Part 1: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.)
Part 2: Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 2- Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe.)
Part 3: How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 3- How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated.)
Part 4: Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 4- Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford.)
Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 5: Howard Kendall and Everton change the balance of power on Merseyside and beyond.)
Part 6: Two Surprising FA Cup Winners in two years (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 6: Two Surprising FA Cup Winners in Two Years.)
“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!”
Brian Moore 26/5/1989
Long time readers of my football obsessive musings will know that the 26th of May 1989 at Anfield was…(just checks with Mrs. Football Nerd that this won’t get me in trouble)… quite simply the greatest day of my life!
On that fateful night something happened to Arsenal Football Club that those of us born after 1971 weren’t used to. Our beloved team went to the home of the reigning champions, the all-conquering Liverpool, and won the final game of the season by two clear goals to clinch the title on goals scored. The Premier League generation have their ‘Aguuuuueeeerrrrrooooo!’ moment but those of us who watched football when it was really football know that Anfield 89 is the greatest and most dramatic finish to a league season and title race there has ever been.
To say that in the nearly two decades between winning the Double in 1970-71 and that win on Merseyside Arsenal were mediocre might be being slightly unkind, but the Gunners were the very definition of a First Division also-ran. In that time they had won the FA Cup once during the second of three successive Finals against Manchester United in the “Five-minute Final” while also contriving to lose to Ipswich the year before and Second Division West Ham a year later. They also lost the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final on penalties against Valencia. That was about it in terms of any semblance of ‘success’. The closest Arsenal had come to even having a say in the title race was in 1980-81 when they finished third behind surprise winners Aston Villa and Bobby Robson’s Ipswich.
By contrast the team that they would go head-to-head with in the title race and in the decisive final match of the season, Liverpool, had won ten league titles and four European Cups. In those days, as has been chronicled through these lockdown-inspired retro pieces, occasionally sides (Forest, Villa, Watford and Everton) rose to challenge them but it was always Liverpool that were in the shake-up when the big prizes were determined, quite simply the Anfield club were the indisputable benchmark.
Choosing to follow Arsenal, a decision nurtured carefully by my cousin Ian seven years my senior and committed Gooner since his own deal with sporting fate in which he chose as his team whoever won the 1971 FA Cup Final, wasn’t a choice based on a certain path to glory, far from it in fact. Having been exiled in Holland and then New Jersey from the age of five, it was only when we returned to the UK to live in Hertfordshire in 1984 that I was able to put my support of Arsenal into more practical action by actually seeing them play on as regular basis as Saturday School (what kind of cruel torture is that as a concept by the way?) would allow.
Arsenal at that time were managed by Don Howe, tactical mastermind behind the Double success, but very much reaffirming the long-held view that coaches/ assistant managers are very rarely able to step up into the top job. The playing squad at the time was a collection of under-performing (once) big names, including: former England internationals Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock, Viv Anderson, Graham Rix, captain Kenny Sampson and one “Champagne” Charlie Nicholas a £750,000 signing in 1983 from Celtic who managed to make quite a splash in the West End of London’s nightclubs but whose main contribution on the pitch was to castigate the inability of his teammates to play the ball into his feet.
As the 1985/86 season entered its final months, Howe resigned amidst rumours that the club had been sounding out alleged replacements including: Terry Venables, Bobby Robson, and a certain Scottish manager, Alex Ferguson, who was making a splash with Aberdeen north of the border (just imagine how things may have worked out if Fergie hadn’t felt compelled to lead Scotland to the 86 World Cup in Mexico after the death of Jock Stein!).
Instead the Arsenal Board opted for former player and manager of Second Division Millwall, George Graham, as their choice. As Arsenal obsessive and author of the seminal Fever Pitch Nick Hornby put it: “It wasn’t a very imaginative appointment, and it was obvious that George was second or even third choice for the job, whatever the chairman says now. It is possible that if he hadn’t played for the club, with great distinction… then he wouldn’t even have been considered for the position.”
As a player Graham was nicknamed “Stroller” based on his laid-back (lazy?) approach in the middle of the park and as a result of his seemingly greater interest in stylish clothes and nightlife off the field. In his own words the sort of player he as a manager would hate.
