Football's greatest-ever title finish? Arsenal's 1989 triumph over Liverpool, told by the players
“Please, please, please, please, please, just f***ing... F*** OFF! You have arrived during the worst 60 seconds of my life and I really don’t want to see you.”
It’s 10pm on May 26, 1989. In a flat in Highbury, north London, the buzzer has sounded and Paul, the Arsenal-obsessed protagonist of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch film adaptation, is understandably irate. The visitor couldn’t have called at a worse time. Approaching injury time in the Division One championship decider at Anfield, Arsenal lead Liverpool 1-0, but desperately need a second goal to steal the title.
The referee stops the game so Arsenal’s Kevin Richardson can receive treatment for cramp. Mad-eyed midfielder Steve McMahon tells his Liverpool team-mates there’s just “one minute” remaining, signalling forcibly with his right index finger. John Barnes and John Aldridge exchange a ‘tag’ of the hands. They think it’s all over.
So does Paul and, believing it might be love interest Sarah at the door, dashes downstairs and into the street, leaving best mate and fellow Gooner, Steve, alone in agony in front of the television. But when Paul returns moments later, Michael Thomas is through on goal with just Bruce Grobbelaar to beat...
For fans of Liverpool and Arsenal, the difference between Thomas scoring and missing was the difference between agony and sheer, unadulterated ecstasy
For fans of Liverpool and Arsenal, the difference between Thomas scoring and missing was the difference between agony and sheer, unadulterated ecstasy on the other. For millions more watching live on TV, it was the most dramatic sporting moment of that or any other year. It was also a far cry from the Premiership procession we’ve become accustomed to. In 1999/2000, Manchester United won the title by 18 points. Last season, Arsenal finished 11 points clear.
Yet as Liverpool and Arsenal squared up in 1989, it was 47 years since an entire season had gone down to the final day between the two top teams when the Busby Babes beat Arsenal 6-1 at Old Trafford to claim their first title. It wasn’t expected to conclude that way in 1952, and it certainly wasn’t expected to play out that way in 1989.
Arsenal had no more than an outside chance of winning their first League title for 18 years, having finished sixth the previous season
In August 1988, Arsenal had no more than an outside chance of winning their first League title for 18 years, having finished sixth the previous season. A double winner as an Arsenal player, George Graham had been manager for little over a year, and had extensively rebuilt his team. Out went Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom, Steve Williams, Graham Rix and Charlie Nicholas, and in came centre-forward Alan Smith, winger Brian Marwood, midfielder Kevin Richardson and defenders Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn. The new signings joined home-grown quartet Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson, with David O’Leary, John Lukic and Paul Davis retained.
It was a time of transition. The new names expected to take time to find their feet, and expectations were low. “Liverpool were going to win the league,” says Arsenal fan Robert Frumkin. “Second or third would have been good for us.”
But Tony Adams thought differently. The day after England’s first-round exit at the 1988 European Championship, the Arsenal skipper bet ITV’s perma-tanned football anchor Jim Rosenthal £50 that the Gunners would come out on top the following season. With Liverpool overwhelming favourites to defend their title, Rosenthal’s money seemed safe.
For the 22-year-old, though, winning the league became a personal crusade. Turned inside out by Marco van Basten during England’s defeat to Holland, Adams had come to be viewed by the media as the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the English defender: too slow, too agricultural, too uncultured.
Having been made the scapegoat for England’s failure, Adams began the season being subjected to donkey noises from opposing fans. It got progressively worse, the low point coming after a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, when he scored at both ends. The following day, he looked at the back page of the Daily Mirror and saw a picture of himself with a pair of donkey’s ears attached to the side of his head. Privately, the criticism hurt Adams. Publicly, it motivated him. “I thought: we’re going to win the League and show them,” he later remembered.
In his autobiography Addicted, Adams boasts that Arsenal “squeezed and squeezed teams, then squeezed them more”, using the Highbury pitch – one of the smallest in the First Division – to pressurise their opponents in all areas of the field. In fact, Arsenal were more successful away from home, winning 12 games on their travels, soaking up pressure before hitting teams on the counter-attack. At Highbury, where the onus was on them to dictate the pace of the game, they fared worse with just 10 victories – an unusually low number for a team with title aspirations.
- Everton 0-0 Liverpool, May 3
- Liverpool 1-0 Nott Forest, May 10
- Wimbledon 1-2 Liverpool, May 13
- Liverpool 2-0 QPR, May 16
- Liverpool 5-1 West Ham, May 23
Labelled a long-ball team in certain quarters, Arsenal under Graham relied heavily on moving the ball forward quickly – not unlike Sven-Göran Eriksson’s approach with England. But whereas Eriksson’s England look to hit balls over the top or through the channels for Michael Owen, Graham’s Arsenal looked to Smith’s close control and aerial ability to bring the likes of Merson, Marwood and Rocastle into the game. “They’re fast, fit and pragmatic,” was David Lacey’s diplomatic interpretation of Arsenal’s strengths in The Guardian.
“We played some good stuff,” counters Smith. “And we were the division’s highest scorers, so we couldn’t have been boring.”
