It's Up For Grabs Now
Following on from Arsenal`s narrow failure to regain their 1970-71 double in 1972, Mee broke up his adhesive team and Arsenal drifted into mediocrity again, with Mee eventually leaving in 1976 following a horrendous season whereby Arsenal finished 17th and were knocked out of both domestic cups at the first hurdle. Terry Neill took up the reins and forged a team that was capable in cups, but never challenged for supremacy in the league table. The departure of Liam Brady in 1980 propelled the club headlong into depression, with Terry Neill and Don Howe successively hounded out of the manager`s chair by supporters watching turgid and thoroughly unsuccessful football in front of sparse and often bitter crowds. Post match demonstrations against Howe came to such a point that he resigned after a 3-0 home victory! The Arsenal board, with David Dein now in tow, made an appointment strikingly similar to ones they had made in dry run of the 50s and 60s, reforging a link with Arsenal`s glorious past with Scot and 71 Double winner George Graham. But far from being a bungled attempt to replot history, as the appointments of Swindin and Crayston had been in the 50s and 60s, Graham gave a club entrenched in a rut a basis for belief again.
He swept the broom through highly paid star players who he felt were not pulling their weight. The likes of Charlie Nicholas, Kenny Samson, Graham Rix, Viv Anderson and Tony Woodcock did not last long under Graham. Contrary to his "stroller" image as a player, Graham was a disciplinarian who looked to whip Arsenal back into shape. Martin Keown was immediately sold after asking for a £50 salary rise (Graham of course ended up buying him back seven years later at some expense), Stewart Robson was sold after accepting an England U-21 call up after having not played for some time due to a knee injury. In his first season, Graham brought the good feeling back to the club with a famous 2-1 victory over Liverpool to win the Littlewoods Cup in 1987. Much as Mee had done, he had replaced the stars with hungry academy products, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle, Paul Merson and made the jewel in his Academy crown Tony Adams captain at just 21. With David O`Leary ageing, Graham looked to build his defence upon the bedrock of Adams. Graham surrounded him with hungry lower league players; in 1987 Nigel Winterburn was signed from Wimbledon. 1988 saw Steve Bould and Lee Dixon acquired from Stoke City. It was a defence that, completed by the acquisition of David Seaman in 1990, would stand for more than a decade as the finest English football has ever seen. By the beginning of the 1988-89 season, the manager appeared to have most of his team in place, though he did rather crave a strike partner for the prolific Alan Smith. Kerry Dixon and Frank McAvennie were both subject to Arsenal`s advances during the season. Graham sometimes deployed a sweeper system away from home, with O`Leary playing in behind Bould and Adams. This enabled Dixon and Winterburn to race up and down the flanks. In midfield, the considered creativity of Paul Davis was offset by the energy of the young Michael Thomas. On the flanks, the exciting Rocastle was able to beat players with ease with his skill and electric pace whilst left winger Brian Marwood`s crossing was the source of many of Alan Smith`s goals. But at home, Graham usually played the exciting young forward Merson just off of Smith. Merson was quickly nicknamed "Magic Merse" by supporters due to his penchant for conjuring goals out of nothing- for him or his team mates.
Arsenal flew into the groove with an opening day 5-1 pummelling of Wimbledon at Plough Lane, with Smith setting the tone for a Golden Boot winning season with a hat trick. However, in May, Wimbledon would come back to haunt Arsenal. But the Gunners did lose their opening home match to Aston Villa as the new side gelled together, but a swift rebuttal in the shape of a 3-2 win at White Hart Lane. Naturally, Smith would grab the winner. In fact, Smith scored in 9 out of Arsenal`s first 10 games. But one of Arsenal`s early season encounters, a 2-2 draw with Southampton at the Dell, would provide one of the stranger and more regrettable moments of Arsenal`s recent history. Southampton`s "hard man" midfielder Glen Cockerill had been issuing some verbal GBH of Paul Davis` shell like for much of the game. Some utterance must have grated incredibly with Davis, as he retaliated by punching Glen Cockerill with so much force that he broke his jaw! At the risk of wheeling out the pathetic "he was not that type of player" argument, well, he really was not that type of player! In temperament terms, Paul Davis was a contemporary Gilberto Silva. The referee did not see the indiscretion, but the F.A. used video evidence to ban Davis for 9 matches and fine him £3,000. It was then a record fine for a footballer and meant Davis earned the unwanted distinction of being the first ever player tried by video evidence. In truth, he was fortunate not to have been tried by the courts.
