Top 5 Last Day Triumphs
It`s fair to say there will be some chewed nails and some clenched bowels this Sunday as Arsenal require a win to guarantee Champions League qualification, with the added carrot of finishing above North London neighbours Spurs. There is certainly a great deal of trepidation around the Goonersphere. But last day nerve janglers have been par of the course throughout our history. Here are five of the best and biggest last day triumphs in Arsenal`s history.
1st May, 1953- Arsenal had won the league at relative canters during the 30s. But their league title win in 1952-53 (documented in full here) owed something more to the surreal. The Gunners were in 6th position on 1st April, but an incredible five game winning streak coincided with Preston and Wolves- in 1st and 2nd- not winning a single game in the same time period. Arsenal might have wrapped up the league title with a game to spare at Deepdale, but title rivals Preston, inspired by Tom Finney- beat them 2-0. Preston kept the pressure up by winning their final game, four days later, 2-0 against Derby. Last fixtures were not necessarily synchronised back then, so the Gunners took on Burnley on a rainy Friday evening at Highbury, knowing that only a win would suffice.
The rain turned the pitch into a peat bog and the energy used to haul themselves into title contention multiplied with the tension of the occasion. Burnley took the lead through a Joe Mercer own goal after 6 minutes. But two quick fire long range goals from Alex Forbes and Doug Lishman gave Arsenal the advantage. Jimmy Logie made it 3-1 just before half time and the Gunners looked unassailable. But the Clarets Billy Elliott pulled one back on 50 minutes. The rain became torrential, nerves and lactic acid took hold and Arsenal sought to shut up shop, holding the slender one goal advantage that would take them to the title.
Burnley poured forward in wave after wave of attack, with 38 year old Mercer desperately keeping them at bay. Right back Don Roper had torn his medial ligament but played on regardless. Manager Tom Whittaker left the dugout after 75 minutes, choosing to spend those moments in the dressing room with a double brandy. Burnley smacked the crossbar in the 90th minute and Arsenal survived a penalty appeal in stoppage time. But they held out for a 3-2 win. They finished the season with an identical record to Preston, save for a goal average of 1.516 compared to North End 1.417. They had won the league by 0.09 of a goal. It was a close victory, but one that came at a price. Manager Tom Whittaker died of a heart attack three years later. That night in 1953 literally took years off his life.
3rd May, 1971- A moment of refereeing lunacy in a game between Leeds and West Bromwich Albion had gifted Arsenal the chance to win their first league title in 18 years at the ground of their fiercest rivals. Title challengers Leeds were at home to West Brom on Saturday, 1st May- their last game of the season. The Baggies won 2-1 courtesy of a quite outrageous goal. Norman Hunter`s pass hit Tony Brown and bounced to Colin Suggett, the only Baggies player inside the Leeds half and at least ten yards offside. Though the linesman raised his flag, the referee Ray Tinker, inexplicably waved play on, leaving a half smirking Suggett to bear down on the Leeds goal and set up Jeff Astle for a tap in. (Astle looked offside from Suggett`s pass too). Manager Don Revie was so incensed, that he ordered his players off the pitch for a few moments.
In any case, it meant Arsenal travelled to White Hart Lane on the Monday evening knowing a 0-0 draw or a victory would seal the league championship. (Due to the vagaries of the goal average rule of the time, a score draw would have seen the title go to Leeds). But Spurs midfielder Alan Mullery was bullish pre match, telling the press, "Arsenal have as much chance of being given the title by Spurs as I have of being given the crown jewels." A cagey match seemed to be drifting towards a 0-0 draw- which would have been good enough. Until the 87th minute, Radford`s shot forced a low save from Jennings, Armstrong gathered the rebound, powered past Joe Kinnear before sending a cross into the box, which Kennedy headed in off the underside of the bar.
An equaliser from Spurs in those final minutes would have denied Arsenal the Championship, but the Gunners held firm to set up the first half of a Double they would complete five days later at Wembley. Arsenal`s supporters invaded the pitch in delight; manager Bertie Mee left the pitch with his suit and tie in shreds as delirious fans rushed to congratulate him. Arsenal wouldn`t win another league title for 18 years. They would do so in even more nerve shredding and dramatic circumstances.
26th May, 1989- I don`t need to recount the details, but I`m going to anyway. The very presence of that date will set off a train of memories and / or video reels in the mind of any Gooner. A night of "chilling simplicity" as legendary microphone wielder Brian Moore termed it. Defeat to Derby and a draw with Wimbledon in Arsenal`s last two home games saw them blow a seemingly unassailable lead at the head of the table. Liverpool experienced a fixture backlog in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster which meant Arsenal travelled to Anfield in a title playoff. Arsenal needed to win by two goals at Anfield to take the title. Liverpool had only lost by two goals at Anfield twice in the entire decade.
Arsenal were widely written off and manager George Graham sprung a surprise by tinkering with his system by adding Steve Bould as a third centre half. His tactic was to allow nerves and tension to grip Liverpool and that meant keeping the game scoreless until half time. The Arsenal players took to the pitch and presented bouquets of flowers to the home crowd in tribute to those that had lost their lives 6 weeks earlier. But Perry Groves recently revealed at a Q & A I attended that such a gesture had some kidology behind it, with Graham reasoning that such an accommodating gesture would take the venom out of the home crowd in the early stages.
Arsenal got to half time level and sent pulses racing on 52 minutes when Alan Smith nodded Winterburn`s free kick into the net. Some heart stopping tension followed as the Liverpool players complained bitterly about the goal- for reasons unknown. Smith was yards onside and had clearly touched the ball en route to the net. But after a period of consultation, the referee and the linesman colluded to give the goal, to the dismay of the Liverpool players.
