EVERY football club has its moment in time that is always a point of reference: Manchester United have Munich 1958, Wembley 1968, Barcelona 1989; Liverpool have Shankly, Rome 1977, Wembley 1965; Chelsea have Old Trafford 1970; Tottenham will always remember 1961. For Arsenal, it could easily be the 1930s, but for their fans weaned on “1-0 to the Arsenal” and Tony Adams’s raised arm, 1989 is a special year. Hence, a film and a book have been produced telling the story of that memorable campaign.
That season is remembered far more than Arsenal’s 1971 double year, but what really made that title win special was the way it was achieved and the impact it had on football as we know it today.
The Premier was three years away, Italia 1990 would happen 12 months later, but the game between Liverpool and Arsenal, on May 26 1989, was possibly the first occasion when TV realised that a “cup final” scenario could be created for a league finale. It was before SKY got hold of the league programme, but a sudden death decider live on TV had never been seen before. The league title was going to be won in front of the nation – 12 million people tuned in. Even neutrals were interested.
People were actually tired of Liverpool winning the league championship, apart from their fans, of course. Arsenal were not particularly popular, but they had a young side, with half a dozen home grown products, including David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson. If nothing else, people were keen to see someone else winning the top prize.
On the other hand, Liverpool were still reeling after Hillsborough, but they went into the game as favourites to clinch the “double” after winning the FA Cup on May 20. Ironically, the disaster at Sheffield resulted in the original fixture between the two clubs being postponed out of respect for those that perished. There might have been no “1989” if the fixture list had been different.
As for the game, Arsenal’s second decisive goal came with seconds remaining, creating one of the most immortal moments in modern football history. “Thomas…it’s up for grabs now.”
Aside from depriving a good Liverpool team of its moment of triumph, Arsenal’s 2-0 win and their first title since 1971, also inflicted upon us “fan lit”. Nick Hornby’s seminal work, “Fever Pitch” was a ground-breaker, but it also spawned a thousand imitators. Good or bad? Well, the first half dozen books are a novelty, but Hornby gave countless people the license to tell us their relationship with their club was somehow unique. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. The Hornby tale was amusing, but also illustrated the myopia that plagues the loyal supporter. Whether it is Arsenal, Aldershot, Torquay or Tottenham, it is a similar story. It started with 1989 and goes on today.
When Michael Thomas scored that goal and somersaulted into the history books, he was also hitting at the very foundation of the empire of the Kop. Some say that Heysel and Hillsborough started the collapse of the house of Shankly, but that night, Arsenal chipped away at a dynasty, possibly the only one that football has truly created. Liverpool won the title again in 1990, but they haven’t lifted the crown since. Who would have thought that in 1988 when Barnes, Beardsley and Aldridge were sweeping everyone aside? In 1989, I wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Liverpool’s recently-acquired policy of chequebook team building would be tested in the years ahead. How true that was.
And so, the legacy of 1989 is much broader than Arsenal’s success, it possibly created a model for the years ahead – of TV manipulation of the fixture schedule, of the constant hope of a climax that out-dramas the FA Cup final, of fans becoming extraordinarily emotional about their football team live on TV. One could argue that truly modern football began on May 26, 1989 at Anfield.