Liverpool 0–2 Arsenal (26 May 1989)
|Event||1988–89 First Division|
|Date||26 May 1989|
|Referee||David Hutchinson (Oxfordshire)|
The final match of the 1988–89 English Football League season was contested on 26 May 1989, between Liverpool and Arsenal, at Liverpool's Anfield ground. By sheer coincidence, it was the match between the top two teams in the First Division and the teams were close enough on points for the match to act as a decider for the First Division Championship. Arsenal needed to win the game by at least two goals to take the title, while Liverpool enjoyed home advantage and had won the FA Cup the previous weekend.
Despite being labelled underdogs, Arsenal won 2–0, with a last-minute goal scored by Michael Thomas, giving Arsenal their ninth First Division title and denying Liverpool the chance of a second Double.
The match is considered to be one of the most dramatic conclusions to a league season in the history of the English game. It is also regarded as the starting point of a renaissance in English football and the moment where people started to see the untapped commercial potential of live football on television.
The match had been originally scheduled to be played on 23 April. However, on 15 April Liverpool's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough was the scene of the worst disaster in English football history, with 96 fans crushed to death inside the stadium. The Liverpool-Arsenal fixture was postponed, with no suitable date found until after the FA Cup Final. Liverpool beat Everton 3–2 in that game, meaning that if they won the League title as well, it would complete a historic second Double.
Arsenal had been the leading team at the top of the First Division for much of the season. At the turn of the year, they had been 15 points ahead of Liverpool, but their form dropped as the season drew to a close, whilst Liverpool had been unbeaten since 1 January. In the run-up to the Anfield match, Arsenal lost to Derby County and drew with Wimbledon; Liverpool won twice, 2–0 against Queens Park Rangers and 5–1 against West Ham United allowing them to overtake Arsenal with one game to play and take a superior goal difference. On the eve of the match, they were three points ahead, with the table looking as follows:
Updated to games played on 23 May 1989
Explanation of criteria
A victory for Arsenal would have brought the two teams level on points. An Arsenal victory by two clear goals would have given them the title on goals scored. A three-goal deficit or more would have won Arsenal the title on goal difference. Any other result (i.e. a Liverpool victory, a draw, or an Arsenal win by one goal) would have given the title to Liverpool. Liverpool had not lost by two or more goals at Anfield in three years, and Arsenal had not won there in fifteen. Furthermore, Liverpool had never previously been defeated when playing forwards John Aldridge and Ian Rush together. Liverpool were therefore the overwhelming favourites to win the title - the Daily Mirror's sports sections led with the headline "You Haven't Got A Prayer, Arsenal".
26 May 1989
The game took place on a warm spring evening with the kick-off delayed because many Arsenal supporters were caught in traffic congestion. The Arsenal players presented flowers to fans in different parts of the ground in memory of those who had died in the Hillsborough disaster.
The first half of the game was one of few chances; Arsenal played with a defensive 5–4–1 formation with David O'Leary in the unusual role of sweeper. Although Arsenal did not usually play this way, this enabled the full-backs Dixon and Winterburn more scope to push forward and limit Liverpool's wing play. Arsenal did their best to restrict Liverpool's passing game in the opening 45 minutes through tackling and quick counter-attacking with the long ball; with the game's flow interrupted and the two teams cancelling each other out, neither side built any momentum in the first half with few clear-cut chances.
The only real chance of the game for Arsenal came from a cross from Michael Thomas on the right which was met by Steve Bould, but Steve Nicol cleared it over the bar for a corner. Liverpool responded with a shot from outside the box from Ian Rush after being teed up by John Aldridge. However, soon after Rush was forced to go off with a groin strain and had to be replaced by Peter Beardsley in the 32nd minute. The score was 0–0 at half time.
Seven minutes after the restart, Whelan was penalised for an offence on the edge of the Liverpool area. Nigel Winterburn took the resulting indirect free kick, from which Alan Smith scored with a header. Liverpool's players protested, claiming Smith had not made contact (and thus the goal should have been disallowed, coming directly from an indirect free kick) or that there had been a push by O'Leary. After consulting his linesman, the referee David Hutchinson awarded the goal. After the match, he recalled none of the Liverpool players knew why they had protested, and TV replays confirm that Smith made contact.
