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Interesting article on 1989 and 'that game', 'that goal'

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An interesting perspective on the denouement of the 88/89 season.




The night football was reborn

Twenty years ago, Arsenal travelled to Liverpool - six weeks after Hillsborough - for a title decider that few thought they could win. Ninety impossibly dramatic minutes later, they had repaired the reputation of football

Jason Cowley

The Observer, Sunday 29 March 2009



Michael Thomas and Tony Adams celebrate winning the league title for Arsenal in the last seconds of the season. Photograph: Action Images


The 1988-89 season was the Football League's centenary, but there was little to celebrate. The Hillsborough disaster, when 96 people were crushed to death on the stadium's terraces during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989, was the final act in a decade of misfortune for the English game. It was the last in a chain of calamities and woes that included Heysel, where 39 Juventus fans died and many hundreds more were injured during the Italian club's 1985 European Cup final against Liverpool, and the Bradford fire, also in 1985, when a blaze that started during a third division match between Bradford City and Lincoln City devastated the home side's 77-year-old wooden main stand and killed 56 people.


I was on the terraces on the afternoon of 15 April, on the North Bank at Highbury, and on the morning after Hillsborough, after I'd read the newspaper reports, studied the front-page photographs of those crushed against the fences - the sad, sickening, bloated faces of the dying - and watched and listened to the various news reports on TV and radio, I felt the need to speak to my father, who had introduced me to football many years before and who, in recent times, had inspired my reconnection with the game. The trouble was that I didn't know how to reach him in Hong Kong, where he was on business. In the event, he called me; it was evening in Hong Kong and he wanted to know the mood in England. He and my mother had been at a dinner party in Kowloon, he said; the game had been on in another room. During the party, someone had gone to check the score, and there it was: the tragedy of Hillsborough unfolding on screen. Everyone left the table and gathered around the television. They watched the injured and dying being carried away on the advertising hoardings that were being used as emergency stretchers; watched people trying to scale the security fences to reach the safety of the pitch only to be beaten back by police who didn't fully understand what was happening; watched the stunned, aghast faces of those people trapped behind the fences.


"How can the season continue after this?" I asked. "It obviously can't," my father said. "It's over."


"What?" I said, unsure if I'd heard him properly, since there was the inevitable, irritating delay on the line.


"It's over," he said again.


"What happened up there," he continued, "could've happened to any of us, anywhere, at any time. The whole infrastructure of the game is corrupt."


Then he said: "I'm finished with football."


It was announced the next day that the season would be suspended to allow for a period of mourning and for the government and other authorities to prepare their appalled and urgent responses.


Six weeks later


At around nine o'clock on the morning of Friday 26 May 1989, the Arsenal players began gathering at their London Colney training ground, just off junction 22 of the M25 in the monotonous flatlands of this part of Hertfordshire. Arsenal had, nine days earlier, drawn at home to Wimbledon, a failure that was widely accepted to have led to their relinquishing a chance to win a title that not long before had seemed theirs to win as and when they chose. Since then, the Arsenal players had spent their time in an antechamber of uncertainty. For every club other than Arsenal and Liverpool, the season was over. The FA Cup final had been and gone, won the previous Saturday by Liverpool. Yet there was still one more game to play. Arsenal's visit to Anfield was originally scheduled for Sunday 23 April but, after Hillsborough and the suspension of the season, was rescheduled most unusually for the evening of 26 May, which that year fell on a Friday. Arsenal were going into the last game three points behind Liverpool and with an inferior goal difference, having been top of the table for most of the second half of the season and overhauled by a resurgent Liverpool only at the last. To be champions, they had to win at Anfield by two goals against a team unbeaten since 2 January.


