The night football reached fever pitch

Twenty years ago tonight, Arsenal and Liverpool staged the most remarkable climax in history to an English football season. “A night of chilling simplicity” as commentator Brian Moore called it. Tony Leen was there.

Starter’s orders in coaching sack race

SOME jobs are by their nature hazardous. Coal miners and trawler men were always the two groups most at risk, although times have changed (in Europe anyway) mainly because there are hardly any mines left and much fewer fish.

No one could call football management remotely hazardous, but as a profession it must be the most accident-prone of all.

Doubtless there are more accident-prone occupations – backwards blindfold basejumping comes to mind – but as means of earning a living football management has few rivals in terms of casualty rate.

Normally the annual cull starts this week. In Italy they also have a November cull. At Palermo they sometimes have three or four in the course of a year, but that’s a Sicilian thing, usually involving either Francesco Guidolin or Stefano Colantuono, and on one memorable occasion two men at the same time.

Leaving aside Palermo, which really is a law unto itself, the difference this time is that managerial departures are occurring before the season has ended, and they also involve some illustrious corpses at some very big clubs.

Jurgen Klinsmann, Marco Van Basten, Claudio Ranieri and Paul le Guen have all gone or are going. Bayern Munich, Ajax, Juventus and Paris St-Germain would have made a glamorous Champions League semi-final draw just a few years ago.

That of course is part of the explanation for the impatience. Klinsmann and Van Basten have lasted less then a season. Ranieri and Puel have had rather longer, but both their clubs are chafing at being also-rans in the league and out of contention in Europe.

The casualty list could well grow significantly very soon.

Juande Ramos is leaving Real Madrid. No great surprise there: he was only given a six-month contract and although he began with a run of nine wins, conceding ten goals to Liverpool and Barcelona does not get you a contract renewal at the Bernabeu (losing at home to Mallorca is also not a good idea).

Quique Sanchez Flores is on his way out at Benfica, serial sackers like Madrid. Finishing third behind Sporting is bad enough. One point from two games against Trofense, however, plumbs depths of humiliation that cannot be imagined (the entire population of Trofa is about half the capacity of Benfica’s Estádio da Luz).

You wouldn’t give much for Claude Puel’s survival chances at Lyon either.

Lyon boss Jean-Michel Aulas is a charming man in many ways, but he fires people even when they win the title and Lyon are about to finish behind Bordeaux and Marseille. That puts them in the same rocky boat as Arsenal for Champions League participation next season, and Lyon are in far more need of cash, as they have yet to build their new stadium at Decines (estimated cost €250 million).

The big Italian clubs could also be due for a shake-up, as has already happened with Juventus.

Roberto Donadoni, the former Italy coach who replaced Edy Reja at Napoli, is sensibly not promising too much. But Napoli are a major club with huge pride and ambition. Earlier on the season it looked as though they would challenge for a place in the Europa League next season. They could do with a new stadium as well.

The big doubts concern Luciano Spalletti at Roma and Carlo Ancelotti at Milan. Both men give the impression of exhaustion.

TWENTY years ago tonight my aunt Siobhan won ten thousand quid on the Late Late Show when pounds was money and it merited a mention in the opening paragraph of a football piece.

About the same 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 beautiful moment I’ve experienced (endured, perhaps) 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.

At a personal level, there were several incidents that night to suggest it was a never-to-be-repeated set of circumstances at Anfield. For that I am quite grateful.

Sitting and fidgeting as inconspicuously as possible in the Liverpool press box after Alan Smith had ridiculously 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 nodded knowingly to William Johnson.

“No lad, that’s the attendance.”

Later, at a point when I ought to have been lying down in a darkened room with a damp dishcloth on my forehead, 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 venial error of judgment at this distant remove, but in what amounted to a funeral parlour surrounded by what I hoped would become my peers tip-toeing through the rubble of Kenny’s emotions, it was a Big No.

Why stop there? Less than an hour later, I had the opportunity to venture beyond the threshold of humiliation but to my lifelong regret, passed it up.

Downstairs in the Anfield foyer as stars like George Hamilton of RTÉ, Arsenal’s midfielder Kevin Richardson and even John Barnes walked past, I generated a moment’s conversation with David O’Leary as he walked into the car park and onto the team coach a few yards away. I so wanted to be David’s best friend as I eyed a couple of lurkers like myself with Arsenal scarves crawling aboard the team bus.

My relationship with O’Leary was in its embryonic stages, I must confess. He’d got out of his Atlantic Tower Hotel bed in Liverpool a few hours earlier to meet his dad in the foyer.

I was part of a broader in-the-same-constituency-type conversation and when I was introduced by Noel Spillane, the Examiner’s soccer man, I reckon we had a good 15 or 20 second heart-to-heart. I gleaned from it that he had roomed with Alan Smith and they had both slept well for the afternoon. He told his dad he was playing sweeper and as he did, he took possession of one of the bananas being ferried out the front door of the hotel and onto the team bus.