Arsenal began to really find some form in the autumn of 1988, taking in a 1-1 draw at home to Liverpool in October, keeping them at arm`s length in the title race, with Smith providing goals-a-plenty and Arsenal`s sturdy defence proving gruelling opposition for opposing attacks. The Christmas period had been very good for the Gunners, with four straight wins over Manchester United, Charlton and Aston Villa away before a New Year`s Day 2-0 saunter at home to Spurs. Davis` enforced absence meant a slight creative shortfall in midfield as Kevin Richardson came into the side in his place, more of a grafting midfielder. Initially Graham had problems replacing Davis` qualities whilst adhering to the sweeper system away from home. In his programme notes prior to a home game with Everton in January, Graham argued that the system "need not be negative." He persisted with it for a torturous 55 minutes in the Everton match, until he brought Merson off the bench. Merson scored one and made two as Arsenal ran out 3-1 winners. 'Stroller` would only use the formation once more for the rest of the season- to devastating effect too. In fact, the game probably influenced Graham`s thinking as he set about hatching the master plan for the showdown game at Anfield in May. He observed that he wanted principally not to concede in the first half, before the Gunners then set about being more positive in the second half. Seeing Arsenal contain Everton in a dour encounter, before bringing on Merson and going for the jugular, the manager foresaw the tactics that would bring Arsenal the greatest triumph in their history.
The Gunners would remain top of the league into the spring, but signs of title jitters began to show as their chasers Liverpool went on a long unbeaten run which would end up totalling 28 games after an unusually poor start from the Merseyside team who had made winning the league in the 80s an annual pastime. A limp 1-0 away defeat to Coventry in late February was followed by a drab 0-0 draw at home to Millwall and a 3-1 away defeat at the City Ground and a disappointing 2-2 home draw with Charlton. Liverpool were now only four points behind going into May, but it looked as though the Gunners were going to limp over the finish line and stave them off. Then tragedy occurred which appeared to put the game of cat and mouse into perspective. On April 15th Arsenal would stumble to a nervy 1-0 home win over Newcastle, ex Gunners captain Kenny Samson had a perfectly good injury time equaliser disallowed. Samson would later go on to say that, "It was the only time in my career I was pleased to see the wrong decision. Had that goal stood, Anfield would never have happened." Liverpool did not play their league fixture on that weekend as they were due to play Nottingham Forest in the F.A. Cup semi final at Hillsborough. The game did was not played, too many supporters were hemmed in to the Leppings Lane End and the police would not open the gates and let the supporters sill out onto the pitch. There was an immense crush and 94 supporters were killed, one would die in hospital a few days later due to his injuries and one more would lay in a coma for four years before succumbing to his injuries, bringing the death toll to 96. The consequent Taylor Report would change football forever, far too late for the 96 Liverpool fans that journeyed to a football match in Sheffield and never came home.
With Liverpool, and indeed a nation, in mourning, Arsenal looked destined for their first title win in 18 years; a 5-0 romp at home to Norwich City on 1st May and a late Martin Hayes winner away at Middlesbrough left the Gunners needing four more points to be crowned champions. As a result of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool`s fixture calendar became congested and the Gunners trip to Anfield was delayed until Friday, 26th May when all other English teams had concluded their league calendar. But with gimmes at home to Derby County and Wimbledon, it seemed as though Arsenal would travel to Merseyside as champions. But fate would have other ideas, a Dean Saunders inspired Derby shocked the Gunners with a smash and grab 2-1 victory at Highbury, whilst lowly Wimbledon would amazingly snatch a 2-2 draw on the Tuesday night. An evening that was being lined up for coronation turned into a wake. The Daily Mirror led with the headline BLOWN IT! The Gunners would have to go to Anfield, where they had not won since 1974 and where Liverpool defeats were rarer than rocking horse faecal matter, and win by two clear goals. As the world prepared to watch the Berlin Wall torn down in August as communism tumbled, Arsenal were going to have to march into the enemy`s lair and dismantle English football`s red army.
The country unilaterally write Arsenal off, allowing George Graham`s psychological and tactical masterpiece to come to fruition. An atmosphere of gloom permeated the Arsenal fans, believing they had seen the possibility of a first title in 18 years snatched away from them and now they would have to watch their predators cavort with the prize. But Graham was chipper, when asked if he felt the pressure was too great he smilingly replied, "I hope we get this type of pressure every year. This is enjoyable pressure." Graham did not change his approach one iota in the preparation, the team still travelled up to Anfield on the morning of the game in their spotless club blazers. The manager with the reputation for being dour and results driven would tell his players to "go out and enjoy it." However, he did surprise everyone by redeploying the sweeper system, tucking O`Leary behind Adams and Bould. Playing an extra defender struck less sophisticated minds as a bizarre thing to do when you absolutely positively have to win a match by two goals. But Graham insisted that his players should concentrate on not conceding in the first half. He felt Liverpool would try to score early and put the result beyond doubt with an early goal. Graham instructed his players to resist the onslaught first and foremost, before scoring an early second half goal and sitting back again, concentrating on holding back the Liverpool response. The plan would go that at 1-0, Liverpool would begin to get nervous and unsure of how to approach the last 20 minutes, at which point he would let loose the dogs of war and unleash wave after wave of attack on a tense Liverpool side. The match is regarded as a night of drama the likes of which English football had never before seen, but underlying the celebrations and disbelief, a cold, tactical, psychological plan underpinned the event.