The Arsenal coach set off from London Colney just before 10am. The players, as they settled down in their usual groupings, observed how many more unfamiliar faces there were on the coach. It was as if as many of those connected to the club as possible had negotiated a ride north: fringe and injured players, boardroomers and their guests, backroom bureaucrats. "The coach was packed with players, directors and vice-presidents," said Perry Groves, who was manager George Graham's first signing in 1986 and one of two substitutes that night at Anfield. "We were all pretty jovial. It was almost like a day out, as no one was expecting us to win. There were plenty of cars with Arsenal scarves as we drove up the motorway and lots of the fans gave us the thumbs-up."


The feeling among the players was that they had lost the title. At the turn of the year, Arsenal's lead over Liverpool had been 15 points. Since then they'd faltered just as Liverpool began to improve, strengthened by the return of their goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who had missed much of the season because of illness. Since 2 January Liverpool had won 21 of their 24 games, scoring 60 and conceding 15. Arsenal had won just 10 of their previous 20 games, with four defeats. There was now a frenetic, jittery quality to their play, as long balls were hit more in hope than expectation and the defence became brittle.


Once settled at their hotel, the Atlantic Tower, the Arsenal players had lunch before being instructed to return to their rooms to rest. "I was sharing a room with David O'Leary," Alan Smith, Arsenal's central striker, told me. "We drew the curtains and had a good few hours' sleep. I didn't always sleep well on match day, but we both woke up that afternoon and said we'd slept well. It was the same when we went down to meet the others. Everyone said they'd slept well." George Graham, Arsenal's authoritarian manager, received his players at the five o'clock team meeting dressed in club blazer, white shirt, and a red and white tie. The players were served tea with toast and honey, and then Graham asked the waiters to clear the tables and close the door.


Graham confirmed what the team would be and that they would play with five at the back, with O'Leary as sweeper. This was his great gamble - to bolster the defence in a game he needed to win by two goals! Using a flip chart as an aid, he discussed tactics and explained who would be marking whom at set plays. He then told the players exactly what he expected of them: that they should "keep it tight", frustrate Liverpool so as to subdue the crowd, and that, above all, they shouldn't concede a goal. They shouldn't worry or panic if the score was still 0-0 at half-time, he said. In the second half they should "open up a bit", and seek to score an early goal. The greater pressure would then be on Liverpool: they had the title to lose; they would "fall apart under the pressure".


Nobody expected Arsenal to win.


Arsenal emerge up the steps from the narrow tunnel wearing their away kit of yellow shirts with navy-blue short sleeves, and tight blue shorts; it's a wonder that they're not blown back or frozen by the force of the high-decibel roar into which they run, by the tremendous, reverberating power of it. Each player wears a white memorial armband; white, rather than the more conventional black as worn by the Liverpool players, because black would not have shown up against their dark shirt sleeves. Liverpool wear their traditional all-red kit, and on this warm evening, so late in the season, so early in the summer, they too are in short-sleeves. The Arsenal players are holding bouquets of flowers. After lining up briefly inside the centre circle to wave to and applaud the crowd, they spin off in different directions, as if in choreographed formation, carrying the flowers to all parts of the ground, where they are then passed into the crowd. The home fans respond to this gesture with harmonious applause. The mood is one of tolerance and mutual respect; Hillsborough has cooled the fans' hatreds without diminishing their ardour.


Liverpool and Arsenal, north and south: just for now, just before the game, there's a sense of unity and reconciliation. "The flowers were a good idea," says Theo Foley, Arsenal's assistant manager and Graham's confidant. "We walked out and were respectful - that was important."


Liverpool are to kick off, attacking the Anfield Road End. Arsenal line up in a 5-4-1 formation: John Lukic; Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, David O'Leary, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn; David Rocastle, Kevin Richardson, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson; Alan Smith. Liverpool are 4-4-2: Bruce Grobbelaar; Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen, Gary Ablett, Steve Staunton; Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan, Steve McMahon, John Barnes; Ian Rush, John Aldridge.


In this last minute before the match begins, the players are in formation, with Barnes and Rocastle facing each other, separated only by the chalky thickness of the halfway line. They embrace and shake hands, these two black athletes who through their excellence and example have done so much to alter terrace attitudes to racial difference. The whistle blows; the match begins.


