Against All Odds
Tomorrow night, Arsenal faces one of the biggest nights in their history, and certainly the most significant fixture in the embryonic history of the stadium. We go into the game as bona fide 100% underdogs. Whether or not you believe we will overturn the one goal defecit or not is a matter of personal opinion (you don't want to know what I think), the point is we can do it. Football is a game that can throw you a curve ball just as you are ready to thumb through the form book with resignation, the very reason the game at large has been so entirely addictive for so many generations is due to its volatility, it's unpredictability and, at times, it's downright barminess. Football clubs' entire histories are etched in stone in moments such as these, United's unlikely last minute smashand grab in the 1999 European Cup Final, John Terry's failure of footwear on unctuous terrain, Jimmy Glass' 96th minute saunter towards the Shrewsbury penalty area. The game's legend is crystallised in such hair raising moments when everything seemed to be lost. Below is a short recollection of days and evenings in our history that were forged in chaotic alchemy and caused a few thousand betting slips to be torn up. All praise the underdog.
26th May, 1989. Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2- Almost exactly twenty years ago, Arsenal appeared to have blown a seemingly unassailable lead in the First Division Championship. A damaging home defeat to Derby County followed by a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon at Highbury meant Arsenal had to travel to a grief stricken Anfield and take on English football's behemoths Liverpool at fortress Anfield and win by two clear goals. Throughout the 70s and 80s Anfield was a ground wear you were thankful if you came away with a full compliment of shirts and shorts, points were strictly out of the question. Arsenal were written off from N5 to Nicaragua. This was just the way George Graham liked it. He refused to change any of Arsenal's away match routines, the team travelling North the day of the match as was their custom. Gorgeous George was eerily calm in his pre match interview, wearing the carefree smile of a man walking his dog on Wandsworth Common. He assured ITV that the pressure was off his team and implored them to enjoy the occasion. Graham's reputation as a miser was elucidated in his surprise team selection, opting for a third central defender in Steve Bould with the Gunners needing two goals. Those in the TV studio chortled disapproval, but Graham, an experienced tailor, was cutting his cloth to perfection. He wanted to ensure that the game stay tight and nervy and ensure Liverpool did not score the all important first goal. His thinking that doubt would start to creep in and enervate the home side's play the longer that they did not register. Half time 0-0 and just to plan. Now Graham instructed his team to get an early goal before sitting back and absorbing the pressure again. Unbelievably, they did just that. Merson floated in a free kick which Smith nodded in on 52 minutes. Liverpool players pressured referee Clive Thomas to consult his linesman as they suspected offside. There followed a tense wait as Thomas and the linesman conversed. But the goal was given and the chance of a huge upset was on the horizon. Graham had instructed his team to make sure they did not concede before unleashing a final ten minute blitzkrieg. As Bould denied Barnes and rolled the ball back to Lukic in injury time, in the commentary box David Pleat mused on the poetic irony of Arsenal winning the game but losing the league title. Dixon pumped a long ball to Smith in 'what will surely be the last attack.' Smith beat Gillespie to the header and found the onrushing Michael Thomas, he controlled and the ball took a kind ricochet off of Nicol, leaving Thomas one on one with Grobelaar. Thomas waited an eternity before lifting the ball over the advancing keeper and into the net. Arsenal had achieved their objective and won by two goals at Anfield in the most remarkable, unique and never to be repeated climax to a league season ever. It was also undoubtedly the greatest night in the club's history. In the ensuing twenty years, this night has become a real JFK moment for Arsenal fans, where were you when Mickey Thomas scored? Me? I was celebrating my 5th birthday and knew little or nothing of these events, to my eternal regret.
28th April, 1970. Arsenal 3 Anderlecht 0 (Arsenal win 4-3 on aggregate). The all conquering Arsenal side of the pre war era was now a dim and distant memory, much like the baby boomers of the 60s counter culture, Arsenal had lost their identity. Whilst in socio-political terms there was 'a war outside a ragin'', 1960s Arsenal were going through the motions, suffocated by their ancestory, in the late 60s several players even approached Bertie Mee- appointed in 1966- and asked to have pictures of the likes of Bastin, Hapgood and Drake removed from the Marble Halls. Mee replied that if the pictures were such a source of consternation that the players should look to replace them with pictures of their own achievements. Having not won a trophy since 1953, Arsenal got to the 1970 Fairs Cup Final against Belgian side Anderlecht. But the first leg was a shuddering disappointment as Anderlecht moved into a 3-0 lead in Antwerp. A late Ray Kennedy away goal gave the Gunners a glimmer of hope, but it was all to do at Highbury for the second leg. Frank McLintock reputedly rallied his troops in the dressing room with a stirring Churchillian address. It appeared to work when Eddie Kelly grabbed an early goal, the Highbury crowd roared their men on as the onslaught ensued. At the beginning of the second half, with the aggregate score still at 3-2 Anderlecht, McLintock turned to the North Bank and implored them to lend their voices. The Clock End crowd practically sucked John Radford's header into the goal as Arsenal moved into an away goal lead. Mulder struck a post as the Belgians roared back, but the much maligned Jon Sammels (the Eboue of the 1960s) fired in a low shot. Ther final whistle saw the crowd pour onto the pitch, most spectators shedding tears of joy as McLintock lifted the trophy. After 17 long years of mediocrity and soul searching, the Gunners had lifted their burdensome history off their shoulders and in doing so, created one of the greatest nights in the club's history for themselves.
4th May, 1994. Arsenal 1 Parma 0- Arsenal managed to scramble and defend their way to the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final with a series of miserly displays from the legendary back four. Having seen off the artistry of Ginola and Valdo in the semi final, the Gunners were now faced with Europe's most frightening attack, consisting of Asprilla, Zola and Brolin. Even Arsenal's defence could not shackle that triumvirate of stars who were destined to light up that summer's World Cup. Shorn of their own star striker Ian Wright through suspension, nobody gave Arsenal a prayer. Zola rattled the inside of the Arsenal post after ten minutes and Brolin had a goal disallowed. But Steve Bould and Tony Adams gave an absolute masterclass in defending against the Italians, who, in Benarrivo and Sensini, were supposed to be boasting the guardians of defensive mastery themselves. Alan Smith hooked a 19th minute left foot volley in off the inside of the post to give the Gunners a shock lead. For the reamining 71 minutes, they defended with an air of authority and defiance that left the Italians bemused and brow beaten. 1-0 to the Arsenal it finished and one of the great European Final upsets of our time had been expertly executed by George Graham's Arsenal.
If Arsenal are to pull off the right result tomorrow evening, it will sit comfortably alongside the aforementioned as one of the great shocks that shapeshifts our history.LD.