'It was an executive decision!'

Remembering 1989... John Lukic

When reflecting on that incredible night at Anfield on May 26, 1989 there are certain key moments that immediately come to mind.

The Arsenal team bringing out flowers before kick-off to commemorate those who had lost their lives at Hillsborough; the near silence that descended when Alan Smith glanced the first goal in; Steve McMahon’s signal to the rest of the Liverpool team of “one minute"; Brian Moore’s unforgettable “it’s up for grabs now!”; Michael Thomas sending the red half of north London into ecstasy with that most dramatic of denouements.

But John Lukic’s role in arguably the most famous goal in Arsenal’s history is often - unfairly - overlooked.

After all, it was the Gunners’ goalkeeper who started the move that culminated in Thomas’ crowning glory. It was Lukic who, in injury time, decided to throw the ball out to Lee Dixon rather than lump it long like so many others would have done in the same circumstances. It was a crucial moment of clarity on night when cool heads would prevail. But how does he explain it?

“It was an executive decision,” laughs Lukic. “It was just one of those things in football. I heard somebody say that you don’t pick the moment, the moment picks you and I think that rings true.

“Certainly on the night, everyone was saying 'boot it', Tony Adams was screaming 'boot it', the bench were off their feet doing the same and I decided to take the easy option and develop this expansive type of football that Arsenal play today! I thought 'I'll throw it out' and that's what I did.”

Lukic insists that George Graham’s squad felt no pressure ahead of the game at Anfield. Having lost at home to Derby County and then drawn with Wimbledon in their preceding two matches, the writing was on the wall and Arsenal were given little chance of pulling off the two-goal victory they required. Indeed, the Daily Mirror’s sports section that day led with a headline of ‘You Haven't Got A Prayer, Arsenal’, reflecting the prevailing mood outside the Gunners’ camp.

"George's team meeting at the hotel beforehand was exactly the script that panned out on the night… It was uncanny that it all came to fruition"

“Without a doubt [we thought we had thrown it away], but then again in football you never say never,” says Lukic. “People had written us off going to Anfield, we were just turning up to make up the numbers and Liverpool were going to win the Double on the night. We were just bit-part players.

“We were quite relaxed - everyone was reading the newspapers on the coach up, and we all had a laugh and a joke. The other thing is I think Liverpool had only conceded two goals at home on something like three occasions in the previous nine years, while we had an appalling record at Anfield.

“When you factor that in, we had no pressure really - we were not expected to win, they were not going to concede two goals, so what did we have to lose?

“George's team meeting at the hotel beforehand was exactly the script that panned out on the night. He said that if we could take it to half time at 0-0, then we could press a little bit further forward in the second half, hopefully nick a goal early on, then Liverpool would panic and feel the nerves. Hopefully towards the back end of the game we could then get a winner. It was uncanny that it all came to fruition.”

Things went perfectly to plan for Graham’s side as the game remained deadlocked at the interval, before Alan Smith’s 52nd-minute glancing header suddenly opened up the possibility that something incredible was on the cards. Controversy surrounded the goal, with the home players adamant that the Arsenal striker had not touched Nigel Winterburn’s indirect free-kick, yet the visitors knew they must keep their heads.

"If you had asked me which individual I would have wanted in that position, at that time, it would have been Mickey"

“We only had half the job done at that point, and we still couldn't afford to concede,” Lukic says. “It was doubly important now, because we had a foothold in the game, we had a hand on the trophy itself, so if we conceded then it would have been devastating. It was crucially important that we all kept our concentration and kept a clean sheet, even though we were 1-0 up.”

Graham’s side pushed on in search of the second goal that would have secured an unlikely victory, and in the 74th minute Thomas was presented with a golden opportunity when he latched onto Kevin Richardson’s pass. However, his tame shot was comfortably held by Bruce Grobbelaar and the chance - and to many Arsenal's shot at the title - was gone.


Lukic shakes Bruce Grobbelaar's hand after the final whistle

Lukic shakes Bruce Grobbelaar's hand after the final whistle


But redemption would come for Thomas in the 92nd minute, as Lukic found Lee Dixon, who picked out Smith with a long ball and the striker flicked the ball inside to Thomas and a ricochet left the Arsenal midfielder with just Grobbelaar to beat.

“He had missed that chance earlier, but if you had asked me which individual I would have wanted in that position, at that time, it would have been Mickey,” Lukic says. “He was so laid back he didn't have a pulse. It's almost surreal because you are watching the events unfold and you are thinking, 'go on mate, go on Mickey’ and then he scores and the rest is in the annals of history."

It may have been Mickey’s moment, but it surely would not have happened without Lukic’s “executive decision” - a remarkable act of clarity at the climax of a truly remarkable season.

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