"Son, we're going to Wembley! WE'RE GOING TO WEMBLEY!"
Well, not quite. In the end my dad could only get his hands on one ticket for the 1987 League Cup final so I watched Charlie Nicholas defy the curse of Ian Rush* from my living room, occasionally venturing into the garden to relay score updates my mum patently didn't want.
I had to wait another year for my first trip to Wembley and that car crash of a defeat to Luton Town. But I'll always treasure the night of March 4, 1987, when Arsenal beat Tottenham in an epic semi-final replay. The crackling radio commentary, my dad's unbridled joy, the realisation that - finally - my team might win a trophy and earn me bragging rights at school after years of taunts from other, luckier football fans.
The events now have added poignancy because it was the late, great David Rocastle who struck the decisive blow, latching onto Ian Allinson's deflected shot and squeezing the ball under Ray Clemence. His grin and the hand gesture that suggested Spurs and their fans had been 'all talk' as he was engulfed by celebrating team-mates… it's still crystal clear to Arsenal fans of a certain age.
"It was the late, great David Rocastle who struck the decisive blow, latching onto Ian Allinson's deflected shot and squeezing the ball under Ray Clemence"
Naturally Rocastle's winner gets the attention when another anniversary comes and goes, and indeed it was a game very much of its time - whoever hears of a semi-final replay these days? But what's often overlooked is the size of the task that faced Arsenal in the second leg of that tie at White Hart Lane. Two down on aggregate with 45 minutes to play against a Tottenham team studded with star quality? Now that was a big ask.
Some context: in 1987 Tottenham were north London's top dogs. They would contest the FA Cup final later that year - losing to Coventry City - and they'd won a European pot and back-to-back FA Cups earlier in the decade, at a time when the famous old trophy's prestige was never questioned. What's more, with Chris Waddle, Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles, Spurs were entertaining and easy on the eye.
Arsenal, in contrast, had won one trophy in 16 years. New manager George Graham was dragging the Club out of the doldrums and his faith in a posse of young players - Rocastle, Tony Adams, Michael Thomas et al - had been rewarded with a brief appearance at the top of the old First Division at the back end of 1986.
Arsenal quickly drifted out of title contention and the general consensus was that they remained too raw to win honours. That seemed to ring true after a dominant Tottenham inflicted a 1-0 defeat at Highbury in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final and then doubled their advantage by the halfway point of the second leg - both goals scored by the clinical Clive Allen.
Graham's young team looked doomed, but the Club's re-emergence as a footballing force can arguably be traced back to their response on that muddy White Hart Lane pitch on March 1, 1987. One of those youngsters was the 20-year-old Martin Hayes, Arsenal's top scorer that season."I don't think we really did ourselves justice in the first leg," he told Arsenal.com. "On the flip side, when you go into the second game with a lot of youth and inexperience, you don't have all the baggage. You just go and you play, you see it as another game to put things right. "There were a lot of lads in that team who came through the ranks together and played games against Spurs at youth level. It hurts losing to them at any level and there was such a strong spirit within the side, and it got us through those games."We were so well drilled, we had to play a certain way, we knew that if we followed instructions then things would happen, we would get chances. We were pretty relentless, we always believed we'd get chances and we'd get back into it. And that's what happened. Everyone was so pumped up."And just in case they weren't, an off-field own goal from Tottenham gave Graham's players a helping hand. With Spurs in the box seat, their fans were told how to apply for their Wembley tickets over the tannoy. Hayes remembers it well.
