BY SIMON RICH / @Cornholio73
On the morning of May 26th 1989, I should have been making my way to school. Having turned 16-years-old just three months before, I’d unofficially finished in full-time education but frustratingly still had the pain of a geography GCSE re-take hanging over me.
I had no intention though of taking this exam. I’d already secured a job and was well prepared for the wrath of my parents once they inevitably found out I hadn't turned up. You see this Friday wasn’t any old Friday; it was the climax of the 1988-89 First Division football championship. After a painfully emotional season following Arsenal there was nothing that was going to stop me attending the final game at Anfield.
The Gunners had enjoyed a fantastic season under George Graham. We’d played wonderful football at times and deservedly maintained a title challenge for much of the season. Liverpool of course were considered to be almost invincible and apart from the occasional Everton title, they seem to have won almost every title in the eighties.
As many will recall, until the final two home games Arsenal’s young side looked destined to be champions for the first time in 18 years. And then disaster struck in the form of two very poor results. We’d been due to play Liverpool on Sunday April 23rd, but following the tragic events at Hillsborough we instead faced Norwich at home, Middlesbrough away and then hosted Derby and Wimbledon at Highbury before taking on the Reds.
While six points was secured against the Canaries and Boro, the home game against Derby County, at the time something of a bogey side for us, went very badly. We ended up on the end of a 2-1 defeat although a very late consolation from Alan Smith was still to prove vital weeks later.
When Wimbledon visited on a balmy May evening four days later we twice took the lead, our second a Nigel Winterburn piledriver, but still got pegged back and had to settle for a 2-2 draw. Liverpool, having resumed their fixtures, sensed blood and beat QPR before thumping West Ham 5-1. That hammering meant that Arsenal would have to go to Anfield and win by two clear goals to secure the title. Given Liverpool hadn’t lost at home for three years, it looked like our title dreams were over. Our chance had gone.
So there I was lying in bed at 8am on the Friday morning admiring the Arsenal club crest I’d had painted on my bedroom wall. After reaching for my Woodford Bridge (my Essex hometown at the time) Gooners Union Jack I decide, despite not being religious in any way, to pray to the footballing gods to just let this miracle happen: “Please let us win 2-0 and I’ll never ask for anything again.”
I made my way to Highbury on the tube and waited for my older brother Greg to meet me by his car, a crappy white mark3 Escort (I ended up buying it from him a year later). On his arrival we then waited for the travel club coaches to arrive.
We had tickets for coach number 1 out of about 44 and were surprised to see almost half the seats were filled by Arsenal officials and travel club staff. The atmosphere was great, everybody remarkably confident and stressing we had nothing to lose.
Our coach led the huge convoy as we set off for the M1 and our date with destiny. It was all pretty uneventful until we hit the M6. Suddenly we came to a grinding halt and we barely moved for what seemed like an age. Whoever had scheduled the match for a Friday night hadn’t taken into consideration the fact it was the day before the May bank holiday weekend. With the sun shining it appeared that everyone had taken the day off to drive somewhere on holiday and the traffic was at gridlock.
At first we weren't bothered as this was the travel club coach and they'd never let the game kick off without half the Arsenal supporters there, but how wrong we were. It quickly dawned on us that we had no say in whether the game would be delayed or not and suddenly we all started to worry like hell! I can’t remember how long we were stuck waiting before some news filtered through from Travel Club head honcho Paul Johnson that the game would start 15 minutes late. 15 frigging minutes! Everybody was looking around asking, “Are they having a laugh?” We need at least an extra 45 minutes the way we were going.
As concern grew our bus driver had an idea. I’ve no idea if he was a Arsenal fan, or perhaps he just didn’t give a shit about his job, but he decided that the hard shoulder of the motorway should be a bus lane. We sneaked on and away we went. It was the cue for ecstatic celebrations and chants of “the driver is a Gooner.”
Suddenly we were going to make it and with some time to spare. I know a lot of supporters missed anything from 5 to 35 minutes of the first half but thanks to our hero driver we were parked up near the Anfield Road stand with enough time to grab a programme before heading to the turnstiles for the infamous ‘compost corner’ terrace.
Anyone who knows the old Anfield layout will remember that most of the Anfield Road stand was seated apart from one corner. It was an awful terrace that went from being about 30 ft wide at the base to about 150 ft wide at the top. In addition to about 1,000 Arsenal fans who were seated, about 3,000 joined me and my brother standing in the compost corner. It’s fair to say the atmosphere was electric.
Two weeks had passed since the rest of the league had finished and combined with the ridiculously good weather, it didn’t feel like a normal evening kick-off, but like a game being played at the height of the off-season. The Gooners who filed in were in great voice.