However, as a manager he was beginning to forge a reputation as a tough disciplinarian whose approach was founded on relentless repetition and drilling on the training ground most notably with regard to defensive organisation and team shape.
Pretty much Graham’s first act was to jettison some of the underperforming big names and to start to replace them with a highly talented group of youth prospects including: Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Martin Hayes, Niall Quinn and a year or so later Paul Merson. He also used his extensive knowledge of the lower leagues, reportedly maintained through perusal of a swathe of local papers from across the country on a weekly basis, to identify players that were passing under the radar. His first signing was Perry Groves from Colchester United for £50,000.
Arsenal started the 1986/87 season by beating Manchester United 1-0 at Highbury before losing the next two away at Coventry and Liverpool; however, their form picked up to the extent that they were top of the table for the first time in a decade at Christmas.
The Gunners’ form dipped after the Festive Period and encompassed a 10-match winless run in the league that saw them fall off the pace dramatically and eventually end up in fourth. They were eliminated from the FA Cup in the Quarter Final at home to Watford but were still progressing in the League Cup (the Littlewoods Cup as it was known for a fleeting four seasons). During the autumn Arsenal had beaten Manchester City and Charlton at home and then knocked out Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at Highbury in January to set up what was to turn out to be an epic Semi-Final against North London rivals Tottenham.
In the first leg at Highbury a first-half goal from Clive Allen (on his way to 49 goals that season as documented in Part 6), was sufficient to give Spurs control of the tie going into the return leg at White Hart Lane. Rumours abounded that certain Tottenham directors had mooted the idea of having T-shirts printed in preparation for their trip to Wembley!
Allen again opened the scoring in the second leg three weeks later, and it looked for all the world that Arsenal’s journey in the Cups was over for another campaign. Infamously at half-time the PA Announcer gave details of how Spurs fans could go about getting their Wembley tickets. Legend has it that the Arsenal players heard the announcement in the dressing room and it fired them on in the second half, in all reality, if they knew at all, it was probably because someone told them on the way back out onto the pitch.
Whatever the motivation, Graham’s charges were reinvigorated for the final quarter of the tie and goals from right back Viv Anderson and Irish beanpole striker Niall Quinn forced a replay. A coin toss after the final whistle determined that White Hart Lane would host the one-off decider the following Wednesday evening.
Once again Allen put Spurs ahead and they looked to have finally settled matters and were heading to Wembley until with just eight minutes remaining a long ball by Paul Davis sent Ian Allinson, on as a substitute for the injured Nicholas, racing through the inside left channel. Allinson gathered the ball in the penalty area, calmly cut back onto his right foot before beating Clemence with a low near post effort.
Right on full-time and with extra time looking certain, David O’Leary lofted a free-kick forward from just inside his own half, Allinson’s effort from a Quinn flick-on was deflected into the path of the tragically no longer with us David “Rocky” Rocastle who slotted the ball home to put Arsenal in their first Final of anything meaningful since 1980.
Inevitably the Gunners would face Liverpool in the Final. In those days the League Cup carried almost as much kudos as the FA Cup and so a place in the Wembley showpiece signalled a significant achievement for Graham’s emerging side, although of course Liverpool were the overwhelming favourites.
To this day I remember watching the Final with Our Kid (a staunch Liverpool fan) and my parents on a gloriously sunny afternoon after having completed my own Sunday football commitments (of course having worn my Arsenal home shirt under my jersey!). The sinking feeling I got when Ian Rush opened the scoring, in those days whenever he did Liverpool never lost, was tempered only by the reassuring thought that this was always going to be the outcome, no one beat Liverpool especially not in finals.
As I continued to wallow I started to do that thing that football obsessives the world over do and tried to mitigate the impact: we had got there when no one expected us to, we were a young team for the most part and this was a stepping stone in our development. Just seven minutes later Champagne Charlie, having somewhat surprisingly survived Graham’s preseason cull of under-performing big names, commenced perhaps his only major contribution in Arsenal colours, he hit the post with a low effort and was then on hand to turn home the equalizer from close range. Then after an even second half with just over five minutes to go, Perry Groves broke down the left played the ball across the face of goal and Nicholas was on hand to poke it past Grobbelaar in the Liverpool goal and the Cup was Arsenal’s.
