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The Year Football Stood Still – 1989 | The Year of the Greatest Conclusion to a League Season…Ever.

Arsenal First Division Title, 1989

Arsenal managed to pull off one of the most remarkable First Division Title wins ever against Liverpool in the 1988-89 season, but it was a season littered with ghosts and shadows. At one stage, it was thought that the campaign would be completely cancelled following the Hillsborough disaster.

No one would have been surprised if it had and I recall there was a tangible feeling of shock as the news came out from Sheffield on a bright spring afternoon that 96 supporters had lost their lives. I remember seeing images on the front pages of a national newspaper, they’d never be allowed today because of their graphic nature and the distress they would inflict on the victims’ families.

To be completely honest, I had no idea what I was looking at initially until I realised that I was briefly transported to the scene and the enormity of the situation became clear. There were dead faces pressed against the wire fences, the last images of their short lives, lives that had so much potential and promise, but they’d never arrive home that evening. They are images permanently etched on my brain and as a result, my heart genuinely sinks when anyone mentions Hillsborough.

The ground became a makeshift morgue as bodies were removed on advertising hoardings. Some that were taken by the emergency services, groundsman, stewards and supporters were fortunate enough to still be alive. Death hung over the stadium and the sport like a huge heavy cloud and it didn’t look as if it had any intention of moving on. We all thought that the season had concluded in the most horrific way and on the saddest note but six weeks later, the league restarted against all odds.

Hillsborough Disaster, Premier League, Liverpool, football season, First Division title

The First Division title that year was considered a no contest in many respects with Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool recognised as the best team in both Europe and England. This was not only a period of dominance, it was a period where Liverpool showcased the very best in free-flowing attacking football with the likes of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Ian Rush, John Aldridge and the underrated Ray Houghton.

Liverpool had barely taken a breath from the early 70’s clocking up league titles – 1972-73, 1975-76, 1976-77, 1978-79, 1979-80, 1981-82, 1982-83, 1983-84, 1985-86, 1987-88, 1989-90 and European titles – 1976-77, 1977-78, 1980-81 and 1983-84.

They were a team that were at the top of their game in 1989 and everything pointed to yet another First Division title and no one would have objected because of the misery the city and its families had suffered. That misery would continue to circulate for thirty more years as those involved searched for justice.

As good as things had been in the city in terms of football, it was a completely different story at a social level. Liverpool had suffered massive economic decline and huge numbers of unemployment. The subsequent hardship and tensions were the reason for the Toxteth riots which saw a frantic Conservative government considering a massive financial investment.

In later years, it was revealed that ministers close to the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had recommended that an investment plan was foolhardy and they urged her not to spend public money with one remarking it would be like “trying to make water flow uphill”. Off the field, it was a gigantic mess, a social melting pot that was coming to the boil, but once the season resumed, it somehow shifted the focus of the masses and gave hope and optimism to the city’s people.

Meanwhile, in London, George Graham had rid himself of expensive Arsenal stars who, in his opinion, were underperforming, but he needed to convince the fans that by removing some of their favourite faces, he could fashion a side capable of being more than just a side that enjoyed a cup run.

There was a revolution in the wind which would result in one of the best defences ever seen in the English league led by a Captain barely out of his Academy shorts. Tony Adams would be the standard-bearer for Arsenal for three decades and form crucial partnerships with George Graham and Arsene Wenger but it was the Scot that saw the potential, the ability to lead and against the might of Liverpool in an epic decider that heavily favoured the home team, Adams would be a key factor.

Come Boxing Day, Liverpool were in sixth place, 11 points behind due to losing key players, but Arsenal started dropping points, 19 to be precise, at a time when Liverpool picked up their pace and the goals started flying in. The gap was decreasing and the Gunners suffered a crisis of confidence which saw them waste numerous opportunities.

The nerves had taken over and if this went down to the wire, Liverpool had a distinct advantage mentally. And so, the script played out with both sides colliding in a winner takes all contest and one felt that it was Liverpool’s destiny to claim yet another crown for their fallen supporters.

Graham didn’t expect to win that May evening at Anfield, he hoped for the divine intervention of football God’s, but he never expected them to deliver the First Division title. I suspect his players weren’t convinced by his tactical changes, endless ocean of optimism and smokescreen of shameless bravado.

In fact, as the film 89 revealed, many thought “George had lost the plot” in approaching the game with a back three. Arsenal trained every day with a back four and almost followed a repetitive schedule with military precision including the now-famous raised arm for an offside.

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Surprisingly, Arsenal travelled up to Liverpool by coach on the day of the match to lessen the nerves which was a masterstroke, one that left the players with hardly anytime to dwell on the gargantuan task ahead of scoring two goals without reply at Anfield.

The stage was set for a battle like no other and after the match, one felt jubilant but sad. Had it not been Arsenal, I would have naturally wanted Liverpool to claim the First Division title for everything the city and its people had suffered.

Goals by Alan Smith and the last gasp winner by Michael Thomas with seconds left on the clock had captured a very special moment in Arsenal’s history. The greatest climax to a league title ever! Were you there? Do you have a story to share? Is it the greatest ever finish to a league season? Get in touch.

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The Highbury Flyer
Anti Kroenke , anti Gazidis but always a gooner. Still wishes he could watch from the stands at the Highbury library.

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