Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday July 25 2010
The 1989-90 season was something of an "after the Lord`s Mayor show" affair following the unbelievable climax of the 1988-89 season as the Gunners scrabbled to a respectable if disappointing 4th placed finish. The relative slump gave rise for George Graham to plunge into the transfer market; in the summer of 1990 he spent £1m on Andy Linighan from Norwich City and £1.7m securing the signature of the exciting Swedish winger Anders Limpar from Cremonese. He also added the signing of England goalkeeper David Seaman for £1.2m from QPR- a then British record fee for a custodian. The acquisition of Seaman brought some opprobrium from supporters who were heard chanting "We all agree, Lukic is better than Seaman" during pre season friendlies that summer. Supporters always know best where the transfer market is concerned you see. Seaman would complete the famous back five that would be a miser to opposing attacks for over a decade, Limpar added flair and unpredictability, allied to the already impressive creative juices of Merson and Rocastle. Whilst Linighan was thought of as a solid back up centre half with O`Leary`s limbs creaking.
However, despite the fabulous season Arsenal enjoyed, winning the league by a clear 7 points and losing only once, in retrospect the signings also show that this squad was one that was always precariously on edge. Limpar had been brought in to replace Brian Marwood, who Graham had frozen out after a disagreement between the pair in the enthralling 4-3 home victory against Norwich in January 1989. Marwood was sold to Sheffield United in September, and fired a parting shot at the autocratic manager, "I hope he doesn`t make a monster of himself." Kevin Richardson likewise felt the wrath of the dictator Graham, freezing the young midfielder out after a set to and selling him to Watford. Likewise Linighan`s purchase was as much to do with a grudge Graham had held against O`Leary as much as the Irish defender`s aching legs. O`Leary had asked for more time off following his World Cup exploits for Eire at Italia 90. Graham gave him three months in the reserves to recover. His frequent run ins with players showed a manager unwilling to tolerate fools, or so it seemed anyway. Graham seemed to favour some players over others, so for instance when he first arrived at the club, he swept the broom through Nicholas, Rix and Samson to get rid of the drinking culture within the club, yet for years he tolerated the antics of Adams (more on that later), Merson and Parlour. Many expected George`s wrath to be brutal when the maverick Limpar spoke out in the press in October, "He [Graham] believes I should not think I am bigger than Arsenal, but I always behave. I never visit nightclubs like some players, but that doesn`t seem to matter to him." Graham was surprisingly chipper about the incident and imposed no sanction on Limpar- possibly because he was playing outstandingly well at the time. It would be some years before he would see fit to isolate the Swede completely. Limpar`s comments also revealed a drinking culture at the club which would come back to haunt its captain later that season.
However, on the pitch the Gunners were a united force. They began their campaign the same way they had started their last league title winning season, with a resounding win at Plough Lane, 3-0 on this occasion. The Gunners were producing good results, with Limpar revitalising them as an attacking force with his wit from the left flank. But it would be late September before Arsenal would really convince in championship style, pummelling Chelsea 4-1 at Highbury in the early autumn sunshine, Limpar, Merson and Rocastle- Arsenal`s three creative musketeers helping themselves to beautifully crafted goals, whilst Dixon added a fourth from the penalty spot. Most who witnessed the tail end of the Graham years appear to have trouble recalling what an exciting team he created until the European Cup defeat to Benfica prompted him to opt for pragmatism over imagination. But come October, it wasn`t the scintillating wing play or the goals of Alan Smith that were making headlines, scenes of an aesthetically less valedictory nature were to prompt the tongues of the nation to become acidic with indignation. Anders Limpar`s clever shot from a tight angle deceived Les Sealy as Arsenal won 1-0 at Old Trafford, but a 21 man brawl would catch the attention. Limpar and Winterburn piled into a tackle on McClair and mayhem broke loose, as fists went flying and a mass scrap took place next to the touchline. Every player on the pitch was involved bar David Seaman. In an attempt to pre empt punishment from the F.A. Arsenal immediately fined Anders Limpar, Nigel Winterburn, David Rocastle and George Graham two weeks salary. Chairman Peter Hill Wood told the press in his clipped tones, "The good name of Arsenal has been sullied." The nascent germ for the eruption of tempers had been planted in a 1988 F.A. Cup tie at Highbury. McClair had missed a last minute penalty in front of the North Bank to preserve Arsenal`s one goal lead and in a move scarily aped by Keown and chums sixteen years later, Winterburn taunted McClair all the way back to the centre circle.
