Thirty years on: Is this the greatest story ever told?

Thirty years ago tomorrow, Arsenal headed to Anfield needing to win by two goals to dethrone England’s champions and lift a league title for the first time in 18 years.

The tragedy of Hillsborough had set up an unprecedented Friday night climax to the season but the visitors were long-shots to stop Liverpool claiming the double. Arsenal manager George Graham planned the raid into enemy territory to the last detail, but it all landed at the feet of Michael Thomas, with immortality up for grabs.

On the Friday afternoon of May 26, 1989 David O’Leary came down the stairs of the Atlantic Tower Hotel in Liverpool to meet his dad, Christy, and some friends in the foyer. Two-and-a-half hours earlier he had retired to his room, with Alan Smith in the next bed, waiting for the slow drift of time.

Matchday kips are an odd thing. Though theoretically beneficial, elite players are rarely known for sinking into a deep, patterned sleep in an allotted timeframe. Especially with one of the biggest games in the history of the old Division 1 a few hours away.

Strange then that O’Leary, told already he would be playing a different sweeper role for Arsenal at Anfield in the final, decisive game of the 1988-89 season, drifted into another world until 4.45pm. As he greeted Christy, David O’Leary had the look of a rested man without a care in the world.

Alan Smith would confirm as much years after when he spoke to Jason Cowley, author of the fine book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football:

We drew the curtains and had a good few hours’ sleep. I didn’t always sleep well on match day, but we both woke up that afternoon and said we’d slept well. It was the same when we went down to meet the others. Everyone said they’d slept well.

O’Leary chatted with the company — of which I was a peripheral part — as he took possession of one of the bananas being ferried out the front door of the hotel and onto the team bus. Unusually George Graham had chosen to bus it up to Liverpool on the morning the greatest story ever told was written.

“I shocked everyone by travelling up on the morning of the match,” said Graham later. “I’d read in a book that when visiting a hostile environment, you should go in and out quickly. So, I thought that’s what we’d do. It worked. I told the lads everyone expected us to go hell-for-leather from the kick-off. I said I’d be delighted if the match was goalless at half-time.”

Cowley’s book tells us Graham received his players at the 5pm team meeting dressed in club blazer, white shirt, and a red and white tie. The players were served tea with toast and honey, and then Graham asked the waiters to clear the tables and close the door. Graham confirmed the starting 11, with five at the back, and O’Leary as sweeper. What a gamble — packing his defence in a game Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals.

Liverpool had put five on West Ham three nights earlier in their penultimate game. They hadn’t lost since the turn of the year and had somehow managed to haul themselves through the living nightmare of Hillsborough to win an FA Cup final the previous week.

The score three days later in the league against West Ham was 5-1 but recognition of the significance of Leroy Rosenior’s consolation goal for the Hammers was minimal at the time. It wasn’t lost on Alan Smith though, who was at a PFA awards event that evening.

Leroy is an Arsenal fan and always tells us he did his bit. It was huge though because it meant we had to win by two goals at Anfield.

Liverpool enjoyed a three-point lead and a plus-four advantage in terms of goal difference.

“In fairness to George Graham — and no-one believes me when I tell them this,” says Niall Quinn, “in the team talk before the game, he virtually said we don’t want to go one up too early. He said a 0-0 half-time would be fine. He calmed everyone down before the game and he said he didn’t want us throwing everything at them early on. If we did that, we’d be in trouble.”

*******

The 30th anniversary of May 26, 1989 puts itself in the way of resurrecting English football’s most incredible climax to a title race. Even more so when one’s recall is facilitated by being about 40 yards from Michael Thomas as he moved towards Bruce Grobbelaar in the last minute of the last game of the season. Liverpool and Arsenal would finish level on points, the same wins, the same draws, the same number of losses (six), level on goal difference (+37).

One moment everything is up for grabs, the next… lives changed.

Until Arsenal win the European Cup — further away now that it’s been in some time — Thomas’ goal that night remains the great moment in the club’s history. I know that now. There have been doubles and Invincibles, but as a capsule for future generations, it’s the one to bury.

Being there on these nights can distort the remove at which such profound judgments are made but the passage of time confirms it as a certainty. Genoa was mighty, and the night at the Olympic Stadium in Rome in the same 1990 World Cup had the sense of being in the centre of the football universe. Giants Stadium four years later felt like the greatest trans-Atlantic gathering of green since the early ships.

