1989: 'It's Up For Grabs Now!'

It was Friday 26th May 1989. Whatever happened that evening, it would prove to be a defining night in the long and storied history of English top flight football. Two teams still in contention for the title on the final day of the season was a rarity, let alone both those of those teams being due to play each other in the final fixture of an entire league season. Yet that was the scenario that presented itself for Liverpool and Arsenal. That the game would take place on a Friday night and be televised on ITV was a circumstance borne out of one of the most awful tragedies to visit English football a few weeks earlier. The two teams had been due to play each other a few weeks earlier back in April. As a mark of respect the fixture had been postponed in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. The show went on for the remainder of the season but supporters up and down the country were united in grief at the terrible events that had unfolded at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989. Prior to kick-off at Anfield, the Arsenal players would present flowers to different parts of the ground in memory of those who had lost their lives. Once the match kicked off, those watching inside the stadium and the millions watching on television would see the most dramatic conclusion ever to a league title race.

The 1988/89 season ushered in the 100th anniversary of the Football League. Liverpool began as First Division champions and looked set fair to be competing in the upper reaches of the league table again in the new season. They had just lost two of their 40 league games the previous season as well as going all the way to the FA Cup Final at Wembley. They were famously denied a double by Wimbledon as they went down 1-0 – a moment forever captured by John Motson when he remarked that ‘the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club’. By summer 1989, Liverpool would hope to go one better and deliver a double. Little did we know what sporting drama lay in store. Liverpool’s rivals would have reason to be concerned at the start of the season as an already strong squad was strengthened further. Their legendary striker Ian Rush had returned to Anfield after his Italian sojourn in a then record £2.8 million deal. Liverpool fans are always keen on attacking triumvirates and it was no different back in the pre-Premier League era. Manager Kenny Dalglish altered his title-winning formation to install Rush alongside John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley. They were complemented from the wings by John Barnes and Ray Houghton. Rivals would have work to do if they were to wrestle the title away from Anfield.

Three years prior to a career-defining night on Merseyside, George Graham had been appointed Arsenal manager. He had won a League Cup in his first season as a result of a 2-1 victory, ironically over Liverpool, in front of 96,000 fans at Wembley. His charges finished fourth in the league. The following year, there was a disappointing return to Wembley when, despite making it to their second consecutive League Cup Final and leading 2-1 at one stage, they succumbed 3-2 to Luton Town. A sixth-placed league finish suggested there was work to do ahead of the 1988/89 season. The wily Graham sought a sharper blend of youth and experience. Famously, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould joined as two key cogs in defence to go alongside Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn. With John Lukic in goal, they would be a key platform for any future Arsenal success. However, they were not initially regarded as one of the favourites to compete for the title. A good start would soon start to shift the conversation.

The First Division used to throw in some intriguing title races as a more level playing field allowed well-organised and well-run clubs to feature in the mix. 1988/89 would prove to be yet another good example as, despite it ultimately coming down to Liverpool vs. Arsenal on the final day, there were some iconic, and from a contemporary stand-point some more unusual, names that made their presence felt in the top half of the table. Millwall were an early pace-setter and they hung around in the top five until well after Christmas, eventually finishing tenth. Norwich City would deliver an impressive season as FA Cup semi-finalists and a fourth-placed league finish. Former double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest would fly slightly under the radar but eventually finished third and delivered a League Cup success to boot. Their regional rivals, Derby County, delivered an excellent fifth-place finish. Elsewhere, Manchester United were continuing their rebuild under a certain Alex Ferguson. They would finish 11th but we all know where that would be headed over subsequent years. However, imagine the noise that might surround Old Trafford should current incumbent Erik Ten Hag deliver an 11th place finish in the Premier League this year.

Millwall: Early Pace Setters

Arsenal started the season with a flourish via a thumping 5-1 victory at Wimbledon. The FA Cup winners had come unstuck in the Charity Shield against Liverpool but were caught even colder by a rampant Arsenal. Striker Alan Smith grabbed an opening day hat-trick. However, inconsistency had blighted Arsenal throughout the previous season and there were early fears of more of the same when they went down 3-2 to Aston Villa in their first league game at Highbury. An impressive victory by the same score-line over North London rivals Spurs was followed by an underwhelming home score draw against Southampton before an away defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. However, by October the Gunners were beginning to get going as they racked up six wins and a draw from seven league games. As they looked toward a 4th December showdown at home to Liverpool, they were perhaps guilty of taking their eye off the ball as they slipped to a 2-1 defeat to Derby County the week before.