However, the F.A. weren`t swayed by Arsenal`s action and promptly deducted Manchester United one point and Arsenal two points and fined both clubs £50,000. Arsenal were deducted a point more than United due to a similar on pitch altercation with Norwich City the previous season. This is where Graham the ruthless dictator earned his corn as a man manager. The day the decision was announced, he assembled the players and told them, "The press are loving this at the moment cos nothing much comes out of Highbury," before reciting one of his favourite phrases, a phrase Bertie Mee was heard to utter, "Remember who you are and what you represent." Their response, not for the last time in the face of adversity that season, was to smash Southampton 4-0 at Highbury. Arsenal ploughed on unbeaten until the end of November, though they looked in good shape, Liverpool were leading the league comfortably on account of the fact that Arsenal were drawing too many games. In late November, Manchester United came to Highbury in the Rumbelows Cup to an Arsenal side that had yet to taste defeat in any competition that season, yet they were ripped apart by the young Lee Sharpe, who grabbed a hat trick in a shock 6-2 win for United. That Saturday, Liverpool were the visitors to Highbury carrying a comfortable 6 point lead over the home side at the top of the First Division. The Daily Mirror ran the headline, "GAME OVER!" As the recently reinstated O`Leary told a journalist, "They may as well hand Liverpool the title on a plate." A defeat would have sapped morale irreparably and put Arsenal nine points behind a rampant Liverpool side. Once again, Graham pulled of a psychological masterstroke on his players, Anders Limpar recalled some years later that he told his players, "They think they`ve got it won, they`ve relaxed. So let`s go out there....and be Arsenal." Alan Smith recalled the perverse confidence in the camp too, "We felt if we got at them, we could get some joy."
The Gunners` sense of defiance was doubtless fed by Kenny Dalglish`s negative team selection, which saw him put two full backs into his midfield and leave Beardsley and Barnes on the bench. The home side ripped into their opponents from the off, Paul Merson`s volley adjudged to have crossed the line despite the best efforts of Barry Venison. Two minutes after half time, Gary Gillespie hauled down Anders Limpar in the box and Lee Dixon converted the penalty. By now, Barnes and Beardsley were unleashed but to no avail, the Gunners were resplendent and added a delightful third when Merson`s back heel found Smith, who smashed a precise volley past Mike Hooper. The Gunners had laid down a marker and put out a statement before a live TV audience for the Big Match on ITV. Perry Groves would later pinpoint the match in his autobiography as a seminal one for the club, "I can`t explain it, but I walked off the pitch that day thinking that we could dominate the 90s." In the post sky sports era, a revisionist history suggests that it was Manchester United that knocked Liverpool "off their perch" as Ferguson put it. Whilst they displaced Liverpool as the dominant force in England, it was Arsenal that brought the curtain down on Merseyside dominance. Anfield 89 was the first blow landed, but this resounding 3-0 victory was the final nail. Arsenal had their tails up as a result, whilst Liverpool fell into a depression. In February 1991, Kenny Dalglish resigned citing the pressures of the job. The truth was probably that he saw a new, young Arsenal team emerge and accepted Liverpool`s time had come.
But despite the rise in belief at Highbury, they would suffer yet more traumas. On 12th December 1990 at Southend Crown Court, captain Tony Adams stood trial, having ploughed his car into an old lady`s garden wall in Romford with his breath showing him to be three times over the legal alcohol limit. George Graham, Pat Jennings, David O`Leary and Ken Friar all spoke out in defence of Adams at court, but the judge sentenced him to a 4 month prison sentence. The club received opprobrium for unapologetically paying him full salary whilst he was inside. Graham told the press, "Tony is a great professional and our stance is that we stand by our players." Such eulogies probably strengthened the siege mentality within the squad, but for the captain himself, in retrospect he needed assistance, not testimonial. It would be another five and a half years before Adams sought out the help he needed. The incident perhaps indirectly proved Limpar`s point, Limpar was fined by Graham for joining up with the Swedish squad when injured, Robson, Marwood, Keown and Richardson had all been frozen out for much less, yet Adams, Merson and Parlour would continue to create mischief in Essex drinking sessions without reprisal from the manager. It wasn`t hard to decipher how turmoil was always brimming so closely to the surface at the club. Yet on the pitch, for a while at least, the tensions created an electric football team.
