There are occasions in football, special moments, when history changes before your very eyes; and Arsenal and Liverpool fans may well find themselves drifting back 26 years when the Premier League’s first and third-placed teams meet today, dreaming of recreating just such a turning point.
The match that sends both sets of supporters dewy-eyed, either with tears of joy or happiness, is the 1987 League Cup final when Liverpool, appearing in their eighth major final in 10 years, were at the height of their powers and Arsenal, trophyless since 1979, were dreaming of a renaissance under new manager George Graham.
Arsenal’s 2-1 victory that day, secured by goals from Scottish striker Charlie Nicholas, has since become enshrined in north London legend as the moment a new era began; and although Liverpool went on to win further trophies, including league titles in 1988 and 1990, it may well have been the start of their decline too.
The Times match report published on April 6, 1987, was surprisingly visionary in that respect; headlined ‘Sunrise thanks to Nicholas’ it spoke of such a possibility, concluding the result “ushered Arsenal towards a horizon that grows brightly but darkened that of Liverpool”.
At the very root of that verdict was the demise of one of football’s most remarkable statistics — and the end of a huge psychological advantage it had provided Liverpool until that point.
Striker Ian Rush went into the final having scored 144 times for the Anfield giants; and in all that time he had never been on the losing side in any game in which he hit the net.
‘If Rush scores, Liverpool win’ was a phrase repeated almost weekly in those days and when you consider his record included 122 victories and 22 draws it understandably had a powerful effect on opponents.
So when Rush scored against Arsenal after 23 minutes, sweeping home a ball from Steve McMahon, there was a deep intake of breath in the Arsenal end.
I was at Wembley that day and even the most optimistic Arsenal fan suffered, at that second, a moment of doubt. But then a miracle happened.
Graham’s emerging side, full of energy and the bravado of youth, surged forward and hit the woodwork through Paul Davis and again through Nicholas before the latter, already a terrace hero at Highbury even before this momentous fixture, poked home a Viv Anderson cross for 1-1 in the 30th minute.
The winner, which Nicholas was credited with but deflected decisively off Ronnie Whelan from a Perry Groves cross, arrived in the 83rd minute and suddenly something in the air changed for both teams.
For Arsenal it was the start of an exciting new era which saw them win the league title two years later and set the ambition levels higher than ever before. For Liverpool, who eventually lost the title to Everton in 1987, it saw the aura of invincibility that had shrouded their every move suddenly start to thin.
Rush, writing in the Guardian many years later, admits it was something of landmark moment.
“I’d been at Liverpool for seven years and it was incredible to go that long without losing when I’d scored,” he said.
“I remember walking around after we had lost against Arsenal. With my record going and my move to Juventus set up it felt like the end of an era. But maybe it was fate. After seven years and all those games and goals we’d never been beaten when I scored, but the following week we went to Norwich and lost 2-1 and I scored then too.”
Fast forward 26-and-a-half years and we have another Arsenal-Liverpool fixture that has the potential to both influence history and shape the future of two great clubs.
Victory at the Emirates would mark Brendan Rodgers’ side out as serious title contenders following a hugely promising start to the campaign in which Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have shared the Rush role; defeat, however, would provide a huge fillip to leaders Arsenal, unbeaten in the league since the opening day but yet to convince critics they have the staying power to remain trailblazers all the way to May.
One way or another, you suspect, November will begin with a sea of red in north London and two sets of fans with history on their minds; but whether the sun is rising or setting on their dreams is very much in the balance.
April 5, 1987: Wembley Stadium
Arsenal 2 (Nicholas 30, 83)Liverpool 1 (Rush 23)
ARSENAL: John Lukic, Viv Anderson, Kenny Sansom, Steve Williams, David O’Leary, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Paul Davis, Niall Quinn (Perry Groves), Charles Nicholas, Martin Hayes (Michael Thomas).
LIVERPOOL: Bruce Grobbelaar, Gary Gillespie, Barry Venison, Nigel Spackman, Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen, Paul Walsh (Kenny Dalglish), Craig Johnston, Ian Rush, Jan Molby, Steve McMahon (John Wark).
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