Liverpool’s promising start to their title defence had commenced with a 3-0 victory at Charlton Athletic courtesy of a John Aldridge hat-trick. A week later, a Jan Molby penalty would give them a 1-0 victory over Manchester United. However, in contrast to Arsenal who would stutter before embarking on a run of victories, the title favourites would endure a nightmare run of results throughout September and October. A solitary victory away to Southampton was surrounded by dropped points at home to Spurs, Newcastle United and Coventry City and defeats away to Luton Town and Nottingham Forest. A misfiring attack had scored a paltry seven goals in seven matches. Although there was a relative uptick in results, there were further dropped points at Anfield against high-flying Millwall and, with one eye on the trip to Arsenal, a stumble against the Crazy Gang when a late Steve Nicol own goal gave Wimbledon a point. A week later at Highbury, Liverpool would again give up a lead after John Barnes opener early in the second half was cancelled out on 70 minutes by Arsenal striker Alan Smith.

The calendar year of 1989 opened with two pivotal fixtures and, what seemed at the time, a key moment in the title race. On New Year’s Day itself, Liverpool were scheduled a trip to Old Trafford. A day later, Arsenal would be at home to their North London rivals Spurs. Once again, Liverpool would take a lead and fail to exploit it. John Barnes put them in front after 70 minutes but Manchester United had levelled with a minute. Six minutes later, they led 3-1 and it was a lead they would not relinquish. The following day, Arsenal secured a relatively comfortable 2-0 victory at home to Spurs. Whilst the Gunners burnished their title credentials further, Liverpool’s fifth defeat in their opening 19 games looked to have sunk their ambition of retaining their title.

Defeat at Old Trafford seemed to wake the Reds as Daglish's men seemed to click into gear thereafter. Between 3rd January and 23rd May, they would rattle off 15 wins and three draws in an 18 match unbeaten run in the league. They thundered back into pole position for the title. In that same timeframe, Arsenal would endure costly defeats at Coventry City and, more damagingly, at home to Nottingham Forest and Derby County. Of course, within that time, the footballing world, and Liverpool in particular, had to deal with and begin to come to terms with the full scale of the tragedy that was the Hillsborough disaster. What should have been a day of joy on Saturday 15th April as fans turned out for an FA Cup semi-final at a neutral venue turned into a day of loss, sadness and despair. Indeed, there was understandably a footballing pause after the 15th April before games resumed in May.

Liverpool would win an emotional FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest to book their place in an all-Merseyside final against Everton. The amended schedule for the league season meant that the final would be played the weekend before the league season concluded (which was an unusual occurrence back then). As a game, it was an incredible affair with Liverpool taking an early lead through Aldridge before being cancelled out in the final minute by a dramatic Stuart McCall equaliser. Both sides then traded further goals in the first period of extra-time before Ian Rush grabbed his second, and Liverpool’s third, to bring the FA Cup back to Anfield. Arsenal were idle as Liverpool clinched the first part of a potential double and they would remain so as Liverpool played a game in hand at home to West Ham the following Tuesday. The Gunners had plenty to stew on as their last competitive outing had seen them stumble to a 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon in their penultimate league match of the season. That had the effect of leaving them level on points with Liverpool. Were Liverpool to see off West Ham, the Anfield side would go into the last game of the season against Arsenal with a three-point advantage. They would be the home side in what was shaping up to be an incredible finale to the league campaign. The Reds duly delivered against West Ham, leading 2-1 heading into the final quarter of the match before finishing with a flourish and adding three more goals in the last ten minutes.