Having won the FA Cup six days before, Liverpool were rightly confident that they could secure the title and with it another Double. Of course, with Hillsborough so raw in the memory the football fraternity would hardly have begrudged them a victory to honour those who had only recent lost their lives.
At one point there was a thought that Liverpool might pull out of the rest of the season, a decision nobody would have criticised.
Worse for Arsenal was the suggestion that the whole campaign be stopped, a course of action which would have seen a line drawn under so much hard work with no reward. Everybody felt genuine sympathy for the Liverpool supporters and the families of those that passed away at Hillsborough and I’m sure, when it was confirmed the club would indeed finish the season, that they had their fingers crossed for a win.
For us Arsenal fans and for the players the belief that we deserved to win the title was equally strong. The team came out carrying bouquets of flowers which they took to all four sides of Anfield – a gesture which was warmly receieved by the home support and especially the Kop.
When the referee blew his whistle it was down to business, no more generosity, just 90 minutes to play the game of their lives. The opening exchanges were tense but Arsenal pushed and attacked for the whole first half. Liverpool were dangerous at times, but to be fair there were no real clear chances as the sides went back down the tunnel.
At the interval, we sang an unending rendition of “Georgie Graham’s Yellow and Blue Army” and the players returned. I swear they must have heard us as we didn’t stop well into the second half. I won't waffle on about what happened next, we all know what happened. I will though give you an insight as to have things looked from our vantage point, rather than on television.
When Alan 'Smudger' Smith glanced in Winterburn’s indirect free kick we went mental and celebrated like never before. That was until someone pointed out the referee hadn't given it. We went equally mental at that point…just in anger. It looked as if Liverpool, after complaining the ball had gone straight in, had got their way. Thankfully, somewhere up there in the early summer sky, the footballing gods answered my early prayers. After a consultation with the linesman, the goal was given. We embarked on a second round of delirium!
The rest of the second half is a blur. I remember Thomas having a chance on goal and blowing it and Liverpool having a goal chalked off for what I think was offside. As the clock ticked down, it looked as though our efforts would represent nothing more than a glorious failure, although it didn’t stop us singing proudly.
Edging towards the result they needed, Liverpool tried to run the clock down with Grobbelaar spending as much time as possible time wasting. I didn’t ever see the home side gloating when Kevin Richardson went down with cramp or Steve ‘one minute’ McMahon waving his finger. We were too busy singing.
I do remember Lee Dixon receiving the ball from John Lukic, him lofting it long to Smith and our lanky striker nudging it into the path of Michael Thomas. We held our breath – Mickey had already missed once!
Once again though my football god smiled on us. A lucky ricochet set our No 4 through on goal.
Being quite short and having to look far to my right from the position I was standing, I lost sight of the ball for a split second. Then in ultra slow-motion I saw Thomas flicking it into the corner of the goal.
As I mentioned, the first goal was met with crazy celebrations, but this one made me almost die with happiness. I ended up rolling around on the floor like a complete nutter until a young woman pulled me up and proceeded to hug me closer than any fully grown woman, who wasn’t my mum, had ever hugged me before.
On any other occasion this in itself would have been a great moment for a hormonal teenager, but combined with a championship winning goal it was unbelievable! I was continuing the celebrations with my brother and my new cougar girlfriend like a mad man when Liverpool went forward for one last attack. Thankfully the ball was intercepted by Thomas and played back to Lukic.
Seconds later the final whistle went and there were tears of joy all around me. I too was weeping with happiness, albeit out of sight of my brother. We were champions! Incredibly we had won 2-0. We were in dreamland!
When Tony Adams went to lift the trophy, those Liverpool fans who remained gave our side a standing ovation. It was a moment that will live with me forever and a really classy gesture from our hosts. We celebrated with the players long after the television cameras had gone before eventually being herded back towards our coaches.
It wasn’t so much as a walk to the bus, but a giant Gooner conga. Waiting for us, was our hero driver who’d not been arrested for his earlier antics. We boarded, sang some more, mocked the back pages of the newspapers which had written us off, got pelted with bricks by a few Scouse locals whose goodwill had apparently run thin and then something strange happen. For the rest of the journey there was deathly silence on the coach.
I’ve no idea if we were all just tired and worn out or still in shock that we’d actually done the impossible. We’d witnessed history unfolding before our eyes and no matter what any Manchester City might say it remains the most amazing end to a football campaign.
When we stepped off the coach in Avenell Road outside Highbury’s East stand we could tell from the sea of beer cans and champagne bottles that there had obviously been one hell of a party. I’d have loved to have seen it, but wouldn’t swap my experience in the sweaty compost corner for anything. I was one of the lucky few who had witnessed a miracle at first hand.
I doubt I’ll ever feel what I felt that day ever again. The whole day is an amazing memory. I can only hope that those who weren’t there experience something similar as an Arsenal fan soon.