Sporting upsets: ‘Boring’ Arsenal snatch the league from under Liverpool’s noses in 1989

The title was destined for a city haunted by tragedy - Michael Thomas didn’t read the script

One of the most chilling political terms of the last century was "managed decline." It was attributed to Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor in the Conservative government then privately debating what to "do" about Liverpool in the wake of the nine-night riots in Toxteth in July of 1981. Michael Heseltine, the minister for the environment, had gone on a three-week walkabout of the city and returned as a voice of conscience, adamant that neglect was the source of the trouble. He was surprised by the reception he received and, as he recently told the Liverpool Echo's excellent podcast the Brink, he was charmed by the number of youngsters asking him for his autograph. It was only afterwards that he heard they were flogging them for fifty pence a go.

“Alone, every night I would stand with a glass of wine, looking out at the magnificent view over the river and ask myself what had gone wrong for this great English city” Heseltine would reflect. And things had gone wrong: 80,000 jobs gone in the docks since 1972 and mass unemployment. Heseltine’s report, It Took A Riot, implored Margaret Thatcher and the cabinet to commit to serious funding for Liverpool and other cities wracked with socio-economic problems, arguing that conditions were “not compatible with the traditions of social justice and national even handedness which the party prides itself on.’

“Isn’t this pumping water uphill?” wondered Howe in a private memo. “Should we rather go for managed decline? This is not a term for use even privately.”

Liverpool wasn't abandoned or left to decline, at least not officially, but the neglect continued. In 1983, MP David Alton would tell his colleagues in the Commons that 15,160 people reported to the Old Swan employment office to look at the 130 available jobs. The main expression of imagination and city pride could be found in the wildly diverse range of pop bands emerging from the city and its enduring prize machine, Liverpool football club.

And if the ’80s began for Liverpool with the Toxteth riots, they ended with a strange and head spinning league when the Reds somehow lost a league football title that they seemed fated to win.

No English first division season had been undecided going into the final day of the season for 37 years. On that occasion, Arsenal had lost 6-1 at Old Trafford in 1952 as the title went to Matt Busby's dashing young team. And Arsenal's last league title was in 1971. They'd finished sixth in 1988 and George Graham was rebuilding a team, shedding glossy, attractive players like Charlie Nicholas and Viv Anderson with more uncompromising forces- Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Alan Smith. Tony Adams was captain and the team was pragmatic and athletic and lit with the gold-dust capability of Paul Merson and David Rocastle. They were quickly labelled 'boring Arsenal'. But they scored 73 goals over the course of the 88-89 league, eight more than Liverpool would manage.

It was because of that tragedy that Liverpool's schedule was rearranged

And it’s vital to remember that this last-match scenario between Liverpool and Arsenal was, in the best sense of the word, staged. The 1988-89 season marked the centenary of the English football league. The celebrations, at the start of the year, had a hollow, half hearted feel about them because it had been a nightmarish decade for the national game. English clubs were banned for European football after the Heysel disaster. Hooliganism had become a standard feature of club seasons.

The game could not have felt further removed from England’s shining world cup moment in 1966. The stadiums were jaded and aging and the fans were herded and moved rather than treated as paying customers out for a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment. And people paid the ultimate price for that neglect. 56 people lost their lives in the Bradford stadium fire in 1985. And then, on April 15th 96 Liverpool fans who went to see their team playing Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final ultimately died in a shocking stadium crush that was happening even as the opening minutes of the match were broadcast on live television.

It was because of that tragedy that Liverpool’s schedule was rearranged. Arsenal’s visit to Anfield was now pencilled in as a potential title decider, on a Friday night on May 26th. It kicked off at 8.05 pm and the sky was still bright.

It’s clear now that the Liverpool players and manager Kenny Dalglish played out the remainder of that season in a state of suspended shock. They had started the league season slowly. On New Years’ Day, a 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford left them nine points adrift of Arsenal in the title race. After the Hillsborough tragedy, the team played no football for over two weeks. Instead, they had attended funerals across a city lost in grief. Worse, a scurrilous series of allegations printed in the Sun newspaper placed the blame for the disaster with the Liverpool fans in one of the most infamous pieces of journalism in the long centuries of the print tradition.

On one level, football couldn’t matter in the city. On another, club and supporters clung to it like never before. Somehow, the team managed to tap into their knack for producing important results in the vital moments. On May 16th, they went top of the league, on goal difference, for the first time all season. Four days later, they won the FA Cup with a 3-2 win over cross-city rivals Everton. Then they thumped West Ham 5-1 in the penultimate game of the season. Arsenal, meanwhile, were faltering in the glare, losing to Derby, drawing with Wimbledon.

The odds against them securing the title that night were stark. They hadn’t won at Anfield in 15 years. And they didn’t just have to win: they had to win by two clear goals or more to secure the league on goal difference. And no team had beaten Liverpool at home by two or more goals in three years. Plus, Liverpool were serial league winners then: champions in 1980, ’82,’83,’84,’86 and ’88. It looked, to all the world, like an impossible task. The Mirror ran a headline which caught the mood of the day: You Haven’t Got A Prayer, Arsenal.

But the more you watch it, the more you accept it was just one of those things

It was still 0-0 after 45 minutes so Liverpool were that close: all they had to do was get through half a match at home. Arsenal had confounded expectations in that first half, biding their time and not looking particularly rushed or desperate.They’d fielded three central defenders. Whatever about scoring, they weren’t about to concede. Graham had calculated that if his team could just grab one, then human jitters and vulnerability would bring its own mischief.

