"Thomas, charging through the midfield... it's up for grabs now... Thomas, right at the end!"
It's been 20 years since commentator Brian Moore described the thrilling climax to the 1988/89 season but Arsenal fans still know the words off by heart. And no wonder. Football just does not get more dramatic than it did on that famous night at Anfield.
|Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal
Friday, May 26, 1989. Kick-off: 8.05pm
Division One. Anfield.
Scorers: Smith 52, Thomas 90+1
Booked: Rocastle, Richardson.
Referee: David Hutchinson (Oxfordshire)
Assistant referees: Geoff Banwell, P. Cullen.
A few weeks before game Arsenal were in the driving seat in the title race and seemingly on course for their first championship since 1971. George Graham, who played in that side, was now in charge, and the canny Scot had assembled a team packed with bargain buys and youthful exuberance.
The wheels came off in Arsenal's final two home matches of the season against Derby and Wimbledon. A defeat and a draw, coupled with Liverpool's 5-1 thrashing of West Ham, left the Gunners needing to win by two goals at Anfield in a game delayed to Friday, May 26 after the Hillsborough disaster.
Few outside Highbury expected Arsenal to beat the odds. 'You Haven't Got A Prayer, Arsenal' screamed one headline on the morning of the match, but Graham had other ideas: keep it tight in the first half, nick a goal early in the second and then finish Liverpool off. The Arsenal manager got it spot on.
Graham's decision to play a back three gave Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn the chance to push forward and, in turn, push Liverpool's wingers back. It worked, and Arsenal so nearly broke the deadlock early in the game when Steve Bould's header was diverted just over the bar.
|Arsenal: John Lukic, David O'Leary, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams (c), Steve Bould (Perry Groves 76), Nigel Winterburn, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle, Kevin Richardson, Paul Merson (Martin Hayes 73), Alan Smith.
Liverpool: Bruce Grobbelaar, Gary Ablett, Steve Nicol, Alan Hansen, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton, Ronnie Whelan (c), Steve McMahon, John Barnes, John Aldridge, Ian Rush (Peter Beardsley 32). Sub not used: Barry Venison.
Seven minutes after the break the visitors did take the lead. Winterburn curled in a free kick from the right and Alan Smith glanced the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. Liverpool's players surrounded the referee but their claims that Smith had not touched the ball - or indeed was offside - were rejected. The goal stood.
Arsenal's chance seem to have gone when Thomas prodded a golden chance straight at Grobbelaar after Paul Merson had found him in the box. But, of course, Thomas had the last word.
In probably the most spine-tingling move in Arsenal's rich history, John Lukic threw the ball out to Dixon, his raking pass found Smith and he in turn found Thomas. A fortunate bounce left Thomas clear on goal and, as the Liverpool defenders converged on him, the midfielder flicked the ball past Grobbelaar.
"An unbelievable climax to the league season...!" screamed Moore. After an 18-year-wait, Arsenal were back at the top of English football.