Today represents the 27th anniversary of what us Gooners like to refer to as St Michael’s Day and what was, despite what Sky TV will tell you, the most dramatic finish to an English League season. My Liverpool–supporting family and friends won’t thank me for reminding them of the events at Anfield on the 26th of May 1989, but it is a memory that remains so fresh in my mind and provides an evocative reminder of the pre-Premier League days when football was still the game that I fell in love with.
Former player George Graham arrived from Millwall as the new manager of Arsenal in the summer of 1986; rumours suggested that he hadn’t even been the first choice and that Alex Ferguson had been sounded out about taking over after Don Howe’s resignation. How different the course of English football history could have been if the future Manchester United manager hadn’t wanted to complete his responsibilities with Scotland at the Mexico World Cup before giving his answer!
Right from the outset Graham’s approach was to jettison some of the older established players and to start to build a team founded on recruits from the lower leagues based on his previous experience and to combine these with some exciting young prospects emerging from the club’s youth programme. By the end of his first season in charge Graham had delivered the club’s first silverware since 1979, when they became the first team to beat Liverpool in a game in which Ian Rush had scored first, winning the Littlewoods Cup thanks to two goals from the enigmatic Charlie Nicholas.
By the start of the 1988-89 season Graham’s team had evolved into a team with that famous back four, a hard-working and energetic midfield, some flair going forward and plenty of goals. They started the season with a 5-1 win away at Wimbledon and won 8 of their first 12 matches. Just after Christmas they were top of the League, where they were to stay until early May. Liverpool were at one point 19 points behind, albeit with a number of games in hand but went on an incredible 24-match unbeaten run, so that when the Gunners wobbled in the run-in they were able to take advantage and a 5-1 win over West Ham in their penultimate match put them 3 points clear at the top.
The final game of the season, rescheduled from April after the Hillsborough tragedy, would see Arsenal go to Anfield needing to win by two goals to secure their first League Championship since 1971. It was a seemingly impossible task; Liverpool had won the FA Cup the previous weekend, had collected an amazing 6 league titles in the past decade and hadn’t lost by two goals at home for three years.
As a Gooner and football obsessive exiled on Merseyside, I had that season opted to join my Dad and Our Kid in having season tickets in the Kemlyn Road stand which ultimately proved to be a wise choice, as it meant that I had a ticket for this crucial title decider. In a strange quirk of fate, the only other Arsenal fan in my school managed to secure a place through a relative in the Kemlyn Road stand as well; if nothing else we would at least be close to the travelling Gooner support. Just before kick-off my school friend approached the policeman on the barrier to the away terrace, explained our predicament and enquired as to whether we might be able to sneak into the terrace with the away fans. Despite the heightened safety concerns after Hillsborough he relented, presumably realising that allowing two 16-year olds to have a true football experience supporting their team shouldn’t cause too much concern.
As the teams emerged from the tunnel the Arsenal players, in their now famous yellow and navy blue strip, carried bouquets of flowers which they handed to the crowd as a tribute to those lost at Hillsborough.
I remember the game as being as intense as any game I can remember right from the start, such was the knife-edge that both teams hopes were balanced upon. Even being 0-0 at half-time, I am not really sure I or any of the travelling Gooners truly believed that we would do it. Then 7 minutes into the second half Smudge nodded home a free kick, the away end exploded, the Liverpool players surrounded the referee protesting that the indirect free kick had gone straight in, but eventually the goal was given.
Being halfway there didn’t exactly spark a siege on the Liverpool goal and the game carried on in very much the same vein; deep down I feared a Liverpool equalizer would effectively kill off the game and any hope we had. As time started to run down I started to reassure myself that we had done ourselves proud, we had come close but nobody goes to Anfield and wins 2-0. Then in added time something magical happened…. the only way to possibly even do it justice is through the words of commentator Brian Moore:
Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack.
A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield!
Thomas, it’s up for grabs now! Thomas! Right at the end!
An unbelievable climax to the league season!
With that lazy dink with his right foot and the latest of title winning goals, Mickey Thomas sparked absolute pandemonium in the away end and celebrations that no Arsenal fan that was there or watching on TV will ever forget; nor I suspect will any Liverpool fan. In fairness the Liverpool fans sportingly stayed after the final whistle to applaud the new champions and to congratulate us on a hard fought victory. As for us, I don’t think I stopped celebrating for the entire summer!
For nostalgia purposes, the Arsenal team that day was: Lukic, Dixon, Bould (Groves 76), O’Leary, Adams(c), Winterburn, Rocastle, Richardson, Thomas, Merson (Hayes 73), Smith.
Liverpool: Grobbelaar, Nicol, Ablett, Hansen, Staunton, Houghton, Whelan(c), McMahon, Barnes, Aldridge, Rush (Beardsley 32).