And that’s what happened. After 52 minutes Alan Smith, who had already bagged 24 goals around the country, got a glancing header to a free-kick and following a few moments of indignant protests of handball from the Liverpool defenders, the goal was given.

And the home team began to creak and lose its hauteur over the last 30 minutes. They were, after all, human and when you think about the emotional and physical toll and the extremity of experience- from Hillsborough to the FA Cup to this night in the space of six weeks- it is little wonder.

In later years, the players would excoriate themselves for this or that decision or mistake late on. John Barnes would claim he cost his team the title by not playing keep-ball near the Arsenal corner flag in the 91st minute. Instead, he did what Barnes always did: he took his man on, he tried to create. And John Aldridge would later wonder why he didn't try and prevent John Lukic, the Arsenal goalkeeper, from slinging the pass out to Dixon which set in motion the swift counter-attacking goal. Ray Houghton would chastise himself for not at least trying to bring Thomas down. But the more you watch it, the more you accept it was just one of those things.

I’ll always fail to fully understand how a passage of football play that happened over 30 years ago has always managed to retain something of the omnipotence of the future even as it unfolds in replay. After all, it’s just a few seconds of football from a gone century - a gone millennium - and the protagonists have moved from their athletic prime (which was a chunky, steak’n’chips and barrel loads of beer type prime in that era) to men in deep middle age - Ray Houghton the bright, chirpy analyst, Rushie and Dalglish Anfield statesmen - and everyone knows what happened. Michael Thomas scored. Football history took a lurching swerve into the twilight zone. And it was a Friday night. The pubs were jammers.

But the world doesn't work like that

That the moment has lost none of its terrible, enthralling magic may be down to the fact that even as it was happening, as soon as Thomas broke into that mysterious clearing of space (where was everyone?), what would happen next felt inevitable. It was like a revelation. Thomas benefitted from a slightly fortuitous ricochet off a Liverpool defender - Ablett, I think, but it hardly matters - and Thomas himself and the ball fell perfectly in his path. But he still had so much to do.

Even as the Arsenal player managed to deep-freeze his own emotions and make a series of clean, perfect decisions, the unbelievable plot twist was dawning on the crowd in Anfield and the millions watching around the country. This night, this year and perhaps the entire decade had been building towards the end game which was now occurring before their eyes. Because deep down, all Liverpool fans, whether casual or those directly impacted by the tragedy, must have held the quiet belief that in addition to having the best football team, some sense of divine justice would guide the Reds through this final evening: that at least they’d be able to mark Hillsborough with the concluding wreath of another league title, another double, the aura of invincibility intact. This one wouldn’t be so much celebrated as marked.

But the world doesn’t work like that. Thomas played 163 times for Arsenal, from 1984 to 1991, and scored 24 goals. But he made the most important of those look absurdly easy, with a finish that was tortuously simple and elegant, a neat, right foot darting shot over Bruce Grobbelaar. And at that moment it left loud and sentimental Liverpool, team and city, broken and temporarily silenced. Just for a few seconds.

The sequence of play was immortalised by Brian Moore’s pitch perfect commentary - the mounting disbelief and excitement lighting his voice and then the strange poetry of the key line - “It’s up for grabs now” even as Thomas has Grobbelaar and the goal in his sight lines.

But it’s become such a gothic moment in time that whenever I see that clip now, I always hear the voice of Ian McCulloch, another god of Liverpool and a Reds devotee, crooning “Fate, up against your will, through the thick and thin, you will wait until…” A few years ago, McCulloch explained that the words came to him in a dream and he worked the elemental riff for ‘Killing Moon’ by playing the chords of Space Oddity backwards, “thereby creating the greatest song ever written.”

He delivers that outrageous boast in deadpan Scouse, as if nobody in the world would even quibble with the assertion. And, of course, he might just be right. And it catches something of the swagger and unassailable self-belief that cuts through Liverpool, an inherent sense of pride and place that nothing; not the bleakest Tory vision nor the 30-year trauma of Hillsborough nor the fact that the events of that tragedy clearly knocked the football club off its axis nor even the spooky unalterable drama of that Friday night could change.

And the strongest part of Moore’s commentary is often overlooked. As Thomas did a tumble of celebration, the cameras move away from the pitch and it was left to Moore to describe the sudden state of the men who were just a few seconds away from finishing as champions. “Aldridge is down. Barnes is down. Dalgish is just standing there. Nicol on his knees. McMahon is on his knees.”

It’s a powerful oration. Back stage, the custodians of the club were minding their manners: someone had the presence of mind to move the bottles of champagne from Liverpool’s dressing room for the visitors to enjoy when they made it in from the field.

And there’s a moment, too, when Tony Adams takes time to help a stricken John Barnes up from the grass. From the Kop comes the sound of You’ll Never Walk Alone in a deafening chorus of defiance. And you imagine the fans with their eyes closed to block out the scenes on the field and the reality of what was happening. The ecstatic celebrating of the Arsenal fans can be heard through the anthem on a separate, minor register.

There it was.

Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2.

It was a football night like no other could ever be and an extraordinary grace note on which to close the curtains on English football in the 1980s.

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