The match was shown on ITV in the days when league games were very rarely televised. The drama that unfolded on the screens to an estimated 600 million viewers would probably influence some very wealthy men to purchase rights to live games on the very recently launched satellite television. Brian Moore`s commentary would also reveal a master of broadcasting at work, it stands to reason that just about every Gooner worth his salt recalls Moore`s gravelly voiced incantations, but his commentary fell into legend because of its simple spontaneity, a welcome antidote to the Tyldesley`s and Drury`s of nowadays who try too hard to make their every rehearsed utterance fall into the canon of Wolstenhome and Davis. At kick off, Moore would chime that it was "a night of chilling simplicity", which is exactly what it was. The Arsenal players emerged from the tunnel with bouquets of flowers, which they then distributed to Liverpool supporters, a touching gesture of their sadness at the grief the club had just suffered. It would be the extent of Arsenal`s generosity. The first half panned out exactly as Graham had predicted with Liverpool making the early running and the Gunners successfully repelling the onslaught. A shot from Ian Rush apart, Lukic was barely troubled in the Arsenal goal. Bould had a header well saved by Grobelaar, but Graham had what he had wanted as the half concluded without incident.
On 52 minutes, Arsenal won an indirect free kick half way into Liverpool`s half, Winterburn floated it in and Smith flicked the whisp o his hairline at it and directed it past Grobelaar. Liverpool players surrounded the referee, imploring him to speak to his linesman who had apparently raised a flag before putting it down again. Presumably they were appealing variously for an offside or for the fact that Smith did not touch it, meaning the goal would not stand due to it being an indirect free kick. The referee and his linesman consulted as a nation held its breath. After a few agonising seconds, the referee signalled for the goal. Arsenal let out a collective roar, half believing that they could achieve mission impossible. Liverpool fans puffed in their cheeks and chewed their nails, a nation sat perched on the edge of its seat. On 74 minutes, as Liverpool increasingly looked to protect a deficit that would not threaten their title, Richardson teased a cute through ball to Thomas, with the ball sat invitingly on the edge of Thomas` boot but he could only punt it low straight at Grobelaar. It looked as though Arsenal had, to borrow the Daily Mirror`s terminology, blown it. As the match moved into injury time, Steve McMahon was seen holding one finger up and bawling "ONE MINUTE!" at his players. "McMahon`s got the word from the Kop." Barnes bore down on the Arsenal goal with a mazy dribble; he should have gone to the corner flag but made a beeline for goal. Richardson disposed him with a well timed tackle and tucked the ball back to Lukic. "But Barnes won`t be denied, yes he will by Richardson." Lukic bowled the ball out to Dixon.
"Arsenal come streaming forward in what will surely be their last attack." Dixon looked for the lanky frame of Smith, who got a flick onto the ball, "A good ball by Dixon finding Smith." Thomas drove on central midfield, he attempted to lift the ball over Steve Nicol`s head, the ball ricocheted off of Nicol, back onto Thomas and serendipitously took Thomas clear of the forlorn Liverpool defender. "To Thomas, CHARGING THROUGH THE MIDFIELD!" Thomas was one on one with Grobelaar, the ball took an age to sit as Hansen and Nicol bore down on Thomas` heels, "IT`S UP FOR GRABS NOW!" Grobelaar advanced seemingly in slow motion, a nation looked on, Alan Smith remembers now, "I remember thinking, HIT IT! You`ve got to take a shot Mickey." But with Hansen, Nicol and Grobelaar bearing down, Thomas learned his lesson from the missed chance fifteen minutes earlier, he lifted the ball above Grobelaar and into the net. "THOMAS!!! RIGHT AT THE END!!!" Thomas forward somersaulted in delight, Winterburn aeroplaned his way past the travelling Arsenal fans. Lee Dixon remembers, "I was crying, I remember thinking when Liverpool kicked off again, if they come down my side I`m done for because I`ve got tears in my eyes and I can`t see properly." But it was too late, Liverpool had no time for riposte, if indeed they would even had had the heart to mount one. "WHAT AN UNBELIEVABLE CLIMAX TO THE LEAGUE SEASON!" The final whistle sounded, a pocket of Arsenal fans in the Anfield Road End cavorted in disbelief, "Arsenal, the champions!" Whilst Liverpool looked on dumbfounded, "Barnes is down, McMahon is down, Dalglish just stands there." And George Graham, the man who masterminded it all, who, like Muhammad Ali predicting which round he would knock out an opponent, foresaw the entire spectacle, calmly shook the hands of his opposite numbers and briefly erected a hand in acknowledgement to the supporters. The Liverpool fans mustered a rendition of "You`ll Never Walk Alone" and then stayed to applaud their conquerors, a gesture of class that has never been forgotten by Arsenal fans and is one of the predominant reasons that such cordial relations exist between the two sets of fans to this day. Arsenal had taken the title off of the holders and the champions elect, on their own ground, in the very last minute of the season, in front of 600 million television viewers. Such a finish to a league campaign will never be bettered for drama. If it had been written as a movie script, the audience would scoff and dismiss it on grounds of incredulity. Like all great drama scripts it was one of chilling simplicity.LD.