TWENTY FIVE years ago tonight my aunt Siobhan won ten thousand quid on the Late Late Show when pounds was money.
At about the time Gay Byrne was announcing the winners of the Rehab draw on RTÉ, I was in Liverpool, developing an uncontrollable and violent shake in my right knee, brought on by the most distressingly uplifting moment I’ve experienced - endured, probably - in sport, before or since.
You never tire of responding ‘about 40 yards away’ when other Arsenal obsessives happen upon the issue of Michael Thomas’ Championship-winning goal on May 26, 1989, and the question of where-were-you.
Sitting and fidgeting as inconspicuously as possible in the Liverpool press box after Alan Smith had given us hope, I passed along a slip of white Liverpool-crested paper to the man from The Daily Telegraph alongside. On it were the digits 4, 1, 7, 8 and 3.
“The club Lotto?,” I shrugged knowingly to Bill Johnson.
“No lad, that’s the attendance.”
Later - and unforgivably - I crawled into Kenny Dalglish’s unfathomably deep trough of despair and asked him “by the way Kenny, are the Irish lads (Houghton, Aldridge, Staunton and Whelan) fit for the Republic’s friendly at Lansdowne next week?” That might seem a rookie error of judgement at this distant remove, but in what clearly was a journalistc tip-toe through the rubble of Kenny’s emotions, it was as crass an error as you could imagine. And all for the 'Irish angle'. Jesus wept.
There will never be another climax to a football season like Friday night, May 26, 1989.
The last seconds of the last minute of the last game of the season, a head to head involving the top two clubs which finished level on points and goal difference.
Imagine Sky Sports.
Until Arsenal win the European Cup, Michael Thomas’ goal that night remains the greatest moment in the club’s history. I know that now.
OF COURSE, there’s no enjoyment in these games. How can there be, it’s Arsenal. When hearts are open and vulnerable, they are the emotional juggernaut that drives over and through.
In 2003, when Thierry Henry spanked Inter Milan 5-1 at the San Siro, I was still checking my watch in injury time, anticipating a home comeback. I was there two seasons later when Arsenal won at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu, but I’ve also seen Arsenal blow two goal leads in injury time (Tottenham, 2009), and contrive to lose unloseable games like the 1999 FA Cup semi final. 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. Is there any other club capable of playing Newcastle off their St James' Park pitch to lead 0-4 at half time and end up drawing 4-4? Furthermore is there any team - other than Arsenal - that's actually done that?
The dramatics of May 26th 25 years ago provided ample fodder for the classic ‘Fever Pitch’, which aggravated every Arsenal-writing follower if only because Nick Hornby thought of it before anyone else. Colin Firth starred in the movie adaptation and Jason Cowley’s book The Last Game: Love, Death and Football, offered further forensic detail of the night my aunt won ten thousand pounds.
There were the obligatory torments en route, and Firth nailed one in the film - the afternoon Arsenal lost to Derby at Highbury. Saturday May 13. There was no logical reason for the title-chasers to blow up at home to County, but Arsenal do torture better than Saddam, and Dean Saunders scored twice to plunge us all into a very dark place. In one Fever Pitch movie exchange, Firth’s squeeze cannot seem to grasp that 18 years of longing has just been prolonged by a terrible injustice.
Did she ever wait for something for eighteen years? EIGHTEEN years?
I had an experience that resembled Hornby’s in no particular way, but it’s indicative of the desperation of the moment. My younger - and only - brother, David, was twelve then, and mischief overtook him that day as he began taunting me about Derby. Vindictive, unforgiveable violence ensued; the long and the short of it is that he has followed Arsenal passionately ever since.
These days, I calm him down.
THE ARSENAL players had a light lunch in Liverpool that day before being instructed to return to their rooms to rest. It was unusual for the team not to travel up the night before but George Graham didn’t want his players exposed to the impossibility of their situation.
“I shocked everyone by travelling up on the morning of the match,” said Graham. “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.”
Graham gathered 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. I never knew David O'Leary much, but that evening in the hotel, I spoke to him and his father as club staff loaded boxes of bananas onto the team coach. I was told David was playing. Graham had already 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.
The reason such an unlikely equation was required was another botch job at Highbury the previous week. Nigel Winterburn scorched one into the top corner but Arsenal contrived to present Wimbledon with a 2-2 draw. Liverpool put five on West Ham and consequently enjoyed a two-point lead and a +4 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,” he told Cowley.