In this early phase of the game, Arsenal's tackling has a premeditated ferocity. It's easy now to forget how subtle changes in the laws, such as the banning of the tackle from behind or the preventing of goalkeepers from picking up back-passes, have since refined the game, quickened it, made it more fluid. Graham's Arsenal were adept at using the tackle from behind not only to thwart but also to intimidate. Bould, who is lean with dark-brown receding hair swept back from a high forehead, is the master cruncher, eager to let both Rush and Aldridge know from the beginning that he's insistently there, right behind them, always behind them. So the game is being interrupted by ankle-wounding tackles and free kicks; neither side is able to build momentum or establish a coherent pattern of play.


The first chance of the match falls to Arsenal, when, improbably, Bould arrives from deep to head a cross towards goal; the ball beats Grobbelaar, only to be headed up and over the bar by a retreating defender. Arsenal may be playing Graham's version of the sweeper system, with three central defenders, but their game tonight has fluidity and no little surprise: the full-backs as well as Bould keep pushing up whenever they can, but never carelessly. Above all, you must be patient, Graham had said.


The game is opening up, with Merson now on a wounded rhino's run down the left; there's something gloriously uninhibited in the way he runs, in his uncomplicated method, the way he charges head-down, broad shoulders lowered, with a surging, loping stride, his long, layered, bleached, unkempt hair flowing raggedly behind.


Merson is still running and, with Thomas arriving late from midfield, he sends over a cross, but it's headed out. Thomas's long run from deep has been in vain but he will keep on trying to make these late runs, keep on going, as if each failure is motivation enough to try again, to try better, even if it means failing again, failing better.


A former captain of England schoolboys, Michael Thomas first came into the side as a teenager under Graham at right-back, but, because of his stamina and physique, his excellent technique and desire to attack, it was soon apparent that he would be best positioned in central midfield. When I first saw him play I called him "the Brazilian": he looked like a new kind of English footballer to me, a full-back with the muscularity and power of a defender but with the skill and speed of a forward. For Graham, Thomas can be too inconsistent, too much of the would-be Brazilian: one game imposing, the next wasteful and inefficient. His team-mates speak of how "laid-back" he is, of how easy the game can seem to him. Does he care enough? Graham has asked. Does he want it enough?


The referee blows for half-time.


Around the country, those watching on TV begin to stir as the commercial breaks come on. ITV will report that there was a national television audience of eight million at the start of the match but many hundreds of thousands more will switch on in the second half. Regular live League football is a recent introduction to British television - the first live League game for more than 20 years was broadcast in October 1983. Before that, the Football League refused to allow games to be shown live because it was believed it would adversely affect attendances. Throughout the 70s and 80s, only highlights were permitted to be shown on ITV and the BBC.


Earlier in the day it has been reported that the launch of BSkyB, the Rupert Murdoch satellite channel that will soon change for ever the way football is sold, marketed and watched in the country, has been delayed by technical problems. Within a few years, however, Sky will have won an auction for exclusive rights to the new Premier League in a deal worth £304m to the clubs, and fans who want to watch live football on television will be paying subscription fees for what was, in the 80s, free to view. It would be this match at Anfield that would convince many in and around the game of the huge untapped revenue-generating potential of live football on television.


Meanwhile, down in the dressing rooms, Graham and Liverpool's manager, Kenny Dalglish, are addressing their players for the last time before sending them out. Graham is telling his players that before the game he kept reading that


Arsenal's trip to Anfield would be a wasted journey. "Does this feel like a wasted journey?" he asks. He is extraordinarily calm. He does not raise his voice; there's no shouting. He simply wants to reassure the players that everything is going to plan. Everything's going to plan, he keeps saying. We've kept a clean sheet. Just start to get forward more now, he says, be more positive on the ball. The pressure is on them, he says. The pressure is on them. "He wasn't swearing or shouting, nothing like that," says Alan Smith. "He just wanted to get his message across very calmly, to make some small adjustments to the game plan and to make sure we didn't start to panic because we hadn't scored. He sent us back out on to the pitch feeling enormously confident."