The celebrations that followed the final whistle were quite an experience for us teenage Gooners not used to success. It felt like a key moment in the development of Graham’s Arsenal, a stepping-stone towards a brighter future if you will.
Veteran Viv Anderson became the latest big-name player to be judged surplus to requirements by Graham and was sold to Manchester United in the summer to be replaced by Nigel Winterburn, a left back by trade who started at Arsenal on the right hand side as captain Kenny Sansom was retained for one more year. Meanwhile his performance in the League Cup Final didn’t save Nicholas and he was ruthlessly dropped by Graham just four games into the 1987-88 season with Perry Groves preferred as the partner for new striker Alan Smith up front. Nicholas was later sold to Aberdeen in January for £400,000 just over half of what he had cost the club in the first place.
That season was somewhat disappointing for Arsenal fans, who had gained a little taste of success, as we finished sixth in the League and although we reached a second successive League Cup Final we were somewhat embarrassed by Luton Town, beaten 3-2 thanks to late goals from Danny Wilson and Brian Stein.
Ahead of the miraculous 1988-89 season, Sansom left for Newcastle, while two recruits from Stoke City Steve Bould and Lee Dixon came in as what was to become the “Famous Back Four” of: Dixon-Adams-Bould-Winterburn was set in place. Midfielder Steve Williams was sold to Luton and Graham Rix allowed to leave on a free to Caen. Perhaps the key signing was made in the previous March when winger Brian Marwood had been brought in from Sheffield Wednesday as an alternative to the somewhat erratic Martin Hayes.
By this time my family had moved once again, this time back to the Wirral were to sate my football obsession I took up a season ticket in the Kemlyn Road stand with my dad and brother, although in my defence it was not only to be able to enjoy regular football but would additionally give me the football obsessives’ equivalent of the “Golden Ticket” for the very last game of the season.
Arsenal’s season got underway at Plough Lane Wimbledon, as covered last time never the most hospitable of venues. The Gunners got off to a poor start going a goal down after eight minutes but eventually rallied to win 5-1 thanks in no small part to an Alan Smith hat-trick.
In the first home game Arsenal fell to a surprising defeat to newly promoted Aston Villa but rallied to win a five-goal, end-to-end North London Derby, a match that Graham described as: a “wonderful advertisement for the game.” The Gunners’ home form continued to let them down though and they drew at home to Southampton, a game more notorious for Paul Davis being banned for nine matches and fined a record £3,000 after breaking Glenn Cockerill’s jaw in quite possibly the first trial by TV evidence in English football history.
After losing at Sheffield Wednesday at the end of August, Arsenal finally found some consistent form and went on a ten-match unbeaten run until they came a cropper at Derby, who would prove to be something of a bogey team that season, in late November.
During the continuing exclusion of English clubs from European football and to mark the centenary of the Football League there was a one-off knockout competition, the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, which involved the top eight sides in the country from the previous season. Arsenal eliminated QPR and Liverpool before defeating Manchester United 2-1 in the Final at Villa Park. Strangely that success seems to have been forgotten in the trophy roll of honour that runs around Club Level at the Emirates!
In the League Cup after dispatching Hull City 5-1 on aggregate over the then traditional two legs, the Gunners were drawn to face Liverpool at Anfield. A stunning strike from Rocky cancelled out John Barnes’ opening goal and earned a replay back at Highbury. The replay ended goalless and the teams had to meet for the fourth time that season this time as Villa Park, where goals from McMahon and Aldridge cancelled out Paul Merson’s and halted any thoughts of a third successive Final.
Back in the League, draws at home to Liverpool (the fifth time the two protagonists had met in barely 3 months) and then away at Norwich sparked another unbeaten run, this one stretched eleven matches encapsulating a solid 3-1 win over Everton at Goodison Park which featured your author and his mate Rich, another Wirral-based Gooner, caught on TV celebrating the goals on Saint & Greavsie the following week.
