The most exciting title race in English football

The Arsenal Scrapbook

We all need a pick me up, don’t we? Let’s be honest, Monday night at Selhurst Park was an absolute shambles. Losing 3-0 to Crystal Palace was quite frankly embarrassing and not acceptable, it never has been, and never will be. The chants of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ rang out loud and clear from the away end, and I could not agree more. A lack of fight, heart and bottle makes me angry, even more so when I think back to the days of the title winning sides that would never give in, that wouldn’t be phased by an intimidating atmosphere, that wouldn’t be undone by a simple long ball, that laughed in the face of almost insurmountable odds. One such side was that of 1988/89. George Graham had assembled an Arsenal team of bargain buys and youthful vigour, and with just three games remaining in the season, they were in control of their own destiny, seemingly on course for a first league title since 1971.

However, two defeats at Highbury, against Derby County and AFC Wimbledon, saw The Gunners hopes in tatters. Title rivals Liverpool smashed West Ham United 5-1, meaning that Arsenal needed a 2-0 win, at Anfield, in the final game of the season, to win the title. At the time, Liverpool were the strongest team in the country, and Anfield was their fortress. The Reds had won seven league titles in the previous 10 season, also winning five league cups, an FA Cup and two European Cups in that same period. This included league and domestic cup doubles in 81/82, 82/83 and 85/86, as well as the treble in 1983/84. Liverpool’s team for the 88/89 season was one of the strongest in the history of English football, with a defence marshalled by Scottish stalwart Alan Hansen, the midfield talents of John Barnes and the legendary Kenny Dalglish, while the Merseyside club could call on a deadly strike force of John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and the club’s all-time leading scorer, Ian Rush. As for Arsenal, George Graham had been rebuilding the club for three years, making use of the academy talent, promoting the likes of Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Michael Thomas and the late David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle to the first-team. Graham also signed a number of bargain players, including Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould and striker Alan Smith, who scored 23 league goals in 88/89. While all of these players are now Arsenal legends, at the time, they were either up-and-coming youths or players signed from smaller English clubs, while Liverpool had trophy winning, world-class stars. The odds were completely against Arsenal, with many predicting an easy Liverpool win and the league title to make its way to the Anfield trophy cabinet once again. 26th May 1989, the day of reckoning.

Despite the wheels coming off in recent weeks and the odds against his side, George Graham had a plan. Deciding to deploy three centre backs, Graham allowed full-backs, Dixon and Winterburn, to push further up the field, giving The Gunners more attacking impetus, in turn, forcing Liverpool’s wingers deeper as they had to track back. It was a risky move but, Arsenal started the game the brighter, having the best chance of the first half, seeing Steve Bould’s header diverted just over the crossbar. Despite a positive first half, The Gunners still need to score twice to win the league title, or it would be Liverpool’s. Arsenal knew they had to score early in the second half to have any hope of a first title since 1971, and with just seven minutes of the second period gone, they got that goal, in controversial circumstances. A free-kick out on the right-hand side was curled in by Winterburn, with Alan Smith getting his head to the cross and glancing the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar in the Liverpool goal. The arms went up straight away as The Reds looked to the linesman, appealing for offside. Despite being convinced that Smith was offside, the goal stood, Arsenal had the lead and were halfway to making history.

As the clock ticked towards the 90th minute, Arsenal’s hopes grew less and less, with Michael Thomas missing a golden chance to give his side the title-deciding second goal. 90 minutes came and it seemed like the dream was over. Arsenal’s wait for a title would go on, they had thrown it away and despite the fight shown at Anfield, it was not enough. With just seconds remaining, Arsenal ‘keeper John Lukic collected the ball before throwing it out to Lee Dixon. His long forward pass was controlled by Alan Smith, the striker turned, looking for a pass. Bursting through the middle was Michael Thomas. A good touch followed by a lucky ricochet played Thomas through on goal. In the blink of an eye, Arsenal had gone from one end of the pitch to the other and now had the most glorious of all chances to win it all. Thomas had already missed an opportunity to put it to bed and he could not miss this one, if he did, the dream would be over. Even watching that moment back now, time seems to stand still. Thomas looks like he’s hardly moving as he bears down on goal, with Liverpool defenders converging around him. He stutters, it appears as if the chance is gone but, somehow, he pokes the ball with his right foot and it hits the net.

Arsenal had done it, they had scored the second goal, bringing them level on goal difference and points with Liverpool but, thanks to the virtue of goals scored, they had won the First Division title. It took 18 years but, by god was it worth the wait. Brian Moore was on commentary that night, describing it as “An unbelievable climax to the league season…!” Despite his words now being famous and ingrained in the minds of every Gooner, I think this is the biggest understatement in the history of football. While Manchester City’s final day title win is often thought of as the closest and most exciting title race in English football, the fact that the Citizens and cross city rivals Manchester United were separated by goal difference puts it just below the final day of the 1988/89 season. Points could not separate them, neither could goal difference.

The title race between Arsenal and Liverpool was as tight as it gets, and about as down to the wire as you can go. That night, that moment, that goal was voted as the second greatest Arsenal moment of all time, and rightfully so, only outdone by the 49 game unbeaten streak. It might take another 18 years for Arsenal to win a league title, I mean we aren’t far off that now but, let’s hope it happens one day, and if it can be done in a way similar to that of May 26th 1989, it would be simply unforgettable.

About the Author

Dan Mountney
Hi, I'm Dan and I'm currently studying Sports Journalism at the University for the Creative Art in Farnham, Surrey. I have supported Arsenal all my life and grew up watching arguably the greatest generation of players the club has ever had. I hope my love for the club comes across in my writing and that you enjoy what you've read from me!