Liverpool start the half by seeking to establish sustained passing movements and to dictate play. During the break, Dalglish has urged them to do so, has implored them to assert their own game. But, no matter what they try in these early phases of the half, their attacks continue to break up against the hard, high wall of Arsenal's three-man central defence. The Kop are chanting, "Champions, Champions".


Six minutes into the half the referee blows for a foul on Rocastle - high feet against Whelan. Rocastle senses an opportunity; his eyes are ablaze, he punches his right fist into an open left palm, his teeth are gritted. It's an indirect free-kick, to be taken from the right-hand side of the penalty box, about 30 yards out.


There is a long pause before Winterburn, with his left foot, curls the ball in precisely towards the far side of the box. Adams breaks between Nicol and Staunton but stumbles and goes down in front of the keeper, around about the penalty spot. Just behind him, Smith has found space and he's there, alone, with his marker distracted by Adams, about six yards out; with the lightest of touches he glances the ball into the far right-hand corner of the net, with Grobbelaar beaten before he has had the chance even to dive. The Arsenal fans, clustered at the Anfield Road End, just to the right-hand side of the goal, are celebrating; a few of them spill from the terraces on to the cinder track that separates the pitch from the crowd. Just a few, but there's a moment of mayhem as a lone copper, wearing a traditional British bobby's helmet, scrambles to round them up. So animated are his movements that it's as if he, too, is celebrating the goal.


The Liverpool players have reacted to the goal with indignance and incredulity; they descend upon the referee, enclosing him in a ring of fire. The most vehement protester is the captain, Whelan, who conceded the free-kick. Close behind him are Nicol, Ablett, Houghton, McMahon, Aldridge, Barnes: a terrifying army of disgusts. The referee, Dave Hutchinson, hurries over to his linesman and rests a reassuring hand on his left shoulder, addressing him as a policeman might an errant youth: Now, tell me calmly exactly what happened. The linesman has wiry, thinning hair and a neat moustache; his faced is harrowed by anxiety.


"The only way to deal with it was not to threaten to book them but to say, 'Right, I'll go and talk with my linesman,'" Hutchinson says now. "I went over to my linesman and said: 'A couple of quickies. Did I have my hand up for the indirect free-kick?' He said yes. 'Was there a touch by Smithy in the middle?' He said: 'In my view, yes.' I said: 'Was there any possibility of offside?' He said no. I said: 'Foul?' He said no. So I said: 'Then it's a goal.'" Then it's a goal. Whelan has heard this before his players, certainly before the crowd know what's been decided, and his face carries the pallid look of disappointment as he turns away. 1-0 to Arsenal.


Liverpool are becoming distracted. In the dug-out just below pitch-level, Dalglish, sitting with coaches Roy Evans and Ronnie Moran, looks on, troubled, as Grobbelaar rages at Ablett, at his own man, after confusion between them results in the goalkeeper dropping the ball. With his receding hair cropped razor-short, his thick, dark moustache and tufts of chest hair, Grobbelaar has the look of an angry Soho leather-boy.


Liverpool must reassert their control, keep the ball, start passing out of defence - but Arsenal will not allow them to settle. They push up, compress, hustle, press. The balls they hit into the box in open play are often random and improvised, but they are also persistent.


We are entering the 87th minute. Youth team coach Pat Rice and Theo Foley are standing up in the Arsenal dug-out, urging their team forward - and forward they go, with Adams supplementing the attack whenever he can. Barnes and Aldridge are on the counter-attack now, exchanging neat passes, making up ground, with Richardson in pursuit. It's then that Richardson goes down, exhausted, cramp-stricken. The game is stopped as he receives treatment. We're so close to the end. The crowd knows this - the Liverpool supporters have been whistling incessantly for many minutes, imploring the referee to blow for time. McMahon knows this - he raises his right index finger, but as a warning rather than in complacent celebration. He paces the pitch, his finger still raised, the muscular thickness of his pale thighs exaggerated by his tight red shorts. He spits repeatedly, thin jet streams of anxiety. His blue eyes burn. It's obvious what he's telling his team-mates: that there's one minute to go. You can see him saying this, again and again: one minute, only one minute.