At this stage the Gunners held a significant lead at the top of the table, although the defending champions Liverpool held a number of games in hand. Then the “Winter Wobbles” (as they were dubbed on Arsenal’s official review of the season VHS (kids ask your parents!)) set in as defeat at Coventry, draws at home to Millwall and Charlton sandwiching a 3-1 humbling by Forest at Highbury saw Arsenal’s lead at the top diminish as Liverpool won game after game on a run that would eventually see them win thirteen of fourteen matches between the beginning of March and the middle of May, the only anomaly being a goalless draw at Goodison Park. The state of the Highbury pitch, which was covered in so much sand and mud that it was scarcely recognisable as a playing surface, was blamed by many for Arsenal’s poor form at home.
Arsenal steadied the ship with a 3-1 win away at Southampton and a creditable draw on another mudheap at Old Trafford in a game in which skipper Tony Adams scored at both ends, which led to him being pilloried as a “donkey” by certain sections of the media. The feeling in the Away section that day however was carnival-like as if we were on the verge of something.
Then two weeks later the world of football was rocked to its very core. 96 Liverpool fans went to support their team in an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough never to return home. The tragic events of that day will never be forgotten by any football supporter, but for Liverpool as club, its players and supporters the emotional impact and grief is still scarcely comprehensible. How could we carry on now? Did we even want to? Surely the season would have to be called to a halt.
In the end, rightly or wrongly, English football was suspended for a period of two weeks before it was decided that both the First Division programme and the FA Cup should resume. During the hiatus Arsenal were due to visit Anfield the weekend after the tragedy, many Arsenal fans decided to still visit the ground and pay our respects, the match was rescheduled for the week after the FA Cup Final as the very last match of the season.
Arsenal’s first game back was a 5-0 thumping of Norwich on the May Day Bank Holiday as we seemed to have picked up where we left off. Liverpool returned to action two days later with a 0-0 draw at Goodison Park. The gap between the two sides now stood at five points with four and five games still to play respectively.
A dour 1-0 win over Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park thanks to a Martin Hayes goal from a long punt upfield by keeper John Lukic kept Arsenal in the driving seat while Liverpool won through to Wembley in the rearranged semi-final at Old Trafford. Then the nerves kicked in. Defeat at home to Derby County (I told you they would be something of a bogey side!) and a 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon in a game so bizarre that Nigel Winterburn scored a stunning strike with his wrong foot, saw most Gooners resigned to the fact that we had fallen before the finish line.
The following day Liverpool, who had just kept on winning after the resumption against Everton, dispatched West Ham United 5-0 with a reportedly stunning performance. Almost thankfully my GCSE ‘revision’ commitments had kept me away from that one. After that result and with just one game to go, in the inimitable words of Brian Moore the final match of the season to be played on a Friday evening was “a night of chilling simplicity”, Arsenal had to go to Anfield and win by two clear goals to take the title, a feat that no side had achieved since Everton had done it in 1986 but still failed to win the title. Arsenal hadn’t won there for fifteen years. That was it then it was all over!
The Saturday before the decider Liverpool won the second all-Merseyside FA Cup Final, in many ways a fitting tribute to those who had lost their lives at Hillsborough, but they had shown an element of vulnerability which saw Everton pin them back to 1-1 and then 2-2 in extra time before Ian Rush (who else?) finally settled the matter.
Strangely given our predicament (read: on a hiding to nothing), or maybe because of it, I was relatively calm in the build-up to the game. Rich and I, having completed our exam commitments and having secured our tickets thanks to my season ticket and Rich’s uncle having a spare a few rows away from ours, decided to spend the day in Liverpool city centre blagging a few pints from unsuspecting (in terms of our age but more vitally our allegiance) pubs before meeting up with Rich’s uncle to go to the match.
Once inside Anfield we heard ongoing rumours and reports of traffic jams on the motorways delaying travelling fans. Even though the kick-off was delayed many Arsenal fans missed the start of the game. For our part we put the time to good use by trying to negotiate with the copper at the entrance to the Away section, adjacent to where we were supposed to be sitting, to allow two displaced Gooners to be able to be let through to be amongst our own. Rather understandably given the heightened concerns over crowd safety he denied our request.
As the teams finally emerged from the tunnel opposite, the Arsenal players each carrying a bouquet of flowers to be handed to the crowd as a token of sympathy, our new police mate gestured us down towards him, but rather than throw us out as a result of knowing our true identity, he opened the gate a crack and let us through. To that officer I will be eternally grateful.
