Think of 1988/9 and you think of the last game of the season (Arsenal won the title in the dying seconds at Liverpool, in case your memory is slipping!). It was the first time Arsenal had won the league in 18 years, and the first time it had not been won by Everton or Liverpool after 8 years of dominance. You might even recall the murmurs of discontent about the number of late dubious penalties that there were in front of the Kop.
But there was an earlier game which, at the time, caused much conversation and discussion. So for a change, let’s look at the start of 1988/9.
"Now in those days Arsenal were just a side show, and London derbies were scrappy affairs with the match report written in general terms before we even kicked off"
Even after a run of friendly matches there was still another tournament – a centenary challenge competition between eight clubs to celebrate 100 years of the Football League. On August 31 it was QPR 0-2 Arsenal in a competition the Gunners went on to win. I remember the game well; we arrived late (finding it hard to park) and stood with the QPR support, trying to stay quiet when Arsenal scored.
This was a fairly impressive pre-season kick around, but all those years of Merseyside dominance and late penalties left Arsenal 16/1 for the title. Nobody expected the Anfield situation to end.
The odds were reduced a little after the opening game of the season in which Arsenal beat the FA Cup holders Wimbledon 5-1 away. Now, because of that FA Cup, win a few of us had thought – if Liverpool can be televised live, then the number of odd incidents in their games involving referees not seeing stuff, might be reduced. We didn’t know just how true that was until the end of the season.
Alan Smith got a hat-trick in that match but when we all poured into Highbury for the first home game against promoted Aston Villa, we lost 2-3. All the fun of the pre-season and the euphoria of the opening victory against the cup holders had gone.
Next up was Tottenham away. Now in those days, with the media licking the boots of Merseyside, and never daring once, ever to say that a game was less than stunning, Arsenal were just a side show, and London derbies were scrappy affairs with the report of the match written in general terms before we even kicked off.
But the truth was that Arsenal/Tottenham games were as likely to be exciting as they were to be tense. Just look at some of these scores going back down the years from this game in 1988.
Highest-scoring north London derbies
|September 10, 1960||Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham|
|January 1, 1961||Tottenham 4-2 Arsenal|
|August 8, 1961||Tottenham 4-3 Arsenal|
|October 6, 1962||Tottenham 4-4 Arsenal|
|February 23, 1963||Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham|
|October 15, 1963||Arsenal 4-4 Tottenham|
|September 16, 1967||Arsenal 4-0 Tottenham|
|December 23, 1978||Tottenham 0-5 Arsenal|
|April 4, 1983||Tottenham 5-0 Arsenal|
|December 26, 1983||Tottenham 2-4 Arsenal|
So although the 3-2 win for Arsenal on 10 September 1988 was not exactly commonplace it was not that unusual. What was unusual was that all five goals came in 12 minutes in the first half.
For the first Tony Adams decided to throw away years of drilling under Graham, and waltzed 40 yards up the pitch before passing to Nigel Winterburn and scored with a shot from outside of the boot. Who, the pair seemed to be saying, needed forwards?
Tottenham retaliated and Chris Waddle scored. Brian Marwood and Alan Smith gave us a 1-3 lead before Paul Gascoigne, having somehow contrived to lose his boot, still managed to score. 2-3, and that’s where it stayed.
Man of the match however was Paul Davis who was at the time being tipped for England honours (but of course didn’t make it with his country, not least because he was the wrong sort of player for Bobby Robson).
After the game George Graham pronounced that he would sooner win a game 3-2 than 1-0. and everyone took note. But at that time we hadn’t had the season in which Arsenal were the lowest scores in the league, and had the meanest defence in the league.
No thought then that Arsenal would face Liverpool in the last match of the season, and win by the two clear goals needed.