There was a ferocity about Arsenal, not least from the late, great David Rocastle. Steve Bould had a header nudged off the line, but we were all in a frozen state of fatalism because one Liverpool goal would end all this silly hope.
The ref blows for half time. It’s 0-0.
In Jason Cowley’s book, 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,” says Alan Smith. “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 cruel hope for the Arsenal fans. Our torment could be short-lived because the referee will inevitably disallow it. He is circled by indignant Liverpool players, the ringleader being Ronnie Whelan. There is no justifiable reason to chalk off the goal but this is an Arsenal mindset: just when things appear right, they are about to go horribly wrong.
The referee, Dave Hutchinson, hurries over to his linesman and rests a reassuring hand on his left shoulder.
Hutchinson recalls now: “I went to my linesman and said: ‘A couple of quickies. Did I have my hand up for the indirect free-kick?’
He said yes.
‘Was there a touch by Smithy 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.
LIVERPOOL weren’t the only ones getting twitchy now.
Arsenal were only one goal away from the most improbable result of all time. And that’s when my right knee started trembling. It’s happens infrequently still, around the time Arsenal conceded their second goal in the opening eight minutes of the Cup final two Saturdays ago.
Twenty five years since, we were presented with a poetic sense of comfort when Michael Thomas prodded a half-chance straight at Grobbelaar with 10 minutes left. Sod’s Law dictates there’ll always be one chance that gets away.
And Sod is Arsenal’s God.
We’ve ticked beyond 90 minutes now and it’s all gone. The trembling knee has subsided even though Houghton and then Aldridge have spurned chances to put us out of our misery. Kevin Richardson goes down in a cramp-induced heap, and TV viewers — though not those present — will recall Liverpool’s Steve McMahon pointing out with his index finger to team-mates .
One minute away.
“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.
Richardson nips in and slips it neatly to his goalkeeper, John Lukic.
The countdown to history has begun.
Cowley's The Last Game: Love, Death and Football, provides brilliant, hair-raising, 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.”
United in the Nou Camp 1999. Chelsea in Munich. Both against Bayern.
Things happen. At Anfield this night, it’s all happening so fast, yet there’s also something curiously hallucinatory about what’s unfolding, as if time itself is slowed.
“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 the goalkeeper to commit, just waiting; his momentum carries him forward as he lifts the ball with his right boot over Grobbelaar and — look, watch it now — follow it as it goes up and over the goalkeeper and continues on its way into the net.”
“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 huge marlin hooked on a flyline.”
Me? I’m nonchalantly pencilling the details in my notepad because (a) I have no more emotion or feeling left to express, or more likely (b) Liverpool are sure to go up the other end and score.
I have brought that pessimistic fatalism with me for the last 25 years and it serves me well.
I always prepare for the worst, but it doesn’t prevent me from occasionally flying into an embarrassing rage. The exhibits are many, but there’s one for most occasions. My late father-in-law, Moss Twomey woke up from 40 winks one night to find me writhing on the floor (with what he suspected was a heart attack) after Bayer Leverkusen equalised in the 90th minute of a Champions League game. My young lad's favourite is Jermaine Jenas equalising for Spurs’ in the last minute at White Hart Lane in 2007 (when the bathroom mirror got it). I was tired that day. I've already mentioned Newcastle.
Did I mention the young lad? Darragh’s 16 now, and gave up on Arsenal a few seasons back for Man Utd. Then he pretty much gave up on United. I think I’m to blame.
United have their Champions Leagues, so do Chelsea, but they’ll never have that Anfield Friday in 1989. Or the morning after. That was the enjoyment; the newspapers, local and national, that reassurance that it wasn’t from the realm of fiction.
‘Miracle Men’ ‘Gunners glory’; ‘Champions’. The Daily Mirror said it was ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’.
The Liverpool Post lamented a ‘Gunner Stunner’.
It was a remarkable, unforgettable moment not only for Arsenal, but for sport. Five seasons ago Arsenal wore the yellow and blue kit to honour the 20th anniversary. In the promotion shots, an ageing, greying Alan Smith sits in the dressing room alongside Cesc Fabregas.
He looks embarrassed and slightly tubby but there is only one legend in the frame.