"I was just trying to get the team to concentrate, to concentrate hard, and then we'd have another double," McMahon says. "Even today people come up to me and mention that one-minute-to-go moment. I try to laugh it off, but it still hurts. The whole evening had such a weird atmosphere - because of Hillsborough, because we'd already played the Cup final, because we didn't have to win the game to be champions."


The clock is running down - beyond 90 minutes now.


Game on: Adams has the ball and, against his natural style, seeks to carry it with him out of defence and into midfield. He is swiftly dispossessed by Barnes, who, with Adams scampering back after him, dribbles towards the Arsenal box, rather than heading towards the corner flag, where he would have had the chance to hold up play, to run down the clock. There's something aimless about Barnes's run, an absence of conviction, like much of his play tonight, and the ball is taken away from him by a recovered Richardson, who slips it neatly to his goalkeeper. From the touchline Theo Foley is screaming at Lukic, urging him to release it. He wants the goalkeeper to kick it long, to punt it up high into the night sky and deep into the Liverpool half. He's cursing Lukic. Why now the delay, when there's so little f***ing time. For f***'s sake hit it, f***ing hit it. "I was calling him every name under the son," Foley says. "I couldn't believe he wanted to throw it out to Dixon."


Just hit it, man. Even if he can hear Foley raging at him from the touchline, Lukic knows what he must not do - and that's punt it speculatively upfield. Instead, he throws the ball out to his right-back, Dixon.


Dixon plays the ball long, accurately, and it's collected by Smith. "I didn't really want the ball," Dixon says. "I was running up the pitch, and the next minute the ball comes whizzing out to me. I'm thinking, 'Why has he done that?' My first instinct was just to whack it as far as I could up the pitch. But when I looked up Alan Smith had pulled into the hole, and I thought, 'Well, we can't score from there but there's nobody else up front,' so I had to hit the ball into him."


Smith receives the pass and, with his usual unostentatious economy of movement, turns to play the ball through to Thomas, rushing forward from midfield, as he has, tirelessly and without reward, throughout the match. "At Anfield there was no clock," says Smith. "You had no idea of the time, except the whistles of the crowd and George waving us forward. We knew it was getting close. I gathered the ball well from Dixon - it was one of those nights when all my touches came off. I didn't want to hold it up, so turned at the same time and helped it on to Michael, who was coming through. I jogged after him, and watched what happened next."


Unmarked and sprinting deep into Liverpool territory, Thomas miscontrols Smith's pass; the ball spins away, bounces against Nicol before, improbably, falling for Thomas. "How do you explain that?" says Nicol. "The ball is played up, Thomas is running through on it, he miscontrols it, it bounces straight off me and back to him. You try to coach that. When the ball bounced off me it could have gone anywhere, but it just fell perfectly for him. How do you explain that? You can't, except to say that things happen."


Sensing danger, Grobbelaar moves towards Thomas just as he reaches the edge of the penalty box. Red-shirted Liverpool defenders are pursuing Thomas. As many as 42,000 spectators are watching inside the ground suspended at a point of heightened crisis. It's all happening so fast, yet there's also something curiously hallucinatory about what's unfolding, as if time itself is being slowed.


Here he comes, Thomas, free, lost to the moment, as he would later describe it. He must know that the defenders are closing on him, must feel the hot rush and strain of their exertion. He has the ball and is moving towards the penalty spot. The goalkeeper is coming towards him. Thomas has the ball. He is waiting for the goalkeeper to commit, just waiting; his momentum carries him forward as he lifts the ball with his right boot up and over Grobbelaar and - look, watch it now, follow it as it goes up and over the goalkeeper and continues on its way into the net. 2-0.


