BY STEVE MARTIN / @HarlowGooner
I’ve been supporting Arsenal for many years, almost 50 to be precise. You see, I was born into a family of Arsenal supporters. My Dad took my two elder brothers and myself to Highbury during the 60s and there was never going to be a chance of me supporting anyone else. My Dad supported Arsenal from the 1920s. He didn’t have me until he was 44 and would have turned 100 years old just before the Gunners celebrated their 125th anniversary last year.
We lived in Southgate Court, Southgate Road, N1 not too far from Highbury, a ten minute walk from the Essex Road. I was born in 1957, four years after Arsenal had been crowned champions of the First Division. I was going to have to wait until I was 12 though to see us win a trophy – April 28th 1970 to be precise, the night I stood in the schoolboys’ section at Highbury and watched goals from Eddie Kelly, John Radford and John Sammels help Arsenal beat Anderlecht 3-0 in the final of the Fairs Cup (In the film Fever Pitch it always makes me laugh the bloke in the Arsenal Fish Bar, saying he wishes Sammels would sod off to Spurs). I’d already experienced my share of heartbreak by this point having been witness to the 1-0 League Cup final defeats against both Leeds United in 1968 and Swindon in 1969.
What a night that was at Highbury though in 1970. We were 1-3 down from away leg but 52,000 fans packed into the ground and Frank McLintock’s Arsenal took the field and went for it. 1-0…2-0…Anderlecht hit the post…then 3-0 and game over. We ran onto the pitch. Believe it or not you could carry pen knives in those days and get into a ground. I dug up the turf and dug out a chip off the goal post. It was my first taste of Arsenal success and I loved it. My Dad had waited 17 years for that trophy. It puts our current six year wait into perspective.
The following year we won the Double. We opened the season with a 2-2 draw away to Everton. On the way back from the game my second eldest brother, Alan, now 60, had an accident in a car crash as we were leaving Liverpool. He was pretty badly smashed up and was forced to spend most of the season in Walton hospital while my Dad, eldest brother Pat and I took in games home and away. John Motson did a piece on Alan at the time and it was published in that season’s programme for the home game with Tottenham.
It was a rollercoaster season. The first home game saw us destroy Manchester United 4-0 with Radford bagging a hattrick. There was the shock 5-0 defeat away at Stoke, but the team recovered and went from strength to strength to win not just the League but also the FA Cup.
Alan came out of hospital a month or so before the push towards Double glory. Tickets were purchased for the now infamous league match at White Hart Lane and also for FA Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley. Unfortunately, due to the way tickets were secured through programme tokens we didn’t have enough for everybody. Sadly for me, a family decision was taken and yours truly lost out. Alan went to White Hart Lane and Wembley.
I had to listen to us clinch the League at White Hart Lane on the radio! Yes, you heard correctly, the radio! Then I sat at home to watch us beat Liverpool 2-1 on the TV to seal the club’s most successful ever season. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t there, what mattered was that we did it. No longer could Spurs laud it over us, we’d match their achievement of 1961.
It was to be 1976 and the introduction from Spurs of Terry Neill before hope of winning another trophy returned. We reached three successive FA Cup finals in 1978, 1979 and 1980 and had a Cup Winners’ Cup final, also in 1980, and a third place finish in the league in 1981 during a hectic few years of excitement. The 1979 trip to Wembley was obviously the most memorable thanks to Alan Sunderland’s late winner.
I remember being with my mates in the Arsenal end that day. There we were 2-0 up with five minutes to go and then McQueen and then McIlroy scored for United. 2-2 in the blink of an eye and I’m not ashamed to say I had tears rolling down my cheeks. However, before I could even wipe them away those tears of sadness turned to joy as Brady ran forward, passed out to Rix whose superb cross was stuck into the back of the net by the permed Sunderland!
I’d also attended the 1978 final, however, the 1980 trip to Wembley was sacrificed because I wanted to go to Brussels to watch us take on Valencia in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. I sold my FA Cup Final stub to the manager of the Forest Hill Tavern and got the money (which was tight back then) to get a ferry and match ticket for the game.
I had got a butchers coat off my mate who worked in the trade at the time and decorated it with all things Arsenal. Maybe a few of you will remember them and the high legged, well-polished Dr Marten’s which accompanied them. There were a fair few on show during that two-day trip to Belgium. On the way over, I was on the deck of the ferry when my jacket blew open and my passport and train ticket went overboard. Thankfully my match ticket was in the pocket of my jeans. That being said I only made in and out of the country due to the sheer number of Arsenal fans attending the match and the fact the authorities couldn’t be bothered to check everyone! Times have certainly changed.