There were seven London sides in the 1st Division in 1990-91, so it stood to reason that Arsenal`s solitary defeat of the campaign would happen in a London derby. The Gunners went to Stamford Bridge on 2nd February, with Adams incarcerated and O`Leary injured. Steve Bould then had to come off at half time with the score at 1-1. Chelsea hit a second half winner in the only minutes Bould would miss in the whole campaign; in effect Bould was the first Arsenal player to play an unbeaten season. The Gunners had also been embroiled in a marathon of F.A. Cup replays with Leeds United, beating them at the fourth attempt. The Chelsea game followed hot on the heels of that marathon of encounters and the weariness was obvious. But the blow was absorbed, as every other blow landed upon the club that season was, like Rocky Balboa, the team kept picking its bloodied carcass off the canvas and coming back for more. Their response was once again emphatic, a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace at Highbury on the day Dalglish resigned. They then travelled to Anfield and won 1-0 courtesy of a Paul Merson goal. It was Liverpool`s turn to bite the dust of adversity, but they could not bring themselves to claw their way back up. Twenty years later, some would argue they still haven`t. Though Arsenal fans would have been wary of the spring capitulation that nearly cost them the title in 1989, the feeling of invincibility poured through North London, the double looked to be on the cards due to progress in the F.A. Cup. A 5-0 victory over Aston Villa at Highbury in April added weight to the impending feeling of glory, Paul Davis flicking the ball over his head, before watching the ball onto his left foot and volleying it into the roof of Nigel Spink`s net became one of the images of the season. But the F.A. Cup meant the champions elect had to eat canvas one more time, a Paul Gascoigne inspired Tottenham side beat Arsenal 3-1 in the F.A. Cup semi final at Wembley, destroying dreams of the 'double` on the 20th anniversary of their forefathers` towering achievement. Graham barked at his players after the game that they had let him down and that they now owed him and the fans a stylish title win. They duly delivered.
A victory over QPR and a 0-0 draw away at Sunderland put Arsenal in touching distance. On Bank Holiday Monday, 6th May, 1991, Liverpool played Nottingham Forest in a morning kick off. They trailed Arsenal by four points with both sides having two games to play. Arsenal welcomed Manchester United to Highbury that evening. Liverpool fan Ian Woan scored the winner as Forest beat Liverpool 2-1, meaning the Gunners kicked off at Highbury that evening as confirmed champions. There was a party atmosphere throughout, with the Highbury crowd, no doubt noting the irony of their opponents, gleefully and defiantly chanted, "You can stick your f****g two points up your arse!" for the majority of the evening. Alan Smith grabbed a hat trick, enabling him to win the Golden Boot with 22 league goals. Though United did score to make it 3-1, denying David Seaman Ray Clemence`s record for concession of 16 goals in a league season. On the final Saturday of the season, Coventry City came to Highbury and were routed 6-1 by the champions, this time the rampant Limpar helped himself to one of Highbury`s most popular hat tricks as the little Swede etched his name onto the heart of Gooners everywhere. (He also ensured your writer, then seven, was a firm and committed Gooner despite the overtures of the Spurs factions of the family). As the players cavorted with the trophy after the match, Graham took a considered distance from the lap of honour and went to the dressing room alone. "I don`t think it was important for me to join in. The players are the ones who have done it and they deserve the credit and the limelight. The fans pay to see them on the pitch, not me in the dugout." Arsenal had won the title at a canter, by seven clear points, having scored 74 and conceded a miserly 18, losing one game in the process. Though the souvenir Coventry programme would mark a severance in supporter relations from the club, with David Dein announcing that the club would finance the the ground reconstruction in line with the Taylot Report, through the Bond scheme. The scheme, together with the autocratic way it was implemented, drove a wedge between fans and the club hierarchy. Even though he and Graham would fall out terminally a few years later, Limpar is still effusive in his praise of the class of 91 and the manager that conjured it. "Apart from me, Graham built the entire side from the youth team and shrewd lower division buys. It goes without saying that you can`t do that nowadays but I still feel an immense pride to have been part of that side." It should have ushered in the dawn of a new Arsenal era, but King George would soon deconstruct the empire he had painstakingly built.LD.
Date:Sunday July 25 2010
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