What unfolded in the 91st minute will never be equaled as a finale to a football season. With thirty seconds remaining, Smith collected Dixon`s long ball and spooned it towards the onrushing run of Michael Thomas "charging through the midfield." He got a fortunate ricochet which put him through one on one with Grobelaar. With Hansen bearing down on him, "It`s up for grabs now!" yelled Moore. Thomas nonchalantly flicked the ball over the Liverpool keeper and into the net. The Gunners had achieved the unthinkable, winning by the required two goals and securing the title with virtually their last kick of the season. Graham`s masterplan had come to fruition in the exact way he had envisaged.
5th May, 1996- Whilst perhaps not as heart stopping as Anfield or Highbury in 1953, the short term benefits of beating Bolton Wanders at Highbury in 1996 were obvious. The long term ramifications of our success outstripped all of our imaginations that day. Quite simply three points against already relegated Bolton Wanderers would guarantee Arsenal 5th place and entry into the next season`s UEFA Cup. Finish 6th or below and there would be no European football at Highbury for a second season running. Having gotten to Cup Winners Cup Finals in 1994 and 1995, this was a curious scenario for Arsenal.
But there was another side to this story as well. The Gunners had spent big in the summer of 1995 on David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp; one imagines European football would have been high on their list of desires when they signed. Bruce Rioch`s side both needed to justify that outlay and keep those star players interested in the Arsenal project. As it happened, both would have a big say in this final day drama. To complicate the picture, there were four teams in the shake up for 5th. Spurs began the day level on points with Arsenal, but four goals inferior on goal difference. They played away at Newcastle, securing a 1-1 draw. Everton began the day two points behind Arsenal and beat Aston Villa 1-0 at Goodison. Blackburn likewise began the day 2 points behind Arsenal and won 3-2 at home to Chelsea.
But the bottom line was, a win would see Arsenal achieve their target. Given they were playing opponents who could finish no higher than stone bottom of the league at home, it looked a safe bet. But the nerves got to Arsenal in a cagey and frustrating performance. Unbelievably, the plucky visitors took a 76th minute lead through defender Andy Todd. Arsenal looked like they were going to tumble at the final hurdle. But their new signings came to the rescue. David Platt, signed for £4.75m from Sampdoria, squeezed in an equaliser on 82 minutes.
A draw would have seen Everton finish 5th on goal difference (Spurs and Blackburn were inferior to Arsenal in this regard and would have finished in 7th and 8th respectively, with all four teams tied on 61 points). With just three minutes remaining, Dennis Bergkamp picked up the ball from 30 yards out, shifted it onto his right boot and sublimely leathered it into the top corner of the Clock End net. Arsenal had finished 5th and qualified for the UEFA Cup.
It sounds small fry now, and the team tumbled out at the first hurdle of the competition. But it`s questionable whether someone like Bergkamp or even Wenger would have been convinced to be at the club in 1996-97. Summer signing Patrick Vieira from A.C. Milan may well have been similarly unconvinced by Arsenal without the lure of Europe. It signaled a sea change in Arsenal`s evolution as a club and helped propel them to new heights under Arsene Wenger. As the players completed their lap of honour that day, none of us imagined the far reaching implications of Dennis` goal, even if we did toast it with rapturous delight.
7th May, 2006- A difficult transition season which had seen Arsenal sell their captain and talisman Patrick Vieira meant the Gunners had languished for much of the campaign outside of the cherished top 4 places. But things began to click as an unlikely run to the Champions League Final had imbued the squad with confidence. But on the last day of the season, the club`s historic last ever match at Highbury; Arsenal trailed Tottenham by a solitary point. Spurs travelled to Upton Park, knowing a win would secure them Champions League qualification at the expense of their rivals. Arsenal had to win and hope Spurs fared worse.
On the morning of the game, news broke that several of the Tottenham squad had been taken ill over night with a stomach upset. The club laid the blame at the door of dodgy lasagna served in the Marriot hotel. Tests subsequently confirmed that the outbreak of the "winter vomiting virus" was actually a consequence of poor hygiene in the squad. Tottenham desperately tried to get their game postponed but the Premier League did not acquiesce, sighting the sanctity of synchronised kickoffs on the final day of the season. Meanwhile, Robert Pires swept Arsenal into the lead at Highbury, just as Matthew Etherington had given West Ham the lead at Upton Park, sending Highbury into delirium.
But the crowd fluctuation made the players lose their concentration and goals from Paul Scharner and David Thompson gave Wigan the lead. Tottenham soon equalised at Upton Park to boot. Thierry Henry equalised before half time, but at half time, the scores meant Spurs would qualify for the Champions League. Thierry Henry put Arsenal into a 3-2 lead in the second half and news filtered through that West Ham had won a penalty at the Boleyn. But ex Spurs striker Teddy Sheringham, rather conveniently, took a weak penalty straight at Paul Robinson.
Then the magic began to unfold. Several Spurs players, feeling the leg sapping effects of an evening vomiting and defecating, could not maintain equity as Yossi Benayoun smashed the Irons into the lead. Meanwhile, Henry swept home a penalty, giving Arsenal a two goal cushion and saying farewell to Highbury with a most poetic hat trick. A combination of Tottenham`s pant filling and Arsenal`s victory meant the Gunners had both gazumped their rivals and sealed Champions League qualification, ensuring a legendary goodbye to a legendary stadium. LD.