The scenario for the final match of the 1988-89 English League season was something a Hollywood script writer might invent. But the stomach-tightening tension and raw emotion of the night itself was more intense than any movie…
Twenty years ago today at
Anfield, the League Championship was decided in the most dramatic finale to any
English top-flight campaign.
The two leading teams in the old First Division, Liverpool and Arsenal, were meeting in the last match of the season on the evening of Friday, May 26, 1989. Every other club had completed their programme; this game had been postponed because of the Hillsborough tragedy six weeks earlier. Crucially, everything was at stake for both teams in an all-or-nothing encounter.
Arsenal had led the table from Boxing Day, despite some nervous wobbles, until mid-May. But they'd collected only one point from their final two home games, and Liverpool, on a 24-match unbeaten run, had relentlessly closed a 19-point gap on the Gunners. Already FA Cup winners, the Reds had won their penultimate game and were now three points ahead of Arsenal.
Anything less damaging than a two-goal defeat for Liverpool and the title would be theirs; but victory by two goals for Arsenal would deprive the Reds of the Double and make Arsenal champions by the narrowest of margins - number of goals scored.
The omens were stacked against George Graham's side, who hadn't won at Anfield for 15 years. Liverpool hadn't lost at home by a two-goal margin for three years, and had only done so nine times in the last 18 seasons. The momentum of recent results was with Liverpool, as was a tidal wave of emotion. Arsenal's chances of winning had seemingly been written off by everyone outside of Highbury.
But 4,000 Gooners made the trip north to Merseyside, as much in blind hope as expectation. The roads were jammed with carloads of them. Kick-off had to be delayed ten minutes to allow the visitors to enter Anfield and take their places in the corner of a terrace opposite the Kop. It only added to the tension.
The Arsenal players came onto the pitch with a cheque for £30,000 for the Hillsborough disaster fund. All carried bouquets of flowers and presented them to Liverpool supporters around the ground. Finally the action got underway.
A draw would suit Liverpool fine. They could even afford to lose 1-0 or 2-1. Maybe that left Kenny Dalglish's men in two minds, unsure whether to sit back or go for it. Disciplined Arsenal ran, pressed and harried. On nine minutes Steve Bould had a goal-bound header cleared off the line by Steve Nicol. John Aldridge shot over the bar. Ronnie Whelan's drive from distance forced John Lukic into a good save. Ian Rush jarred his leg attempting a shot, and had to be replaced by Peter Beardsley.
It was hard and it was tense; but it was goalless at half-time. Graham wasn't displeased. Yet Liverpool didn't need to score, just stop Arsenal scoring twice.
After the break the Londoners continued to deny Liverpool time or space to settle into their stride. On 52 minutes, Whelan conceded a free kick on Arsenal's left. Nigel Winterburn flighted it into the area, where Alan Smith momentarily lost his marker, stealing in behind a line of defenders to glance the ball into the corner of the net with the deftest of headers.
Liverpool players engulfed the referee. A linesman's flag had momentarily been raised, then lowered. But the linesman told the ref there was no reason to disallow the goal. TV replays confirmed it was the right decision. Liverpool were unnerved, but Arsenal needed another, and the minutes were ticking away.
Kevin Richardson put Michael Thomas through with only Bruce Grobbelaar to beat, but the midfielder's shot was straight at the keeper. Liverpool began to run out of ideas. Arsenal were fighting hard, but at 1-0 it looked like they would win the battle and lose the war.
With a few minutes left,
Richardson was injured, needing treatment. The Kop whistled for the end of the
game, and the season, as the Gunners launched what would surely be their last
Lukic gave the ball to Lee Dixon, who controlled it and played a long pass to the tireless Smith some 30 yards from goal. Thomas surged forward in the inside-right channel and Smith lobbed the ball perfectly into his path. According to the clock, 91 minutes and 26 seconds had been played. We were into time added on for Richardson's injury. Nicol challenged Thomas but the ball rebounded off the Scot back to Thomas. It was up for grabs now. He was into the penalty area, Ray Houghton and Nicol closing in on him and Grobbelaar rushing out, spreading himself.
Thomas waited an instant that seemed an eternity before flicking the ball over the keeper into the corner of the net. Unbelievably, it was 2-0. Anfield was stunned bar the Arsenal corner, which erupted in a seething mass of delirium. Fans, strangers apart from the shared bond of supporting the Gunners, were euphorically hugging and kissing each other as Michael Thomas somersaulted in celebration. The impossible had occurred.
There were still a few anxious seconds before the final whistle meant Arsenal, thrillingly against the odds, were champions. They received the trophy on the Anfield turf; sportingly, the home fans applauded, despite their gut-wrenching disappointment. Arsenal fans simply wanted to bottle the uninhibited rush of what they'd just experienced. The joyous disbelief was so intense they wanted to live that unique moment again, analyse it, preserve it. May 26 had suddenly become a day synonymous with magic.
A euphoric George Graham affirmed, "If you lose hope, or lose belief, you may as well get out of football. Tonight was the fairy tale, the unpredictable that makes us all love football..."
Liverpool (4-4-2): Bruce Grobbelaar, Gary Ablett, Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, Steve McMahon, John Barnes, John Aldridge, Ian Rush (Peter Beardsley).
Arsenal (1-4-3-2): John Lukic, David O'Leary, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould (Perry Groves), Tony Adams, Nigel Winterburn, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Kevin Richardson, Paul Merson (Martin Hayes), Alan Smith.
Both Arsenal and Liverpool finished with 76 points, both having won 22, drawn 10 and lost 6, and both having a goal difference of +37. But Arsenal had scored 73 goals to Liverpool's 65, making the Gunners champions.
Graham Lister, Goal.com