Uttered in the age before sound bites, it has become one of the most famous phrases in the history of televised football, the great Brian Moore’s wonderfully instinctive response as he watched Arsenal’s Michael Thomas bearing down on the Liverpool goal in Anfield at the 11th hour of the final day of 1989 season.
What happened next went into folklore in North London and became the stuff of infamy on Merseyside, as Thomas kept his cool to score the goal which gave Arsenal the 2-0 away win they needed to overtake Liverpool and win the title.
That winning margin was the minimum George Graham’s side required to wrest the title away from their rivals on goals scored. But, going into the game, Liverpool hadn’t lost by two or more goals at Anfield in three years and Arsenal had not managed to win there in 15. Having thumped West Ham 5-1 in their penultimate game and lifted the FA Cup the previous weekend, the belief the Merseysiders were certainties to do the double was almost universal and probably best summed up by the Daily Mirror’s scarcely fence-sitting pre-match headline ‘You haven’t got a prayer, Arsenal’.
To make matters worse for the visitors, the Gunners had been five points clear of Liverpool with three games left only to spectacularly surrender their advantage by losing at home to Derby and then – present day Liverpool fans look away now – twice giving up the lead in a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon in their final home game. And then there was the small matter of the weight of history: in the 18 years since Arsenal had last won the title, Liverpool had accumulated 10.
So, on May 26, on the last night of the season, the consensus was it was all over bar the shouting, even after Arsenal scored at the start of the second-half. Now time was their enemy, the second-half and the season itself edging towards what seemed an inevitable conclusion, with Liverpool still firmly in control. Then, with the 90 minutes up and the Kop already celebrating, Brian Moore’s co-commentator David Pleat told ITV viewers: “If Arsenal are to lose the Championship, having had such a lead at one time, it’s somewhat poetic justice they should have got a result on the last day, even if they’re not to win it.”
“They will see that as scant consolation, I should think, David,” observed Brian Moore, sensibly enough And then, two minutes into injury time, Michael Thomas struck and when, just seconds later, the final whistle blew, an Arsenal fan by the name of Nick Hornby, watching on TV in his home hard by Highbury, simply ran straight out his front door, bound for the nearest off-licence. In his celebrated memoir Fever Pitch, under the giveaway chapter heading ‘The greatest moment ever’, Hornby recalls: “I had my arms out-stretched, like a little boy playing aeroplanes and, as I flew down the street, old ladies came to the door and applauded my progress, as if I were Michael Thomas himself. Then I was grievously ripped off for a bottle of cheap champagne, I later realised, by a shopkeeper who could see that the light of intelligence had gone from my eyes altogether.”
By contrast, the light of all logic had been extinguished on Merseyside where the natives were left in a state of shock, among them Jim Beglin, watching from the stands on the eve of his departure from the club, as his fellow Irish internationals Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton trooped of the pitch in disbelief. Bred in the boot room to be champions, none of them had seen this coming.
“I’d been part of it and I knew what the mentality was,” Beglin told me this week. “There were so many players at Liverpool then who’d done it time and time and again that I simply didn’t envisage it being a problem. Basically, Arsenal on the night out-Liverpooled Liverpool. They did a number on Liverpool that Liverpool had done to so many teams over so many years.
“It’s true those occasions can still get a bit jittery even if you’re very experienced. I can remember the lads joking about that at times. But even though I thought it could get a little bit hairy, I also thought Liverpool had more than enough to see it through. And I was as shocked as the rest of the football world when Michael Thomas did what he did at the end.”
The moral of the story? For Liverpool, the hope will be this warning from history is not heeded by Manchester City tomorrow. And, should the supposed champions elect take their eye off the ball in the Etihad, then Liverpool will have to make sure that, for their part, they don’t let another Anfield dream curdle into another Anfield nightmare.
What’s that other great commentary line? “They think it’s all over…”