Now call me Arturo Lupoli if that wasn’t an unbreakable bond sufficient to get me on that bus and back to London with the Arsenal players.

“I can’t remember the journey back to London that night,” David O’Leary shrugged recently. “Don’t know where it went really.” Indeed, David.

“We had a great coach journey back, as you can imagine,” Niall Quinn, a fringe member of that 1989 squad, said. “We finished up in the appropriately named Winners Club in London. It was nice and bright when we left.”

I’m sure it was.

There will never be another climax to a football season like Friday night, May 26, 1989. Ever. 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. Being there was rather like Con Houlihan’s reflections when asked to recall the Irish mania during Italian 90: “I don’t know, I was in Italy at the World Cup.”

THERE’S another thing, of course. There’s no enjoyment in these games. How can there be, it’s Arsenal. They are an exercise in endurance and I am a fatal pessimist, hardly an intoxicating cocktail. In 2003, when Thierry Henry spanked Inter Milan 5-1 at the San Siro, I was still checking my watch – and my brother’s – in injury time, anticipating a storming 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, this season), 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.

The dramatics of May 26 some 20 years ago provided ample fodder for the classic ‘Fever Pitch’, which aggravated every Arsenal-writing follower because Nick Hornby thought of it before anyone else did. Colin Firth starred in the movie adaptation and last month, 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. It was the day 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 don’t do logic too well, and Dean Saunders scored twice to plunge us into a very dark place indeed. In a seminal exchange in the movie (seminal for all those who have tried, and failed, to explain to our loved ones that it isn’t just a game), 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 a parallel experience that resembled Hornby’s in no particular way, but whether it’s worth telling or not, I’ll let you decide. My younger and only brother, David, was twelve then, and mischief overtook him that day as he began taunting me ceaselessly and unforgivably about the Derby defeat. A garden chase and some vindictive violence ensued; the long and the short of it is that he has followed Arsenal passionately ever since. These days, I calm him down. Last month we jumped around the living room together when Arsenal scored in injury time at Anfield to lead 3-4.

Needless to say, Liverpool equalised to make it 4-4.

THE ARSENAL players had alight 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,” says Graham now. “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 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 David 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.”

That was important. In the days leading up to the game, the feeling among the Arsenal players was that they had lost the title. At the turn of the year, Arsenal’s lead over Liverpool had been 15 points. Since then they’d faltered just as Liverpool began to improve. Arsenal had won just 10 of their previous 20 games, with four defeats. There was now a frenetic, jittery quality to their play, as long balls were hit more in hope than expectation and the defence became brittle.

However on this night, 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 author 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 ringed 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, addressing him as a policeman might an errant youth.

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.

Now I knew that a shaft of light had appeared on the horizon, because 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 happened infrequently since, once a year or so ago when Theo Walcott scorched through the Liverpool defence at Anfield in a Champions League tie to set up Emmanuel Adebayor for the goal which put us through, and knock Liverpool out. Except this is Arsenal, and straight from the kick off Liverpool’s Babel manufactured a dubious penalty to put them through.

Twenty years earlier, there was a poetic sense of comfort when Michael Thomas prodded a half chance straight at Grobbelaar with 10 minutes left because Sod’s Law is that 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 watchers – though not those present – may recall Liverpool’s Steve McMahon pointing out with his index finger to team-mates that they are one minute from embalming their post-Hillsborough trauma with a title.

“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, from his The Last Game: Love, Death and Football, provides spine-tingling 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. 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.”

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 huge marlin hooked on a flyline.”

ME? I’m nonchalantly jotting the details in my notepad, presumably because (a) I have no more emotion or feeling left to express, or more likely (b) I reckon Liverpool are sure to go up the other end and score the League decider.

I have brought that pessimistic fatalism with me for the last 20 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 too many to mention, 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 presumed an epileptic fit) after Bayer Leverkusen equalised in the 90th minute of a Champions League game, though my son’s favourite is Jermaine Jenas equalising for Spurs’ in the last minute at White Hart Lane two seasons ago (when the bathroom mirror got it). In my defence, I was tired that day.

Didn’t I mention the young lad? Darragh’s 11 now, and gave up on Arsenal a few seasons back for Man Utd. I don’t know how much I had to do with that, but shamefully, he’s taken my skewed sense of priority. He leaves the room and watches the final minutes of United’s matches through the window. I felt his heartbeat the night United beat Porto 0-1 in Lisbon and it was uncomfortably fast. I nearly wanted United to beat Arsenal in the Champions League semi-final.

United might have Barcelona 10 years ago, and again tomorrow 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 couldn’t be taken away now.

‘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 night and an unforgettable moment not only for Arsenal, but for sport. This past season 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.

And it isn’t my aunt Siobhan.

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