By Matthew Bazell
It’s not often that you walk away from a 5-1 victory with a feeling of sadness to go with the joy. But for thousands of Arsenal fans a sense of loss dominated a wonderful final game of the 1991/92 season.
It was the last ever game of the beloved North Bank terrace which had been a place to stand and watch football for decades. The Taylor Report was soon to dictate law and top-flight clubs would have to replace the standing areas with seats. After the game, a few thousand fans stayed behind for a couple of hours to remain in the old terrace for a little bit longer.
"Fight, sing, wherever you may be - we are the North Bank Highbury" was the chant heard two hours after the game, as the last fans left the stadium after a solemn sit-in.
As for the match itself, there were two main focuses of attention. Firstly, a win was necessary so that the old North Bank could go out in style. Secondly, there was a chance that Ian Wright could end up the league’s top goalscorer. At the start of the day he was one goal behind Tottenham’s Gary Lineker and Spurs were playing away at Old Trafford. If Lineker were to get just one goal, then Wright would need a repeat of the hat-trick that he’d scored against the Saints earlier in the season.
This first appeared on She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in November 2013
At Highbury in May 1992 the first half of Arsenal-Southampton was quiet and goalless, with the main highlight being a disallowed goal from Wright - which looked like a harsh decision. The second half however, was symbolic of the final third of the season.
Up until February, Arsenal had been inconsistent and had put up a weak defence of their title. Then everything came together with a 7-1 thrashing of a strong Sheffield Wednesday side; six of the goals coming in the space of just 20 minutes.
From that point onwards Arsenal would remain unbeaten and put in a late challenge to finish third and gain a European spot. It may have been too late to get back in the title picture but Arsenal’s rampage on the final three months of the season was thrilling.
In contradiction to his reputation, George Graham’s team were capable of playing free-flowing, entertaining football, with Limpar, Merson, Wright, Rocastle, Campbell and Smith providing a formidable attacking force.
If there was a fault with the 1991/92 team then it was the leaky defence. Overall they conceded 46 league goals, whereas the season before only 18 goals went past one of the meanest defences in English football's history.
"The old North Bank had seen some great moments over the decades and this Highbury classic was up there with some of the best"
The walloping of Southampton began when Campbell scored from a header for his 14th goal of the season. A few minutes later and we were back to square one - Glenn Cockerel scored from a Le Tissier cross to put the Saints level.
Arsenal reacted quickly and Merson made a run into the box and was brought down to earn a penalty. Lee Dixon would normally have taken the kick, but Wright was after the Golden Boot and stepped up to score his 27th league goal of the season.
Just like Campbell had done with the opener, Smith also scored a header from a corner for his 17th goal of the season. That made it 3-1. Smith and Campbell had combined brilliantly as a striking partnership the previous year to help Arsenal win the league title for a 10 time. In 1990/91, Smith would earn the second Golden Boot of his career, but on this afternoon with the clock ticking down, it looked unlikely that his team-mate Wright would achieve the same honour.
With 90 minutes gone, Wrighty was still one goal behind Lineker, who had managed to score for Spurs at Old Trafford. Wright’s chances of becoming top goal league scorer in his debut Arsenal season depended on two goals in injury time.
It was a far-fetched dream, but for the last ever game of the North Bank terrace a miracle happened.
David Seaman leapt to catch an incoming cross and fed the ball to the deadly striker. From deep inside his own half Wrighty ran in on goal, beat a couple of defenders and smashed the ball into the bottom corner.
Seaman said afterwards that he normally would have just let the ball go out for a goal-kick, but in the last split-second he decided to catch it and keep the ball in play. Wright was level with Lineker, but the icing on the cake hadn’t been spread just yet.
A minute later, Smith and Campbell made a surge into the penalty box. The ball found its way to Wright who scuffed it with his shin to make it 5-1. Of all Wright’s 29 league goals that season, it was by far the luckiest and the worst - but also the most satisfying.
The North Bank went truly ballistic. Campbell lifted Wright on his shoulders in a joyous celebration that was as messy as the goal. Not only did Ian Wright win the Golden Boot, but Arsenal would also be the league’s top scorers.
Incredibly, despite being the most lethal and exciting striker in the country, Wright was not picked by Graham Taylor for the England squad that went to Euro 92. In three lacklustre games in Euro 92 England would score just the one goal.
It may not have been a trophy-winning season, and in the end we didn’t even achieve a European spot. But the North Bank terrace was more important than any piece of silverware - and the attacking performances and great goals in the final games of the season were a wonderful send-off.
Arsenal v Southampton was a perfect conclusion to a beloved era of history. The old North Bank had seen some great moments over the decades and this Highbury classic was up there with some of the best.