After Neill, Don Howe took over. First he was caretaker manager and then he got the job full time. The best we achieved was sixth after an unbeaten run, I think of 22 games, which saw us on the top of the table for a short spell.
George Graham was up next and almost straight away we were in the 1987 League Cup Final. This time it was Liverpool who were the opponents. It was a great day all played out to the tune, “One-nil down, two-one up, we f****d Rushie’s record up.” Finally, Charlie Nicholas had his day in an Arsenal shirt. It had been another eight years without a trophy.
The following year, we again headed to Wembley for the League Cup final. This time it was minnows Luton Town and me and my mates were so certain we wouldn’t repeat the Swindon travesty of 69 that we booked a week in Magaluf for the day after the match to celebrate. Oh well. 2-1 up and the holiday was looking like a great idea. Arsenal were then awarded a penalty and we went even more bonkers. This is it lads, the Cup is ours again. Trusty Nigel Winterburn steps up, but he hits the post.
The miss breathed new life into Luton who came back to win 3-2. At the airport check-in the next morning it became apparent that quite a few Gooners had had the same idea about celebrating abroad. There wasn’t a smile to be seen – god knows what the reps were thinking. They must have thought they were sending us to Siberia.
The following season represented a peak in what had been a lifetime of ups and downs with the Gooners – 1988/89, the year of Lukic, Dixon, Bould, Adams, Winterburn, Davis, Thomas, Rocastle, the Magic Man and Alan Smith. We started off with a Smudger hattrick in a 5-1 win against Wimbledon at Plough Lane. It was the first of many games where I had to drive my mate Nigel, who had broken his leg, in the XR3i. We went to almost every match home and away match that season with me calling up our opponents to explain the situation before asking for them to let us use their car park. They always did.
The biggest shock of the season came when we were getting into the car at Highbury having beaten Newcastle 1-0 to hear the news of the Hillsborough tragedy. It was awful. The match against Liverpool at Anfield was subsequently postponed. As a mark of respect we decided to drive up to Merseyside to lay a huge wreath which me and a few of the lads had chipped in for. We queued for hours, but it was the least we could do.
It was actually our second trip up their that season. We’d already played Liverpool in the League Cup earlier, where Rocky had scored an absolute screamer. On that occasion we’d driven up and parked just opposite Stanley Park. The usual kids were out saying, “Look after your car mate?” I gave them a quid and promised them another after the game if they kept the car in one piece. At that moment, just as we were walking up to the ground, two stretch limousines pulled up, both totally black. Out stepped the boys from Spandau Ballet and their mates. Nice! Travel in style…
The Anfield game having been rearranged and with the fixtures and results falling as they did, we all knew that Arsenal’s final game of the season with Liverpool on 26th May 1989 was basically a cup final which we had to win 2-0 to secure the title. It was one game to decide the previous 37. In the build-up the Scousers had beaten West 5-1 at home, the Gunners meanwhile had drawn 2-2 at home to Wimbledon and lost 2-1 at home to Derby County. Liverpool rarely lost at home and almost never by a two-goal margin…only the eternal optimists thought we had a chance. Thankfully, George Graham was that optimist. He had a plan, a plan we could believe in. A 4,000 strong army of ticketed Gooners, and thousands without, made the journey up the M1, M6 and M62 to Liverpool.
It was 2.30pm on a sunny afternoon in Mercers Road, Tufnell Park, where I lived as seven of us waited excitedly for our transport. If we were to lose, I thought we might as well do it in style. Taking a leaf out of the Spandau Ballet book, I had hired a stretch limo to take us to the game. Filling the boot, and any spare legroom, with booze, we set off with our friends and family waving us on our way. Things were going well, the drinks were flowing as we came to terms with what lay ahead. Then suddenly we slowed down. The M6 was a car park with jams stretching 80 miles back due to the Bank Holiday traffic.
The original kick-off time had gone and we were still on the motorway. Suddenly Michael the chauffeur was being given instructions from back seat drivers about how to drive fast…how to use the hard shoulder and how to ignore the Police if they had a problem with either of the above. I think if he’d taken our advice his career as a limo driver may have been cut short.
We made up what time we could. The game had been delayed to 8.05pm, but it was already into the second half when we arrived at Anfield. The limousine pulled up sharply and the local stewards must have thought we were some rock band because they couldn’t have been more helpful. They immediately ushered us through a gate and we flew onto the terrace with the other Gooners.
What happened next? Well Alan Smith scored, that’s what happened. The crowd surged forward Nigel and I went with them. I’ve no idea what happened to the other five. Suddenly, we looked at the pitch and there was a few Liverpool players trying to get the referee’s attention. He shuffled over to his linesman and so did quite a few Liverpool players. Was it offside? “This is Anfield” it says over the tunnel exit to the pitch. He’s going to disallow it, we thought. It was Liverpool, things always go their way.
