On the anniversary of one the great nights in Arsenal history I am indebted to Take A Bow Son for this evocative piece. What were you doing the night St Michael etched his name in Gooner history?
Thanks TaBS, it is a fabulous piece.
It was a question designed to engender panic. It worked. The trap had been set and I had walked straight into it.
It was the Monday after the Saturday. Monday 16th January 1989 to be a little more precise. Lunchtime beers with colleagues and we were, as usual, dissecting the weekend’s football. Among them was my mate Jim, a huge Football fan, a passionate Evertonian, and an inveterate gambler. On the Saturday I had travelled up with Jim to his beloved Goodison Park and watched a developing, yet still largely fledgling Arsenal side at first subdue and then destroy an Everton side that had been crowned Champions only 20 months previously.
Ah The Championship. We were in the 18th Season since I had danced around my bedroom in 1971. An excited six year old who had just been told by his father that he had been at White Lane the night before and had seen my favourite, Ray Kennedy, score the goal to win us the League. In the years subsequent to that momentous occasion, we had threatened to repeat the trick in ’73, but thereafter had considered it rather a good year if our title challenge managed to limp into the New Year.
Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch that by 1989 Arsenal fans had begun to see the Championship in religious terms. You were, he said, either a believer or a non-believer. Well, I wasn’t quite an atheist, (I still allowed for the possibility), but I was strongly agnostic. One could never discount the possibility of course, but as for actually winning it, well, that was something for other clubs, most usually the thoroughly detestable Liverpool.
But with that win at Everton, a 3-0 second half mauling, I had at last recovered my faith and like all born again converts I couldn’t wait to proselytise. On and on I went in the Pub that day. How the defence, led by the superb Tony Adams, was strong enough to repel even the most imaginative attacks. How the new signing Brian Marwood dazzled on the wing. How the elegant Alan Smith was so intelligent up front. How the young Michael Thomas combined such raw energy and silky skill, and how David Rocastle was the brightest star in the English firmament for many a year. I should have stopped there of course. I didn’t. Prompted by a few provocative mutterings of “Arsenal will blow up, they always do”, I found myself offering 10-1 against any other Club of their choice winning the League.
“What size does that work in mate?”
A mention of odds had woken Jim up. Sensing value, he zoomed in on his prey with the stealth of a well-trained Cobra. How strong is your new found faith now eh? Hold firm, or back down and lose face? There was only one choice. I was not to be found out as an heretic so soon after conversion.
“Any size Jimbo.” was my reply, affecting an insouciance that I wasn’t feeling.
“Excellent mate. I’ll have two hundred quid on Liverpool please”
Liverpool?! Bugger! I wasn’t expecting that. He hated Liverpool more than I did. Thought he’d have a punt on his clearly over the hill Toffees. Two grand if I lose! Having only just recently got mortgaged up for the first time it was money I didn’t have. Still, we were 10 points clear at the top of the table and Liverpool, though they had dominated English football for the best part of a decade and a half, were languishing just above mid table. Nothing to worry about. Right?
Wrong! No sooner had we shaken hands on the deal, and Arsenal immediately began to show signs of reaching for the finishing line like a blind drunk on Diazepam. The Liverpool machine meanwhile finally kicked in. Win followed win followed win, and with each Liverpool victory, my angst that Arsenal were blowing it was heightened by the knowledge that I was personally responsible for our implosion. Jim was a kind man, he had a soft spot for Arsenal, he knew my pain, and as stated above, local rivalry dictated that he hated Liverpool as much as I did, but I couldn’t help noticing, as the weeks passed, that his grin was getting wider and wider. One afternoon I even found him perusing a luxury Summer holidays brochure. This was not good. Not good at all.
By Friday 26th May 1989, an unusual date as a result of the horrors of Hillsborough, the top two would play the final game of the Season. A Championship decider, a League game with all the drama of a one off Cup Final. The arithmetic was clear. Anything less than a two goal win for The Arsenal and it was Liverpool as Champions, business as usual, normal service resumed. As for me, my sense of fatalism that Arsenal would never again win the title in my lifetime had long since replaced my January evangelism. Arsenal hadn’t won up at Anfield in goodness knows how many years, let alone by two, and it was time to shop around for short-term loans at what were, at the time, frighteningly extortionate interest rates in order to pay Jim.
The day dawned. A beautifully hot Spring day. I didn’t want it to arrive but it had to be faced. The day when any last semblance of hope would finally disappear, the day that would lead to a long summer of (at least as far as Arsenal were concerned) despair. I went through the motions at work, longing for the time when I could give my full attention to what really mattered. At lunchtime I wandered into the Bookies. Like the Las Vegas chancer playing his last chip, I surveyed the odds. Way too late to lay off Jim’s bet with anything other than a huge loss. Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Twenty pounds on a 2-0 Arsenal win at 16-1 please. It was, however, merely a last gesture of defiance. Did I truly believe? Nah, life is never that good.
