The date is May 26, 1989, and Arsenal would travel to Anfield in search of a first league title in 18 years. They would write history with a league win if they managed it. Anfield 89 could be talked about for years to come. Only a two-goal win would be enough for Arsenal to take the title back to north London. Arsenal were three points behind Liverpool in the league table, and four goals worse off in terms of goal difference. A two-goal win would put both level on points and goal difference, but Arsenal had scored more goals – 71 to Liverpool’s 65 – so a two-goal win would be enough to win it on goals scored.
Arsenal won the game 2-0 and won the title. This is the story of the most remarkable title win ever: Anfield 89.
At one stage, it looked as though Arsenal would win the title comfortably. At the start of the new year, Arsenal were 15 points clear of Liverpool. But Liverpool would go on an incredible run from January. After a 3-1 defeat to Manchester United on January 1, 1989, Liverpool won 15 of their 18 league games, with three draws being the only times they dropped points.
Even as the season drew to a close, it looked like the Gunners would win the league. Five wins in a row between April and May meant Arsenal were in a great position. But in their third-last game of the season, Arsenal were defeated 2-1 by Derby at Highbury. They followed this up with a 2-2 home draw against Wimbledon. These poor results saw Liverpool overtake them at the top of the table. But without these poor results, the amazing story of Anfield 89 would never have happened.
When Liverpool went top, Arsenal were written off. It has to be remembered that this Liverpool team was extremely talented. Liverpool were by far the most successful team in England at the time. They had won the league in 10 of the previous 16 seasons, adding four European Cups and three FA Cups during the same period.
Going to Anfield and winning by two goals was seemingly out of the question. Liverpool hadn’t lost there by two goals in three years, while Arsenal hadn’t won a game there in 15 years, with their last win being in 1974.
Arsenal were written off going into the last game of the season because they were set to play against a star-studded Liverpool team. These two weren’t supposed to play on the final day, but the game was postponed due to the Hillsborough Disaster. This meant that the game was played after the regular season had finished. Everybody else had finished playing. The FA Cup final had even been played, which Liverpool won, beating Everton 3-2. This meant the Reds were chasing the double.
Lead Up To The Game
After Arsenal’s draw with Wimbledon, manager George Graham gave his players two days off to recover. He also made the atmosphere at the training ground relaxed. Arsenal had been written off by the media, with even a lot of their own players not believing they could do it. But Graham did. He always remained positive and tried to get it into the players’ heads that they could do it and make history with Anfield 89.
Graham decided to change how Arsenal set up. The Gunners always played a 4-4-2 formation, as did most teams. But he decided he was going to bring another defender in for the game and play three at the back, with two wing backs. David O’Leary was the man trusted with being a sweeper, with Tony Adams and Steve Bould playing alongside him. Some thought that adding an extra defender was strange, as Arsenal had to go there and chase the game. An extra defender was hardly going to help them score twice. But Graham had a plan.
He thought that Arsenal would have a chance if the game was 0-0 at half time. He knew that if Arsenal conceded first, it was over. They were never going to score three at Anfield. Graham hoped that Arsenal could keep Liverpool at bay and keep it goalless before the break. They could then try to nick a goal in the second half, which would make Liverpool nervous and the game would change. A defender could then be sacrificed and the Gunners could really go for it.
Arsenal came onto the pitch with bouquets of flowers. Just before kick-off, they handed them out to the Liverpool fans, which was a lovely gesture that the fans really appreciated. The club also donated £30,000 to the Hillsborough Disaster fund. Arsenal really showed their class by doing this.
In the first half of the game, Arsenal executed Graham’s plan perfectly. The game was tight, with few chances created. Arsenal’s wing backs – Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn – pushed up the pitch, which, in turn, pushed Liverpool’s wingers back. Arsenal had a big chance in the half, but Steve Bould’s header ended up going just over the bar. The score was 0-0 at half time, which Graham was delighted with. While they still had a lot to do, their Anfield 89 title dream was still on.
Graham then hoped Arsenal could get a goal early in the second half. His counterpart, Kenny Dalglish, instructed his players to do more of the same. He couldn’t have been too worried knowing Arsenal had to score twice.
Everything was going to plan so far for Graham, but he needed his side to score. And seven minutes into the second half, they did. Arsenal were awarded an indirect free-kick around 40 yards from goal after a high foot. Winterburn crossed it in with his left foot. Tony Adams ran across the box, and somehow ended up on the ground, nowhere near the ball. But arriving on the scene was Arsenal striker Alan Smith, who got the faintest of touches on the ball, glancing it into the net. Arsenal led!
The Liverpool players were extremely unhappy, and surrounded the referee, complaining that the goal shouldn’t have stood. But what were they complaining about? Did Smith not touch the ball? Was it offside? Was there a foul? The Liverpool players barely knew what they were complaining about themselves! The referee consulted the assistant referee, who said there was no reason the goal should be ruled out. The goal stood, and Arsenal had one. With plenty of time remaining for a second, there was no need to panic.
