been ruinous. To prevent that so he mapped out a very pragmatic and patient game-plan.
Since arriving at London Colney, the training ground, George had drilled his back four relentlessly, so that his four defenders were always the same distance from each other wherever they were on the pitch.
But now, as he approached this daunting trip to Anfield, this once-in-a-lifetime challenge, he surprised the players by ditching the back four that had served him so well.
Instead he chose three centrebacks and told Dixon and Winterburn to push up on John Barnes and Ray Houghton. He wanted to see a 45-minute battle in which Arsenal gave nothing away. His game-plan could only work if the score was 0-0 at half-time.
He said, “Second half, if we score, they will panic a bit.”
When half-time came the score was 0-0.
The drama really started when referee Hutchinson gave a free-kick. He signalled that it was an indirect free-kick, so if the ball goes straight into the net it’s not a goal.
Nigel Winterburn took a left-footed inswinger. Alan Smith’s wife Penny was sitting behind Bruce Grobbelaar and on that side of the goal and she saw the ball hit the side of her husband’s head. As the Arsenal fans erupted, Penny suddenly felt very sick. She thought it was nerves. But it was nothing to do with football. The following week she discovered she was pregnant.
About seven Liverpool players protested to referee David Hutchinson, claiming Smith had not touched the ball.
Fortunately, Hutchinson had prepared for all eventualities and given his linesmen very specific instructions : “I said if a goal is scored and you’re happy I want you to go back as quickly as you can and hit the centre line and if you’ve got players chasing you, go beyond the centre line and my reasoning for that is that if a player goes beyond the centre line he’s had a half a pitch to calm down and he deserves to be introduced to my yellow card. Geoff was on his way as soon as the ball was in the net.”
The Liverpool players contesting the goal could not scream at linesman Geoff Banwell because he wasn’t there. He had scooted off down his touchline like a jackrabbit.
ITV man Jim Rosenthal said he thought the Liverpool players were protesting because they thought they should. The sole Arsenal spokesman in that argument was David O’Leary who was saying, “Don’t get talked out of it!”
The rest you know. The Alan Smith goal stood, Mickey Thomas missed a late chance, thought he would get another chance, when that came Mickey buried it to provide the most thrilling victory in Arsenal’s history.
Working as The Scotsman’s London reporter, my patch was Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, QPR, West Ham and Watford, plus all the games at Wembley.
Charlie Nicholas had been an exciting young star at Celtic and fans north of the border were interested in how he was doing in London, so I had started going to Arsenal more often.
The first fixture of 1986-87 was at Highbury when the visitors were Manchester United and Charlie scored the only goal of the game and the new manager came into the press room and I instantly realised that this immaculately groomed Scottish hard man would change the culture.
I still remember thinking: ”This guy is gonna kick ass! He will make the players earn their money. From now on I want to be here for every home game to see what happens.”
George’s final remark that day was: “We’re gonnae set standards here – and the players know it!”
That was a promise. But it also sounded like a threat.
Clearly, Mickey’s winner at Anfield was the most unforgettable moment for Arsenal supporters. Very few of the matches we see in the future will be as dramatic as that one. And those circumstances will never be repeated.
But for me, a neutral, meeting George Graham for the first time had a bigger impact. As time went on, I felt that I understood why he was the way he was.
I knew that he has a collection of Arsenal memorabilia.
In the book George says, “I used to go to programme and book fairs in a hotel in Russell Square in a Sunday to pick up rare things. I have quite a lot from the 30s and even before then. It’s quite fascinating how the club came over the borders into North London. How they built Highbury. Who the chairman was. Some of the great managers. The philosophy. Herbert Chapman didn’t do any coaching. He just picked a team and it was down to the trainer and physio. There was probably three staff and Chapman would just sit in his lovely oak-panelled office upstairs. Luckily I had that for a few years. To have those magical moments makes you feel nice but in time you’re forgotten about and then the world has got a few hero. But, of course, you enjoy the memories. You love it.”
89 is a well-structured book for Gooners and Arsenal families should read it. It’s a lovely souvenir. Maybe the hardback will one day become an item of memorabilia,
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