With the score 1–0, Arsenal pushed forward but Liverpool still held the advantage. In the 74th minute an unmarked Thomas latched onto a pass from Richardson near the penalty spot, but shot weakly and it was smothered by Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar. Arsenal manager George Graham brought on Martin Hayes and Perry Groves, and switched to a more attack-oriented 4–4–2 formation. This gave Liverpool space to counter-attack through Barnes and Aldridge. Aldridge and Ray Houghton both had late chances to equalise but did not capitalise on them; Houghton sliced a shot from the edge of the box wide, while Aldridge was caught offside meeting a Barnes throughball and scored a disallowed goal after the whistle had gone. As full-time approached the game was heading for a 1–0 scoreline, and thus Liverpool would win the title.
As the time went past 90 minutes, an injury to Kevin Richardson held up play. TV cameras showed Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon telling his team-mates there was one minute remaining. The injury itself meant there would, in fact, be three minutes of injury time played. Liverpool adopted time-wasting tactics, including an unnecessary backpass from McMahon to Grobbelaar. In the second minute of injury time, Arsenal launched their final attack. A Barnes run was intercepted by Richardson, and he passed the ball back to his goalkeeper John Lukic. Lukic bowled the ball out to right-back Lee Dixon; his long ball to Alan Smith was flicked on, finding Michael Thomas charging through the midfield. Thomas evaded a challenge by Nicol and raced into the penalty area, slipping the ball past the advancing Grobbelaar to score Arsenal's second.
Thomas had scored with just 25 seconds to go. Liverpool tried one last attack but Thomas managed to intercept and pass the ball back to Lukic. The final whistle confirmed Arsenal as Champions, with the two sides inseparable on points and goal difference meaning the Gunners won the title by virtue of having scored eight more goals than Liverpool throughout the season. Arsenal received the Championship trophy after the match.
The match was played on a Friday night, an unusual time in English football, and was shown live on The Match on ITV, which showed a live Division One game most weeks of the season from 1988 to 1992. More than eight million people watched the game. The anchor for the programme was Elton Welsby and his guest was the England coach Bobby Robson. The match commentator on the night was Brian Moore, whose commentary as the second goal was scored went as follows:
|“||Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it's up for grabs now! Thomas! Right at the end! An unbelievable climax to the league season.||”|
In 2002, it was selected as one of the top ten commentaries of all time by The Observer, and the phrase It's Up For Grabs Now is used as the title of the Arsenal commemorative DVD of the match.
Moore's co-commentator for the game was David Pleat, former manager of Arsenal's North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Jim Rosenthal was the pitchside interviewer who notoriously took Arsenal captain Tony Adams for a conversation on the field shortly after he had received the trophy, meaning he was absent from the celebratory team photograph for the press.
Arsenal were unable to take part in the European Cup as English clubs were still banned from European competition following the 1985 Heysel disaster, and the ban would not be lifted for another year. George Graham's side went on to further successes in the early 1990s, winning the League title again in 1990–91, followed by a domestic cup double and finally the European Cup Winners' Cup. Liverpool made up for their disappointment as they went on to win the title in 1989–90, but have not won the title since. Despite his part in denying them the title, Michael Thomas went on to play for Liverpool in a spell between 1991 and 1998, scoring the opener in their 2–0 victory over Sunderland in the 1992 FA Cup Final, and in 2007 he was named as one of the club's top 100 players of all time.
In popular culture
In 1999, the match was ranked at number 60 in Channel 4's 100 Greatest TV Moments. In 2002, the match was ranked at number 15 in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Sporting Moments, and in 2007 Michael Thomas's goal was voted the second greatest moment in Arsenal's history (second to completing an entire league season unbeaten in 2004). In 2008–09, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the win, Arsenal's away kit for the season was styled on the same design as that of the 1988–89 season.
The match has been cited as a pivotal turning point in English football. Writing in The Guardian, Jason Cowley noted how instead of rioting, as had occurred at Heysel with fatal consequences, Liverpool fans stayed on after the game and applauded Arsenal "as if they understood that we were at the start of something new; that there would be no returning to the ways of old". Cowley describes the match as "the night football was reborn" and that the event "repaired the reputation of football".
The match is not only seen as the starting point of a renaissance in English football, but also the moment where people started to see the untapped commercial potential of live football on television.
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