With a 0-0 draw at home to Coventry City and a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford, Arsenal’s league form was a little shaky as they prepared to square up with Tottenham in a two-legged Littlewoods Cup tie in February and March 1987.
Tottenham’s fine track record in cup competitions during the early ‘80s (they’d won FA Cups in 1981 and 1982 and the UEFA Cup in 1984), meant they were considered slight favourites to win over both legs of the semi-final.
At Highbury in the first leg, George Graham’s side spluttered. Badly missing the David Rocastle/Viv Anderson combination down the right-hand side, Arsenal seemed toothless, and Clive Allen’s 34th goal of the season gave his side a 1-0 win. It could have been far worse, with Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle going perilously close to adding to Tottenham’s lead. Graham expressed disappointment with his side's display. “We just banged aimless balls forward in hope more than expectation,” he claimed. “However, I remain convinced that we’ll play far better in the second leg.”
At White Hart Lane, Allen put his side 2-0 up on aggregate, and missed three gilt-edged chances to put Tottenham out of sight. Despite Rocastle and Anderson returning to the team, Charlie Nicholas’s opportunist lob which hit the crossbar was Arsenal’s only real chance. The doubts which had been raised about the Gunners’ ability to win big matches over the last few weeks appeared to be coming true.
Graham’s young side had enjoyed a purple patch of form between October and early December, leading Division One for several weeks, but they appeared to be fading. At half-time in the dressing room, the mood among the players was one of concern. Nicholas recalled: “I don’t know what George (Graham) was thinking privately, but he remained calm, telling us not to panic, to keep things tight, to maintain the belief that we could turn back the tide.”
What happened next acted as a bolt of electricity for Arsenal’s jaded players. Tottenham’s stadium announcer informed Spurs supporters that tickets for the Littlewoods Cup final would go on sale within the week, and in order to add to the party mood, he played Chas and Dave’s “Spurs Are On Their Way To Wembley” hit over the tannoy.
“Suddenly our heads went up, and we just stared at each other. Everyone, including George, just glanced from face to face in disbelief. Tottenham had mocked us, and we wanted to make them pay,” said Nicholas. The roar from the supporters at the Paxton Road End which greeted the Gunners players as they ran out for the second half was huge, and one of the greatest of all Arsenal fightbacks was about to unfold.
In actual fact, Tottenham could easily have buried the tie within 30 seconds of the restart, as Allen skewed his shot an inch wide, but then Arsenal scored. A long throw from the right by Rocastle found Niall Quinn, who flicked the ball towards Anderson. The right back took full advantage of Mitchell Thomas and keeper Ray Clemence’s hesitancy to scramble the ball home. Allen’s uncharacteristic profligacy (he fluffed two one-on-ones with Lukic) also kept the Gunners in it.
“We exploited their weak right-hand side through Viv and Rocky,” explained Paul Davis. A Rocastle burst down the right set up Niall Quinn to slide in the Gunners’ second goal in the 64th minute, and Nicholas might even have won it outright for Arsenal at the death, but Clemence saved his shot. After extra time, the aggregate scores were tied up at 2-2.
Both David Pleat and Graham gauged their side’s nervousness at home by admitting that playing away from home in the replay might just be to both team’s respective advantage. But Pleat had little option but to call “home” when he won the toss. The scene was set for the most pivotal north London derby since Arsenal won the league at White Hart Lane in May 1971.
The match was even throughout the first half, but on 60 minutes Allen put Spurs 1-0 up, and Nicholas was stretchered off after a heavy tackle from Richard Gough. With 25 minutes left, substitute Ian Allinson snuck in a soft equaliser, his shot squeezing between Clemence and the post. Allinson, who had ended up at Arsenal almost by accident in 1983 – a clerical error at Colchester United meant his contract expired – was the first of a string of unlikely heroes who played their part under Graham. “I looked at experienced players like Gough and Waddle,” recalled Paul Davis. “In that split second, their heads were gone. They had nothing left.”
Finally Arsenal squeezed the life out of their rivals. With travelling supporters literally bouncing up and down at the Paxton Road end in excitement, Arsenal’s winning goal was classic early George Graham. A direct free kick by David O’Leary was flicked on by Quinn to Allinson, who tried his luck from just outside the box and the ball ricocheted loose to Rocastle, who galloped on to slip his shot low under Clemence’s body. “Arsenal are through to Wembley!!” barked ITV commentator Brian Moore.
The pattern of the match – “One Nil Down, Two One Up, we knocked Tottenham out the cup” – was telling. Graham said afterwards: “This result shows that my team will never roll over for anyone.”
At the final whistle, the entire Arsenal contingent – players, substitutes and the management team – milked the applause in front of the supporters. The most poignant image of the night is a picture of a beaming Rocastle being hugged by Graham.
“George let his guard down a bit,” explained Davis. “He was still the stern father figure, but he congratulated every one of the players. You can never underplay the significance of the semi-final win over Spurs. It was the stepping stone for everything which George achieved.”
“GLORIOUS GUNNERS RISE FROM THE DEAD,” claimed The Sun. A month later against Liverpool at Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup final, the club’s resurrection under Graham would continue apace.
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