There’s been others too. We sat with Mike Tyson once in the New York offices of his then manager Bill Clayton unsure if he was going to answer questions or chin me. It was during his menacing phase. Chatted boxing in greater detail with Dustin Hoffman at Madison Square Garden another night when a friend, Bobby McCarthy, was making his way in the dark trade.

I once sat at the foot of a murderer’s single bed, him underneath the covers, the two of us alone in his apartment as he told me what a friend he was to the guy I was sure he’d already murdered.

And yet none of them endure with the same clarity, none create the same frisson and sense of time and place as the aftermath of that evening in Liverpool. In such visceral moments, the priority is survival not enjoyment. In its throes, I was a quivering wreck mentally and physically, with an uncontrollable shake in my leg once the game began.

Fidgeting as inconspicuously as possible after Alan Smith had teased us with ridiculous hope of a first goal on 52 minutes, I passed along a slip of white Liverpool-crested paper to the late Bill Johnson, the man from The Daily Telegraph alongside. On it were the digits 4, 1, 7, 8 and 3.

“The club Lotto?,” I suggested knowingly.

“That’s the attendance.”

Much later, by which time a darkened room and a damp dishcloth might have been appropriate, I dove headlong into Kenny Dalglish’s fathomless well of despair in the ill-timed search for an Irish line for our back page: “By the way Kenny, are the Irish lads (Houghton, Aldridge, Staunton and Whelan) fit for the Republic’s WC qualifier against Malta on Sunday?”

If that might sound a venial error of judgment at this distant remove, then you clearly have never been at the business end of a losing manager’s media duties. It was crass on an epic scale.

*******

There’s no special receptacle at the front door to park your passion and anxieties at these moments. With Arsenal, that’s doubly true. I smile when I see supporters of the club mocking their nearest rivals for being ‘Spursy’ as if the inhabitants of London N5 are paragons of consistency. In 2003, when Thierry Henry spanked Inter Milan 5-1 at the San Siro in the Champions League, I was still checking my watch — and the stadium scoreboard — in injury-time, weighing up the possibility of a collapse.

In the Bernabeu two seasons later, Arsenal won at Real Madrid, but those are glorious exceptions. The ones that shape perspective are Arsenal blowing two-goal leads in injury time (to Spurs), giving up a 4-0 lead at Newcastle to draw, and contrive to lose unlosable games like the 1999 FA Cup semi-final to Manchester United.

Last-minute penalty to win? Check (Bergkamp, saved by Schmeichel, never took a penalty again). Opposition down to 10 men? Check (Keane off).

United went on to win the treble.

There have been many, many others, increasing in their frequency over the past decade, a period which corresponded with the club’s descent into defending that George Graham would never have countenanced. Somewhere in that time, the culture of Arsenal changed, the steel hand removed from the velvet glove. Power replaced by powder. For seven or eight seasons, Arsene Wenger mixed the perfect cocktail, but of late, the Arsenal dressing room has been beset by bluffers and shapers.

The dramatics of 30 years ago were shaped by a more prosaic, more honest, less talented but less brittle Arsenal, providing literary fodder for the classic Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby.

Of course, the occasion had been artificially created by tragic events. The FA Cup final had come and gone and all league games, bar one, had been played. Arsenal’s visit to Anfield was originally scheduled for Sunday, April 23 but, after Hillsborough and the suspension of the season, it was rescheduled unusually for May 26, a Friday.

Because Arsenal lost at home to Derby and two Dean Saunders goals in their third last game on Saturday, May 13, there’s a presumptive narrative that Arsenal blew up in the 1989 title race as well. That is only partly true and does Liverpool a disservice. After losing at home to Nottingham Forest on March 11, Derby was the first loss in two months. Then again, Liverpool were unbeaten since January 2.

*******

However, in the days leading up to the game, the feeling among the Arsenal players was that they had lost the title. A 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon in the second last game seemed to confirm as much in their minds.

“After the Wimbledon game we did a lap of honour to thank the Highbury crowd for their support and they clapped us as if to say, ‘Well done, hard luck,’” Alan Smith recalls.

Even the chairman came into the dressing room afterwards to say ‘You’ve had a great season, you’d done us proud.’ He didn’t say, ‘You’ve had it now’, but you could read between the lines.