Arsenal managed to get another chance when Paul Merson found Michael Thomas in the box, but Thomas put his shot straight at Bruce Grobbelaar, the Liverpool goalkeeper. There were fears that Arsenal had missed their golden chance. But they would get one more.
The minutes ticked away and it looked like Arsenal’s chance had gone. A one-goal win wouldn’t be enough. Arsenal’s dream of an unlikely league title and the story of Anfield 89 seemed over. Steve McMahon let his team mates know they were almost there. “One minute,” he roared repeatedly. There was, in fact, around two to play, though. It seemed unlikely that Liverpool would concede now after holding on for so long. They were on the verge of being crowned champions once again.
When there actually was just a minute to go, John Barnes dispossessed Tony Adams in the Arsenal half, as the Gunners’ centre-half tried to get an attack going. Barnes then skipped away from Adams. The corner flag was right in front of him: it seemed obvious that he would take the ball in there and waste the final minute of time. But no. Barnes would run towards goal to try to score a goal Liverpool didn’t need. Barnes ended up being dispossessed by Kevin Richardson, who passed it back to Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic.
Lukic picked the ball up. As he picks it up, “KICK IT” can be clearly heard. With it being the dying seconds, they wanted him to get it up there as quickly as possible. But he didn’t. Instead, he bowled it out to Lee Dixon. The right-back takes it forward a few yards, before playing it up the pitch to Alan Smith, who is about 40 yards from goal. Smith controls the ball with a wonderful touch. There’s not much going on around him, apart from one move inside him. Charging through the middle of the park is Michael Thomas.
Smith spots Thomas’ run, and clips it over the Liverpool defence, into his path. Thomas takes a poor first touch, which hits Liverpool defender Steve Nicol. But it rebounds off Nicol and back into Thomas’ path! The Arsenal midfielder is through on goal! Thomas is baring down on goal with just seconds remaining. His heart must have been pounding. It’s the biggest moment of his career: maybe even his life. The nerves must have been unbelievable. But he didn’t show it.
In on goal, he looks like the calmest man on earth, with ice running through his veins. He waits and waits. Then he waits some more. Thomas wants Grobbelaar to make the first move. With two Liverpool players closing him down, as well as the goalkeeper, it seems like it’s taking him minutes to get his shot away. But Grobbelaar eventually commits and goes down. Thomas calmly clips the ball over him and it goes in! 2-0! Arsenal win the league with the last shot of the game! Unbelievable scenes! One corner of Anfield goes mental, and north London erupts!
Thomas performs a tumble to celebrate. He uses his head and his neck – which were on the ground, with his legs in the air – to wiggle around like a fish out of water. The scenes in the away end are incredible. The Arsenal fans and players go crazy. Liverpool are dejected. Their players are on the ground: heartbroken and bewildered. Kenny Dalglish just stands there in disbelief.
As the game restarts, Liverpool try to launch one more attack. But the attack comes to nothing as Arsenal hero Thomas picks the ball up in his own box. Instead of booting it to safety, he again shows how laid back he is by playing it back to Lukic in goal, who picks it up. There’s no throwing it out this time as Lukic kicks it as far away as he can. Liverpool try to come forward again, but there’s no time and the full-time whistle goes!
Arsenal are champions! Anfield 89: the first time Arsenal win the league since 1971. And in the most remarkable of circumstances. Who would have believed it? Not many, apart from George Graham.
After the final whistle, something quite incredible happens. The Liverpool fans don’t stream out the ground, upset and frustrated. There is no booing. There are no ugly scenes. Instead, tens of thousands of Liverpool fans are applauding Arsenal. They’re on their feet for the new English champions. It’s a nice touch from the fans who must have been in complete shock after seeing their league title taken from them in the final seconds of the season.
Anfield 89 – Video
The commentary from the ITV commentator, Brian Moore, also needs to be mentioned, as it is legendary.
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 incredible climax to the league season!
Many Arsenal fans know this word-for-word. It’s one of those things you don’t forget.
Anfield 89. Arsenal win the league against all odds. Nobody gave them a chance. Written off by the media. Some of their own players thought it was impossible. But they did what seemed impossible and won the game 2-0. It’s undoubtedly one of the most important days in Arsenal’s history. It’s the most dramatic finish to a league season ever.
Forget the Sergio Aguero moment. While that was amazing, Manchester City were playing at home against a 10-man QPR side that were safe from relegation. Arsenal were playing away to the league’s most dominant side for the last 15 years, needing a two-goal victory. Anfield 89 certainly trumps all others. If an occasion like this comes around again, we’ll be lucky to see it. But it’s doubtful that it will.
’89’, the film, can be bought online. It is worth a buy for any Arsenal fan, as it is an incredible watch.
“Anfield 89 – How Arsenal won the league in the most dramatic of circumstances” is part of our in-depth series, with a new article being published every week.