5 0’ clock and out of work. Valedictory messages were mixed, from sympathetic good lucks to crowing predictions of impending embarrassment. Five of us met up and tried to make ourselves feel better. A few beers, a sense of solidarity, and then back to my recently acquired small flat on the borders of Stroud Green and Crouch End, approximately 2 miles from Highbury, to watch the game.
Memories of the evening are jarred, like a dream that you know you’ve had, but the precise details of which, are just out of reach. Are one’s memories actual or have they been pierced together from the countless viewings of the subsequent highlights reel, or maybe just an echo of the scene in the film of Fever Pitch which so closely resembled my experience of that night as to be uncanny?
I remember Elton Welsby’s silly jacket and guffawing at his fatuous comparison of Arsenal with Wimbledon. I remember George Graham’s pre-match confidence and the contrasting tension, so thick that you could taste it, amongst us as the game kicked off. I remember our players delivering flowers to all sides of the ground (So classy! So Arsenal!), and I remember both Tony Adams and Steve Bould flying into early tackles to disabuse anyone of the notion that we would be willing bridesmaids at somebody else’s party.
HT 0-0. We had given as good as we had got, but there had been no early goal that we had so craved. Our one clear cut chance, an early Steve Bould header that had been cleared off the line, had disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. There had been no chance to savour the moment, no split second where expectation had soared. Mostly the game had been watched in studied silence by us all, only the odd exhortation or foul-mouthed anti Liverpool diatribe breaking the palpable and taut mental strain that gripped us all like a vice. At half time though, we were still in it, there was still hope. Did we believe? Nah, life is never that good.
Into the second half, and we took the game to Liverpool, I mean really took it. I remember the surge of pride that coursed through me. These boys were taking it to Liverpool in their own backyard. They hadn’t given it up. I at last allowed myself to hope. Foul on Rocky. He reacted, his eyes flashed, he clenched his fist, and he exhorted his friends and teammates to greater efforts. Suddenly the room was abuzz, Rocky still clearly believed, why shouldn’t we?
The ball is swung over, the eye is drawn to Tony Adams flying in like a pyrotechnic helicopter before Brian Moore yells “AND SMITH”, the ball is in the back of the net and we are all on our feet, hugging and shaking, glad at last to finally escape the yolk of suffocating tension. It didn’t last. Liverpool players surrounded the Linesman. GIVE IT, GIVE IT, GIVE IT. The minute seemed to last forever, but Whelan’s scowl at the end of it all told you all you needed to know. The Referee had not succumbed to brazen intimidation. 1-0 Arsenal. We were on our way. COME ON ARSENAL!
For the next twenty minutes I believed. I believed with all my heart. Come on Arsenal, just one chance, one chance is all we need. Ten minutes to go and the moment arrived. Mickey Thomas was found in acres of space inside the Liverpool box with just Grobelaar to beat. We rose as one. This was it, this was it. A toe poke. Straight into the arms of the grateful keeper. NOOOOOO. Desolation spread through the room like an infectious disease. That’s it. Game over. We won’t get another chance. I slumped. We all slumped.
The last ten minutes were played out, at least at my place, against a backdrop of stoic fatalism. It simply wasn’t meant to be. Arsenal looked to have already given it their best and had shot their bolt. In truth, a Liverpool equalizer now looked far more likely than a second Arsenal goal. How much longer do we have to endure this torture? One minute. Who needs a clock when you’ve got Steve Mcmahon? Good tackle Richo, come on Lukic, just lump it up there. Instead he rolls it out to Lee Dixon. What on earth is he doing?
“Arsenal come streaming forward in what surely must be their last attack, a good ball by Dixon finding Smith for Thomas charging through the midfield …” I simply don’t have the words to adequately convey the cavalcade of emotions that ripped through the room as Michael Thomas made his last lung-bursting run and enjoyed a fortuitous bounce of the ball off Steve Nichol. Think long drawn out and badly mangled expletive and you’re halfway there. Hope, fear, excitement, amazement and disbelief all jostled for position. The moment lasted an eternity. Just hit it Mickey, just hit it. HIT IT!
IT’S UP FOR GRABS NOOOOOOW …
The ball hit the back of the net. To say the moment was one of transcendent bliss would be to understate it. I had watched the goal go in but still did not believe it. When I came to, I found that I had slithered to the floor and was under a mound of bodies undergoing a communal epileptic fit.
Did I believe? You bet I believed. One terrifying last minute was seen out, and the Referee blew his whistle to signal that Arsenal, my Arsenal, were Champions. The rest of the evening was a blur. Excited phone calls were made and taken, Champagne was bought on the short walk down to Highbury (I was quids in after all), car horns blared on a balmy spring evening to turn our part of London into Rio for a night and strangers were embraced like long lost brothers as we drank and danced outside the Stadium.
24 years ago today. Half a lifetime for me. I’ve never known a football moment like it, before or since. Our time had come.
It will come again.