There was now a frenetic, jittery feel to their play and the defence looked more like it does these days — erratic. However, on this night there was a ferocity, focus and intensity about Arsenal at Anfield, especially in the form of the late David Rocastle. Steve Bould had a header nudged off the line in the first half as we all pretended not to notice that one Liverpool goal would end all this silly hope.

The referee blew for half-time. It’s 0-0.

In the Anfield dressing room at half-time, George Graham is extraordinarily calm. “Does this feel like a wasted journey?” he asks. He does not raise his voice in the dressing room, there’s no shouting. He simply wants to reassure the players everything is going to plan. Everything’s going to plan, he keeps saying. We’ve kept a clean sheet. Just start to get forward more now, he says, be more positive on the ball. The pressure is on them, he says. The pressure is on them.

“He wasn’t swearing or shouting, nothing like that,” Smith said. “He just wanted to get his message across very calmly, to make some small adjustments to the game plan and to make sure we didn’t start to panic because we hadn’t scored. He sent us back out on to the pitch feeling enormously confident.”

Six minutes after the break, Smith’s lead goal turns that confidence into something altogether more injurious — genuine hope — for the Arsenal fans. Whatever we cling to, it may be short-lived anyway, because the referee Dave Hutchinson will inevitably disallow it.

He is ringed by indignant Liverpool players, led by Ireland’s Ronnie Whelan. They look to be claiming that Smith did not glance the ball to the net, that an indirect free kick travelled uninterrupted past Grobbelaar. There appears no justifiable reason to chalk off the goal, but Arsenal mindsets are pre-disposed towards negativity.

The referee jogs over to his linesman preparing his questions in careful sequence.

“Did I have my hand up for the indirect free-kick?’ He said yes.

‘Was there a touch by Smith in the middle?’ He said: ‘In my view, yes.’ I said: ‘Was there any possibility of offside?’ He said no.

I said: ‘Foul?’ He said no.

So I said: ‘Then it’s a goal.’”

0-1 to Arsenal.

It’s about then the right knee began trembling again. It happens infrequently. Once in 2008, when Theo Walcott scorched through Liverpool, again at Anfield, in a Champions League tie to set up Emmanuel Adebayor for the goal which seemingly put Arsenal through to the Champions League semi-final.

“Seven minutes away,” ITV’s Clive Tyldesley told us.

Straight from the kick-off, Liverpool’s Babel manufactured a dubious penalty to put them through.

“There has to be sympathy for Arsenal,” reflected Kevin McCarra in The Guardian the next day, “who resented the award of the penalty when they had been refused a more blatant one in the first leg. Above all, it is to be regretted that the competition now has to do without the sort of gorgeous football with which they endowed the first half.”

At Anfield we’ve ticked beyond 90 minutes now and it’s all gone. Thomas has spurned the one presentable chance, the one that qualifies under the There’s Always One Chance rule. The trembling knee has subsided even though Houghton, and then Aldridge, have fluffed chances to put everyone out of this wretched misery. How inconsiderate.

Kevin Richardson goes down in a cramp-induced heap, and TV watchers — though not those present — always recall Liverpool’s Steve McMahon pointing out with his index finger to teammates that they are at heaven’s gate after the hell of Hillsborough a little more than a month earlier.

“I was just trying to get the team to concentrate, to concentrate hard, and then we’d have another double,” McMahon says.

“Even today people come up to me and mention that one-minute-to-go moment. I try to laugh it off, but it still hurts. The whole evening had such a weird atmosphere — because of Hillsborough, because we’d already played the Cup final, because we didn’t have to win the game to be champions.”

Tony Adams is gambolling out of defence, only to be robbed by John Barnes. The Liverpool dribbler, with massive thighs accentuated by Liverpool’s tight adidas shorts, slaloms towards the Arsenal box, rather than heading towards the corner flag, a fatal error.

“I make light of it when I talk about it,” Barnes said recently.

Why can’t they blame the person who gave the ball to me? But we didn’t lose the title because I never went into the corner, or because West Ham scored on the Tuesday.

Richardson nips in and slips it neatly to goalkeeper, John Lukic.

The countdown to history has begun. Cowley provides Zapruder frame-by-frame detail.

“From the touchline (assistant manager) Theo Foley is screaming at Lukic, urging him to release it. He wants the goalkeeper to kick it long, to punt it up high into the night sky and deep into the Liverpool half. He’s cursing Lukic. Why now the delay, when there’s so little f**king time? For f**k’s sake hit it, f**king hit it.

