*photo source: fourfourtwo.com
History was made on May 26th, 1989. Liverpool and Arsenal played the last game of the 1988/1989 season at Anfield. The match had been scheduled for the date of April 23rd, but a tragedy changed the schedule and, most probably, the history books. The disaster from Hillsborough, when 96 fans died at the FA Cup Semifinal between Nottingham Forrest and Liverpool after being crushed and suffocated in the stands shook the football world forever. The tragic event took place on April 15th, a day never to be forgotten by Liverpool fans, who always commemorate the fans that went to a game and never came back.
Liverpool – Arsenal was rescheduled for May 26,after the FA Cup final won by the Anfield side after a 3-2 win against Everton, their city rivals. Nobody would have expected a different outcome in the league, where Liverpool had 76 points with a goal difference of 39 goals. On the other side, Arsenal was three points short, with 73 points and a goal difference of 35 goals. Although, the North London club was in front for most of the season, the unbeaten record of Liverpool which started on January 1st helped them to recover and overcome the Gunners before the final clash.
0-2 – the winning bet for Arsenal
The only scenario in favour of Arsenal was a two-goal difference win. In an unfamiliar place, against fanatic supporters and a dream-team. For Liverpool, a team with four European Cups from 1977 onwards, the scene looked perfect. Bruce Grobbelaar in goal, Alan Hansen as a centre-back and Ronnie Whelan as a captain, after 10 years at the club. Seems like a dream team. Add to the equation attacking legends like John Aldridge, John Barnes or Ian Rush. All together, they scored 254 goals during their careers at Liverpool, with Rush dominating with an impressive record: 287 games and 120 goals.
Arsenal’s Manager, George Graham, opted to play a 5-4-1, with a defensive line formed of players like David O’Leary, Lee Dixon and the young captain, an “anonymous” named Tony Adams. The midfield was based on compact and dynamic construction while Alan Smith was the striker selected for the decider of the season.
Graham felt the power of the opponents, so chose to adopt a wise tactics, blocking the offensive potential of Liverpool by creating density in defense and midfield. Although they needed a 2-0 win, Arsenal’s goal in the first half was to stop the attacks of Rush, Aldridge and Barnes. On top of that, the script started to be written in the 32nd minute. Ian Rush was substituted after a groin strain medical issue.
It is reported that eight million people watched the game on ITV, the TV channel who broadcasted the most important games in English football league at that time. At half time, celebration seemed to have started for the Anfield Road. The champagne was placed back in the ice bucket in the 52nd minute, when Nigel Winterburn took an indirect free kick. Alan Smith used his 6 ft 3inch advantage and put a header in the back of the net. Protests of the Liverpool players came as a storm while Arsenal fans were invading the pitch to celebrate the goal. First blood to Arsenal.
Crazy and manic finish
It was still not enough as George Graham felt there is room for improvement. He sent Hayes and Grooves in and the formation was instantly changed to 4-4-2. It led to an all-in final 10 minutes, with both teams attacking, a bit chaotic and in Brownian motion. In the last 10 minutes, Aldridge was caught offside, his goals being disallowed. Arsenal tried to mix long range crosses with short passes while Liverpool kept the ball as much as they could have done it, in an attempt to steal time and keep the trophy.
With less than 90 seconds left, Lukic, the goalkeeper of the Gunners delivered a pass to Lee Dixon who sent a long ball in attack to the almighty Alan Smith. The ball arrived at Michael Thomas, who benefited from a lucky deflection from Nicol, and ended up with the ball in the penalty area. He put the ball past Grobbelaar and the miracle was complete. 0-2 and the title was going to Highbury.
Thousands of fans who came from London started to celebrate, invading the pitch for the second time, as Liverpool players were desperate to take the ball and try a final attack. It was too late. After 37 games and 92 minutes, Arsenal was back on the throne as Liverpool felt the crown slipping within seconds before the start of the coronation ceremony.
The final whistle of a grand finale. The goal scored by Michael Thomas is considered by the Arsenal fans one of the most important moments in the history of the club. As a matter of fact, in 2007, it was voted the second greatest chapter in Arsenal’s football legacy, after the 49 unbeaten matches run from 2003-2004. It was also a moment of transition, as English football league started to become a commercial target, a show for audiences and fully-packed stadiums. It was also the penultimate season before the end of the 5-year ban on English clubs.
The decade of the 90s brought several significant changes. The First Football League became Premier League and the new format attracted media interest, especially extended TV coverage. The economic boom which caused investments at all levels, in football academies, marketing and transfers and the football league started to become the land of talented foreign players. Last but not least, this period witnessed one of the best teams in the history of European football, with Manchester United winning the treble: Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.