And so, to the balmy evening of Friday 26th May. Prior to the start of the season, ITV had gained the exclusive rights to show live top flight games. They would hold this right until 1992 when Sky became the broadcast partner of the newly-formed Premier League. In 1989, it was left to Elton Welsby to anchor the live match programming and he was joined for the title decider by then England boss Sir Bobby Robson. The channel and its presenters could hardly have devised a more astonishing scenario for their final league broadcast of the season. Liverpool led the table with 76 points from their 37 games. Arsenal were second on 73 points from their 37 games. The league leaders goal difference was +39 against Arsenal’s goal difference of +35. As became a fabled part of the pre-match build-up, Arsenal had no choice but to win by two clear goals to clinch the title. Should they achieve such a winning margin, they would be English First Division champions on the basis of goals scored! The intrigue surrounding the game was incredible. Would Liverpool seek to start fast, urged on by the passionate home support? Would Arsenal be the ones to, as Welsby famously surmised, seek an early goal to ‘put the jitters into Liverpool’? Ultimately, it was neither as an understandably cagey first half developed with both sides carefully probing for the opening goal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the teams were locked at 0-0 by half-time. The tension was already palpable and there were a full 45 minutes plus any injury-time to come.

Shortly after half-time, Arsenal won a free-kick in the Liverpool half which was to be floated into the Liverpool penalty area. We can let the inimitable Brian Moore take over for a moment:

Winterburn and Richardson behind it. Adams has made a darting little run in there. And Smith! And Arsenal have scored! The Liverpool players are surrounding the referee asking him to speak to a linesman.

What followed was pure theatre. There was momentary uncertainty as the referee did indeed go over and consult his linesman. Fleetingly, Liverpool hoped for the goal to be disallowed. On the other side of the equation, Arsenal desperate for it to stand. It did. 1-0 to the Arsenal! It subsequently emerged that Liverpool’s reason for debating the goal was unclear. The referee would concede as much afterwards. Such was the delicate nature of Alan Smith’s header to divert the ball into the net, there had been the momentary concern that he may not have touched the ball. He had and Arsenal were half-way to their ultimate goal.

As the game reached its closing stages, and it remained 1-0 to Arsenal, the tension continued to ramp up. The television footage, and the elegant commentary of Moore, is artful in showcasing the tension to watching viewers. Endless cutaways of players with faces etched with concern. An image of Arsenal manager George Graham seemingly sat at a remove deep in the opposition dugout. He is surrounded by assistants exhorting players forward. In something that will be alien to anyone who has only grown up with football in the Sky era, with four minutes to go the commentary team announce that the clock will be left on screen for the remainder of the match!

With the game in injury time, one of the most incredible sequences in top flight English football commences. The flame of the long season is about to extinguish. The score-line remained 1-0. That would only be enough for Arsenal for the most pyrrhic of victories. But wait, suddenly Arsenal midfielder Michael Thomas looks like he has broken free of the Liverpool defence. He surges into the penalty area. A Liverpool defender is desperately seeking to dash across to a more central position to cover but it is too late. Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar is rushing off his line but he is going to be a few yards away from Thomas as the midfielder shoots. He deftly lifts the ball just enough to evade any and every part of Grobelaar’s anatomy. The ball is past the Liverpool goalkeeper. Moore famously intones that 'it’s up for grabs now' and the flight of the ball is comfortably between the posts. It was astonishing. Arsenal had their second goal in stoppage time. The goal that instantly changed the destination of the league title. The final whistle went and Arsenal were champions.

That evening in May remains one of the most iconic conclusions to a title race ever. Many years later, the two Manchester clubs would battle for the title on the last day of the season and Manchester City would deliver their own incredible late finish. However, 1989 deserves to remain elevated because the two title protagonists were on the same pitch and, ultimately, separated by ridiculously fine margins. Arsenal triumphed that season on the basis of goals scored. Both they and Liverpool finished with 22 wins, ten draws and six defeats each. That gave them both a total of 76 points. They both finished on a positive goal difference of +37. With a beautiful irony, the truism that became associated with the London club of ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ in reference to their tight defence and ability to grind out results did not hold in this most incredible of seasons. They had outscored Liverpool by 73 goals to 65 and that was why they were champions!

Article written by John Boland who is behind the @90plus2book account on X/Twitter. He watched the astonishing events of May 1989 as an incredulous eight-year-old allowed to stay up late to watch the football. Decades later, it has become the prompt for his book ‘90+2: Last Minute Moments that Changed Football History’ which will be released by Pitch Publishing in January 2024.

©The Football History Boys, 2023


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