Thomas continues running - how can he stop? - and does a somersault in wild celebration, and begins to writhe and thrash around on the ground, like a huge marlin hooked on a flyline.


Looking down from the directors' box, Liverpool's chief executive, Peter Robinson, is in the process of making a phone call. "Barclays, the League sponsors, had provided champagne for the winners," he says. "The champagne was being chilled in the kitchen of the Main Stand, two floors up from the dressing room. Barclays had stipulated that they wanted the champagne to be in the winners' dressing-room at the final whistle. When Arsenal scored I rang the kitchen to find out what was happening to the champagne. I panicked when I was told it was already on its way to our dressing room. 'For God's sake, get it back,' I said. 'Arsenal have just scored again.' We managed to intercept the champagne and redirect it to the Arsenal dressing room."


At the final whistle, no one attempts to invade the pitch, nor are the Liverpool fans leaving the ground. They are staying on in their tens of thousands to applaud the new champions. There is no booing. There is only resounding applause. "I looked out and saw the whole crowd clapping," says Robinson. "I think the Arsenal players and their fans were stunned by that."


"The goal which won the League championship for Arsenal last season," wrote David Lacey in the Guardian at the start of the following season, "with the final shot of the first division programme, did more than provide a unique moment in a sport which was beginning to think it had seen everything. The speed and audacity of a movement that took the Kop's breath away and left Kenny Dalglish standing open-mouthed in disbelief by the Liverpool bench epitomised the healthier qualities of English football as the game approaches the 90s."


It was August, only a few months after the end of the season, and Arsenal's title-clinching winner was already being referred to as that goal.


It was already legendary.


For me, there was something cathartic about the whole evening. After all the grief, rage, anger and suffering that had preceded it, here was a game that brought palpable release for nearly all football fans who watched it, with the obvious exception of those who supported Liverpool - and perhaps even for some of them there was release, too - at the fact of the match having taken place, of the season having been completed rather than abandoned. If the home fans had reacted differently to defeat, if they had rioted or raged, or even skulked off in fury at the end of the game instead of staying on to applaud, no one would now remember that night at Anfield as the point at which the fortunes of English football seemed to turn. The fans did not riot. They stayed on to witness Arsenal being presented with the championship trophy, to witness a conquering army sinking the flag of victory into the Anfield turf at the worst possible moment for the home team. The Liverpool fans applauded. It was as if they understood that we were at the start of something new; that there would be no returning to the ways of old. Six weeks after Hillsborough, those fans demonstrated that they understood the real meaning of sporting glory.


The interim report into the Hillsborough disaster by Chief Justice Taylor was published in August (the full report came out in 1990). Its recommendation for all-seater stadiums and its enlightened liberalism changed English football for ever - to the extent that, at a distance of 20 years, one can now speak of the game of football in England as it was before and after Hillsborough, in the same way as one speaks of cinema before and after the advent of sound, as the transition between two epochs, as a moment of profound and irreversible cultural shift. Also in 1989, on 5 February, Murdoch's Sky Television held a press conference to launch its British service. It was obvious that we were ready for a new contract to be signed between football and society, and in the years ahead it would be Sky's role to dictate many of the terms and clauses of that new contract, as football began its move from the margins to the centre of the culture.


The last season of the 80s began in August 1988, towards the end of the "Second Summer of Love", and extended to the following summer. A more benign, less drunken and more druggy and laid-back form of fandom flowed out of the pay parties and nightclubs of the rave scene and on to the terraces, and this found fuller expression at the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy. Italia '90 is not remembered for the quality of its football but as a great tournament all the same because, against so many expectations, England excelled. Having reached the semi-finals, where they lost a penalty shoot-out to the eventual winners, Germany, they returned home not as world champions but still with honour. Because the England fans had, on the whole, behaved well in Italy, the ban on English clubs playing in Europe was soon lifted. This was a new start for the national game - it could even be called a renaissance - and it began at Anfield on the evening of 26 May 1989.


• This is an edited extract from Jason Cowley's book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football, published on 6 April

Edited by Roscoe
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