At Anfield, however, ‘pass and move’ was still very much the Liverpool groove. The Reds had won the title by nine points the previous season and with Ian Rush returning from Juventus to bolster an attack already boasting Aldridge, Barnes and Peter Beardsley, they now looked even stronger.
- Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle, Apr 15
- Arsenal 5-0 Norwich, May 1
- Middlesbro' 0-1 Arsenal, May 6
- Arsenal 1-2 Derby, May 13
- Arsenal 2-2 Wimbledon, May 17
“We’d lost that glow of invincibility at the 1987 Littlewoods Cup Final,” admits Liverpool fan Anthony Teasdale, recalling Arsenal coming from behind to beat Liverpool 2-1, “but you just couldn’t see anyone but us winning the league that year.”
Even so, Liverpool’s form leading up to the turn of the year was patchy, largely due to injuries to Rush and Alan Hansen. When Arsenal hit the front for the first time on Boxing Day, Liverpool were sixth. And by the time the Gunners demolished fellow title contenders Everton at Goodison Park on January 14, leaving them 11 points clear of Liverpool, the bookmakers had installed Graham's men as odds-on favourites.
But the tag didn’t stick comfortably to Arsenal. “There was still an underlying fear that we might make a mess of it,” admitted Adams, reflecting on 19 dropped points between January and the season’s end.
As the Gunners wobbled, Liverpool grew ever stronger. After losing at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day, the Reds won 15 of their next 18 league games – drawing the other three – to gradually erode Arsenal’s lead. In early April, Liverpool thumped Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 to finally top the table and everybody outside Highbury assumed the writing was on the wall. Arsenal returned to the summit with a 1-0 win over Newcastle, but Liverpool would regain the lead if they won their game in hand. First, though, there was the small matter of an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.
That the top two teams would play each other on the last day of the season to decide the title was not just a happy coincidence thrown up by the fixture list. On April 15, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough. The match was abandoned and Liverpool’s next two league games were postponed as the club, its supporters, the nation and the football world mourned.
After the Wimbledon game we did a lap of honour to thank the Highbury crowd for their support and they clapped us as if to say, ‘Well done, hard luck’
Rearranging the fixtures, the Football League realised they had a potential decider on their hands, so switched Liverpool’s home game against Arsenal from April 22 to Friday, May 26. Kicking off at 8.05pm, the final act was to be screened live on ITV.
Between May 3, when they drew with Everton, and the showdown with Arsenal, Liverpool played and won six times. Arsenal, who had to play just three times during the same period, contrived to drop five points at home, losing to Derby before drawing with Wimbledon in their penultimate game. If anybody looked tired, it was Graham’s men. In truth, the pressure had told. “You get on edge and forget what got you there in the first place,” explains Smith. “After the Wimbledon game we did a lap of honour to thank the Highbury crowd for their support and they clapped us as if to say, ‘Well done, hard luck’. Even the chairman came into the dressing room afterwards to say ‘You’ve had a great season, you’d done us proud.’ He didn’t say, ‘You’ve had it now’, but you could read between the lines.”
With the media already writing off Arsenal’s chances of victory at Anfield, Liverpool entertained West Ham on the Tuesday night, knowing that victory would leave them needing just a draw against the Gunners three days later. Hoping the relegation-threatened Hammers would do them a favour, Arsenal could only watch in horror as Liverpool won 5-1, relegating West Ham and dictating that only defeat by a two-goal margin would take the title south.
“I remember I was at the Football Writers’ dinner when Liverpool played West Ham,” recalls Smith. “They kept scoring, two, three, four... and we kept saying, ‘How many have we got to beat them by now?’”
Michael Thomas was equally confused. “Then George came over, messing around, punching me in the arm, saying, ‘Two-nil? Not a problem!’”
Fuel the fire
We’re not worried about Arsenal now
Sensing the tension in his players, Graham gave them two days off after the Wimbledon game, leaving others to motivate his team. “But for injuries [to Liverpool], the climax would doubtless not have been so belated,” said The Times. “For the sake of the English game, Liverpool must win,” said Charlie Nicholas, referring to the respective styles of play and clearly still smarting having been forced out of Highbury by Graham. “You don’t have a prayer, Arsenal,” added the Mirror, while The Sun opined that the Gunners were there to make up the numbers.
“We’re not worried about Arsenal now,” said Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon, echoing The Times’ opinion that an Arsenal triumph was clearly “Impossible”.
Graham, though, remained in ebullient mood: “We don’t concede anything. Why should we? I firmly believe we can win at Anfield and my players do as well.”
According to Smith, the mood in training was the most relaxed he can ever remember in the build-up to a match. “It was one of those games where we just thought, well, nobody fancies us, we know what we’ve got to do, we might as well just go up there and give it a shot. But I didn’t expect us to win.”
For the sake of the English game, Liverpool must win
But Thomas, and others in the camp, did. “It was Liverpool, we’d played against them before, there was no fear factor, but our frame of mind was made easier because we were expected to lose.”
With the pressure off, Graham performed one last motivational trick to ensure his team remained fully focused. On the coach up to Merseyside, he took out a newspaper article and passed it round. In it, Anfield legend Graeme Souness wrote off the Gunners as “boys” against Liverpool’s “men”. Graham’s “boys” could not have been more ready.