It has been well-documented that going into the match, Graham had decided to take the team up on the day of the match, that he opted to go with a three-at-the-back formation, trialled at Old Trafford, which saw David O’Leary come in as a sweeper between Bould and Adams to allow the full-backs Dixon and Winterburn to try to negate Liverpool’s threat from wide areas most notably from Barnes, and that in his pre-match team talk he set out exactly how the match was going to go. “Listen, guys we’ve got to go out there nice and solid. We’ve got to keep it 0-0. We mustn’t go out there thinking we’ve got to attack [then in the second half] we’ll start going forward a bit more and a bit more and hopefully we’ll get one. Then they’re nervous and we’ll get another one and we’ll finish up with three.” Optimism indeed!
The first half was one of very limited chances, Liverpool knowing they would still win the title even if they lost 1-0, seemed unsure of how to approach the game, a flick-on by Bould that forced a goal-line clearance from Steve Nicol the sum total of Arsenal’s attacking threat. At the break Graham reassured his charges: “The plan’s going well, Nil-nil. Don’t worry. We got them. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Seven minutes into the second half Arsenal won an indirect free kick for a foul by Ronnie Whelan on Rocky just outside the area. Winterburn played in an in-swinger with his trusty left foot, Smith flicked it on and it nestled into the bottom corner of the net for 1-0. Or was it? As mayhem broke out in our corner of the ground, a group of Liverpool players surrounded the referee, protesting that Smith hadn’t touched it, that there had been a push, whatever they could think of. Arsenal’s sole representative was the cool elder statesman of the team David O’Leary. After what seemed like an interminable delay for the anxious, nervy Arsenal support, referee Hutchison signalled a goal. Cue a secondary eruption in the Away end. After the match several of the Liverpool players confessed they didn’t really know what they were protesting about but felt they should.
So here it was one more goal and Arsenal, my Arsenal, would achieve the seemingly impossible. However try as we might we couldn’t create the pressure that we needed. With just over quarter of an hour to go, Richardson picked out Thomas in the area but he mishit his shot and it trickled harmlessly into Grobbelaar’s welcoming arms.
Graham brought on Groves and Hayes for Bould and Merson and reverted to a more orthodox 4-4-2, but there was an all-pervading feeling that that had been our chance.
On 90 minutes Richardson went down injured, Steve McMahon was infamously caught on TV signalling there was only one minute left, a gesture we would remind him of incessantly every time our paths crossed again.
When play restarted Barnes broke down the Liverpool right but instead of going to the corner or putting it in the stand or out the ground, he tried to cut inside only to be denied by Richardson who calmly rolled it back to Lukic. The Arsenal keeper threw it to Lee Dixon, who played it up to Smith who found the onrushing Thomas who luckily bundled past Nicol somehow with the ball still at his feet.
As Thomas closed in on goal, the eleven Arsenal players on the pitch, the manager, subs, non-playing members of the squad and the 4,000 Arsenal fans in the ground willed him to slot it away, but in the most laidback manner imaginable Thomas waited and waited until Grobbelaar made his move and then dinked it over him. Cue mayhem, pandemonium and general chaos in one small corner and an eerie silence around the rest of the ground. Seconds after the restart there were the same scenes again as Mr Hutchison blew for full-time. Arsenal, in the most unbelievable of circumstances were League Champions.
The scenes of celebration lasted through the on-field trophy presentation, sportingly a large majority of the Kop and the rest of the ground stayed in situ to applaud not only their side but the new title winners, and well into the night. For us Gooners it was simply the greatest night of our lives.
Of course, Liverpool bounced back to win the title the following season and Arsenal were even better the one after that missing becoming the first Invincibles by losing just one game away at Chelsea. Graham would leave under the cloud of a bung scandal after further cup success.
The impact of the Taylor Report commissioned after Hillsborough, alongside the advent of the Premier League would change English football beyond recognition, but in reminiscing about what for me was the golden heyday of football as we used to know it, I will end this retrospective and leave you with the words of George Graham:
“Isn’t it lovely to have moments in your life where you think, oh, nothing can beat that. Nothing.”