“I was calling him every name under the sun,” Foley says. “I couldn’t believe he wanted to throw it out to Dixon.”

Dixon plays the ball accurately up the right flank. It’s collected by Smith.

“I didn’t really want the ball,” Dixon says. “I was running up the pitch, and the next minute the ball comes whizzing out to me. I’m thinking, ‘Why has he done that?’”

Smith receives the pass and, with his usual economy of movement, turns to play the ball through to Thomas, rushing forward from midfield, as he has, tirelessly and without reward, throughout the match. Unmarked and sprinting deep into Liverpool territory, Thomas miscontrols Smith’s pass; the ball spins away, bounces against Steve Nicol before, improbably, falling for Thomas.

“How do you explain that?” says Nicol now. “The ball is played up, Thomas is running through on it, he miscontrols it, it bounces straight off me and back to him. How do you explain that? You can’t, except to say that things happen.”

Things happen.

Cowley again. “Here he comes, Thomas, free, lost to the moment, as he would later describe it. He must know that the defenders are closing on him, must feel the hot rush and strain of their exertion. He is moving towards the penalty spot. The goalkeeper is coming towards him. Thomas has the ball. He is waiting for (Grobbelaar) to commit, his momentum carries him forward as he lifts the ball and — look, watch it now — follow it as it goes up and over the keeper and continues on its way into the net.”

0-2.

“Thomas continues running — how can he stop? — and does a somersault in wild celebration and begins to writhe and thrash around on the ground, like a marlin on a flyline.”

Me? I’m faux nonchalantly jotting the details in my notepad because (a) I have no more emotion or feelings to vent, or more likely (b) I know Liverpool are sure to go up the other end and score the League decider.

People, social media types most of them, harass and poke fun at me, rightly at times, for my fatalistic approach to Arsenal. “We have had a lot of good times too, Tony”, Liam Brady often reminds me. Of course, he is right. Misery is relative, even in football.

There have been cups, and more cups, but that pessimistic first defence has been there for the better part of my passion and it serves well. Twice I have left stadiums in Paris on the occasions of European finals asking why the freaky stuff, the freaky BAD stuff, always ends up being Arsenal’s shit sandwich Nayim from the halfway line at the Parc de Princes. Lehmann’s sending-off at the Stade de France.

However, even conditioned for the worst, it doesn’t prevent the occasional embarrassing rage. The exhibits are not short in number, but have lessened over time. Ask the bathroom mirror.

My late father-in-law, Moss Twomey, woke up from 40 winks one night to find me hammering the ground in what he presumed was some manner of coronary episode after Bayer Leverkusen equalised in the 90th minute of a Champions League game (Of course it was Berbatov). The bathroom mirror? That’s my son’s favourite. It got done when Jermaine Jenas levelled for Spurs in the last minute at White Hart Lane in 2007.

“We should have won by five goals,” said Arsene Wenger.

The young lad, Darragh, is 21 now and gave up on Arsenal for Man United when he was 10. For a bit, he had the same skewed sense of priority, but has shaken it off now, thank God. He thought Nani had missed the penalty in the Champions League final shootout in 2008 with Chelsea in Moscow and scattered a pack of Orios around the living room. He’s had better nights as a United Red, but he’ll never have that Friday night in Anfield in 1989.

Or the morning after. The Arsenal players had nothing planned — how could they — but the team coach was serenaded home by a flotilla of Arsenal cars floating down the M6.

“There were no mobile phones, but we got wind over the police radios from one of the police motorcyclists to our coach driver that they’d kept a nightclub open for us,” recalls Perry Groves, the foxy-haired cult hero, who came on as a late substitute for Paul Merson.

The nightclub in Southgate in the North London borough of Enfield was called Winners.

We just thought ‘it’s 2.30am, there’ll be about 10 or 15 people there, everyone will have buggered off. When our coach got there with a police escort, there must have been 3,000 people there. We were like The Beatles getting off the plane at JFK airport when we got off the team coach! I think we ended up getting out at about quarter past six in the morning.

It was.

“We had a great coach journey back, as you can imagine,” Niall Quinn recalls. “We finished up in the appropriately named Winners Club. It was nice and bright when we left.”

Down the street, a few of the players stopped outside a newsagent’s and flipped a parcel of unopened newspapers over to read their version of history.

The Daily Mirror said it was ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.

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