Amazingly the ref and the lino stood strong, rightly gave the goal and pointed to the halfway line. The pause in celebrating then continued, we went bonkers. After a few minutes of celebration the crowd fell back. By this point me and Nigel were slap bang in the middle of the Arsenal section. My mate Wally (real name Steve) then appeared, but the rest were in the crowd somewhere.
We had chances, mainly MT4, who went close. Was that it I wondered? Was that the chance? Will we get another? Time seemed to fly past as it does when you don’t want it too…
I turned to Wally near the end of the match and said (I now know this was about the same time David Pleat was saying almost the same thing on TV) well at least we beat them 1-0 if we can’t win title. Liverpool went forward, Barnes had the ball, he could just keep it run the clock down, it’s what they always do. And then he lost the ball…
Lukic throws it out to Dixon. Dixon plays it up to Smith, who holds it up and chips it in to MT4, who takes it in his stride and is through on goal. Come on Mickey Pleeeeeeeease… Time slows to a crawl, it’s almost slow motion. Grobbelaar comes out towards MT4 and he sticks it to his left!
Winterburn on the outside just keeps running and running straight towards the corner where the Arsenal fans were situated.
I was experiencing a higher state of being. I was floating on a sea of absolute joy. It was the type of feeling you don’t often get in life, the best legal high you can take. Everybody was hugging and grabbing each other. I think we were all in love with each other. The game kicked-off again as we experienced a nervous final few seconds of injury-time. The ball was hoofed up field and I think Perry Groves had the ball when the whistle blew. Utter joy. Fantastic. Brilliant. Unbelievable. Incredible. We did it…we actually did it. George’s plan had worked.
Credit has to go to The Kop who stayed and applauded Arsenal as the trophy was presented to Big Tone. We left the ground and waited for Michael the driver. Thousands of Gooners were celebrating and again fair play to the Scousers who (bar a few) continued to congratulate us. One not so forgiving local had dented the limo, but it wasn’t too bad. We jumped in the back and started to make calls on our brick-like mobile phones. First we rang up every Spurs fan that we knew. Those that answered got it big time. Then we were on the blower to our friends and family and anyone who hadn’t attended the match.
We were still exchanging tales of the celebrations both in Liverpool and North London when we pulled up at a petrol station before re-joining the motorway. There were loads of Arsenal cars waiting in the queue for petrol, so we got out and went into the shop, while Michael patiently waited his turn. I kid you not by the time we left it was like locusts had entered the shop, the shelves had been cleared and not I’m not sure it was all paid for. We of course did pay! We came out of the shop and there was Michael filling up. A huge conga started on the station forecourt: “We won the league…On Merseyside…We won the league on the Merseyside…We won the league on the Mersey…We won the league on the Merseyside…” The conga then diverted through the limo, in one door and out the other! It was fantastic.
All the way back to London we made Michael hoot the car horn. Then on the M1 we saw a huge beam of light coming up behind us. Slow down! Slow down! As the convoy behind us got nearer we realised it was surrounding the team bus. We pulled up alongside, wound down the windows and started waving. Merse and Adams were giving it back to us, smiling and calling the other players to come and look at the limo.
We followed the coach all the way back with hundreds of others cars to Winners nightclub in Southgate, where the team had a party laid on. We were not invited, but we took the opportunity, as you would, to drive through the Tottenham streets of our neighbours letting them know who were the champions.
It was the greatest night of my life as a Gooner.
There was more success for George Graham. We won the title again in 1991, only losing one game. There were the FA Cup and League Cup successes over Sheffield Wednesday of 1993. The replay of the latter saw me sitting next to the Sex Pistols’ frontman Jonny Rotten. Next came the trip to wonderful Copenhagen for the Cup Winners’ Cup final and beating Parma against the odds. We’d already been to Paris for the 1-1 semi-final away leg, but the chanting of “One-nil to the Arsenal” in Denmark made for an even better night. After that we experienced the disappointment of that freak goal by Nayim and the subsequent defeat to Real Zaragoza.
In 50 years I’ve been to around 1500 games, visited 68 grounds in England and a fair few abroad, but Anfield in 1989 will always stand out.
We’re all familiar with the Arsene Wenger years. Suffice to say I am enjoying them. I think the man is a genius. I can handle not winning a trophy for six or seven years…even longer. After all, I’ve been there before. I am of the Fever Pitch generation (just four months younger than Nick Hornby in fact). I know Arsenal’s time will come again.
If I can say just a few final words they would be to one person. Thank you to my Dad. You gave me something special. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without The Arsenal.