Many an Arsenal fan will have either experienced the drama of 1989’s title battle with the mighty Liverpool or heard stories about what it felt like to be so close after 18 years without so much as a sniff of a title.
Nick Hornby captured the moment and time with his superb ‘Fever Pitch’ but 89 gives a first-hand account of the lead up to the title decider with Liverpool and a genuine flavour of the times from the point of view of the players, their manager and fans.
It also manages to highlight the dreadful Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people lost their lives and the very personal accounts put football, rivalry and ambition into perspective. 1989 was the year of the Sinclair C5, mobile phones the size of wardrobes and Margaret Thatcher.
It was acceptable to wave inflatable bananas and bottles of champagne at a football match and the novelty of the day was dancing and singeing plastic flowers and wall mounted fish.
Arsenal weren’t expected to be in the mix for the title back in 89, they hadn’t even come close for some time. Liverpool were exactly the opposite, clearing up, collecting titles and trophies from all competitions. They were strong, organised and a fearsome prospect for any opposition but this particular season, they had managed to slip behind in the title race.
The last time Arsenal had won anything, the Morris Minor was launched by British Leyland, Britain began negotiations to join the EU and the Spaghetti Junction motorway was open for motorists to curse for the first time. The First Division was hardly recognisable with the likes of Millwall, Luton, Norwich City and Wimbledon competing for the top honours in a league which eventually morphed into the super successful premier league.
Liverpool were head and shoulders above the competition and 89 saw them strangely off form and out of contention until a young less experienced Arsenal started to unravel under the pressure. Liverpool were on a run, knocking in goals for fun and brushing the opposition aside with ease.
At the top Arsenal were melting under the heat of battle and under such intense scrutiny. In a single month, the North London club had managed to give away a 19 point lead, while the Liverpudlians made a remarkable comeback. George Graham swept into Highbury to ring the changes.The former Arsenal midfielder had worked under Don Howe
and now, he had to follow him.
Arsenal was stuck in limbo under Howe and form was alarmingly indifferent, with no signs of imminent improvement. The Scot immediately established strict discipline and guidelines, sending out a message to his players that time was in short supply. Players had just 6 weeks to impress or show they were capable of change or they would be dispatched.
A great many couldn’t meet the Scots expectations, so out went Graham Rix, Kenny Sansom, Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nicholas. In came Alan Smith, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould. Graham had no time for reputations and he wanted to recruit personnel who were hungry, hardworking and unashamedly ambitious.
He wanted a team, not a collection of individuals playing in the same strip and was clear in his mind how to achieve success. It all came down to the last game of the season, Arsenal had to go to Anfield and win by two clear goals, a proposition that was viewed as impossible. ’89’ is a tremendous, must have film for any Arsenal supporter and one that captures the tensions of the day through the eyes of those involved.
Graham gives an insight to his approach to the big match, while the players recall how unimportant football seemed after the Hillsborough tragedy. Paul Merson who was voted young player of the year said that it meant nothing to him “I didn’t want it” The enormity of the win reaches an emotional height when Ian Wright recalls celebrating the win in which David ‘rocky’ Rocastle featured and adding that he felt like ‘I’d won it’.
He had a lasting friendship with Rocky, they grew up on the same estate and it was a friendship in which the late Arsenal man tried to get Wright to focus on his football and not on his wild ways and lifestyle. ’89’ is historic and unmissable, after 18 years of misery, Arsenal managed to snatch an amazing victory, against all odds and exceeding all expectations. For all Arsenal’s woes this season, it is a reminder of why the game is so intriguing and that impossible things can happen.
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