"George Graham was brilliant - he was saying 'Have you lot heard that? This is what the club you are playing against are like, announcing tickets for the final'. That made it all the more sweeter [to win]"
"The announcements were being made when we were warming up before the game, and at half-time as well when we came out from the dressing room! I couldn't believe it, it seemed so unprofessional and disrespectful. But if we wanted any more inspiration then it came from that. "We thought 'Really? OK, we'll put an end to that' and I suppose it worked in our favour. The players were ready to do something about it and it added even more spice to the second half. We used it to our advantage for the rest of the tie."Arsenal striker Niall Quinn, also 20 at the time, was equally shocked. "We came out for the second half and we all turned around when we heard the announcement," he told Arsenal.com. "George Graham was brilliant - he was saying 'Have you lot heard that? This is what the club you are playing against are like, announcing tickets for the final'. That made it all the more sweeter of course because the rivalry was so intense."Viv Anderson hauled Arsenal back into the tie, converting from close range after a corner. The England right back was one of a smattering of older heads in Graham's team and gave the likes of Hayes and Quinn the security and encouragement they needed in the heat of the derby battle."It's nice to have those key, older players in certain areas," said Hayes. "When you look at Viv, Kenny [Sansom] and Dave [O'Leary] at the back and then Steve Williams in midfield, you could rely on them. Then all the younger players worked around them so the mix was very good. "They told us what was needed when it was needed. Quite possibly we wouldn't have come back without them."Another goal was required to haul Arsenal level and it came late in the second half from Quinn, sliding in at the back post to meet a right-wing cross. "I remember the joy after I scored my goal, the way we silenced the Spurs crowd and finally gave our own fans something to cheer about," he said. "They were a cocky team then, Spurs, with a cocky set of fans. They were singing Wembley songs throughout the second game and if that wasn't enough to motivate us then nothing would have been."
Those two away goals would have been enough to take Arsenal straight to Wembley in another year but Quinn's aggregate equaliser merely forced extra time. Another half-an-hour could not separate the local rivals so a replay was required. But where? A hastily-arranged coin toss would decide the venue and, after the first attempt saw the coin stick upright in the White Hart Lane mud, the second came down in Tottenham's favour.Not that it bothered the Arsenal players.
"Rocky played a blinder that night. They tried to kick him all over the park but the tougher it got the better he became"
"I can vividly remember losing the toss and George saying 'Thank God for that, we've a much better chance of beating them here'," recalled Quinn. "As soon as the toss was lost, he automatically turned it into a positive and said 'That's OK, they'll be twice as cocky next time'. Instead of feeling down, he made us feel like it was a plus."Clive Allen had the first word in the third match, as he had in the first two. But the last word went to Arsenal. They drew level eight minutes from time when substitute Allinson latched onto Paul Davis' lofted pass and beat Clemence at his near post. Then Rocastle applied the coup de grace in front of the travelling Arsenal fans."It was an extraordinary moment," said Quinn. "I remember going for the ball, I think I was challenging Richard Gough, and I didn't make the header and nor did he, but it actually fell behind me nicely for it to be pulled across. "It was Rocky of course who finished it off, and he had played a blinder that night. They tried to kick him all over the park but the tougher it got the better he became. It came good for him right at the end of the game."For Hayes, the intensity of the occasion muddied his memories. "There was so much going on in the replay," he said. "It was end-to-end, and strangely, out of the three games against Spurs, it's the one I remember least about - even though it's obviously the most famous. "You can get caught up in these moments, you get so focused on the job in hand, and the late goals were something of a blur."
The celebrations were something of a blur as well - "We had a few pints," noted Quinn - but Arsenal emerged from their Tottenham trilogy as a different beast. They looked and felt like a serious force now, realising their potential with victory over Liverpool in the League Cup final and then an even more dramatic win over the same opposition to snatch the league title in 1989.The events of 1987 sparked a period of success that brought 13 major trophies to Highbury in 17 years under the stewardship of Graham and Arsene Wenger. That was keenly felt by Tottenham, who won just seven of 51 derbies over the next two decades."At that time, those games against Spurs triggered our revolution," said Hayes. "It kick-started Arsenal and we took it into the league games against Spurs and everyone else. We started to feel that we had the edge, the psychological advantage over Spurs, and that went on for many years.
"There are certain trigger moments in a club's history and that tie against Tottenham was definitely one of them. It made us feel we were a force and the trophies started coming"
Quinn felt it too as he digested that League Cup semi-final triumph. "I think that was the day we knew this team was going to do something in the future," he said. "We were starting to gel and that [the replay] was the night we really got our belief. The bond grew from that moment on."We all got very excited about going to Wembley and we were just a bunch of young kids, really. It was a wonderful time in my life and you don't really appreciate it because I was trying to get back to Wembley for years and years later and it didn't really happen for me often.
"But it was wonderful, it was great to see the re-emergence of the Club. That's how it felt. With players like Paul Merson, David Rocastle, Mickey Thomas, myself, Tony Adams, Martin Hayes, we had a lot of young players. And that was the night all those lads started to become men."These men would go on to enjoy tremendous success - but first they had a small wager to settle with a particularly confident Tottenham fan."When Spurs won the first leg of that semi-final at Highbury, the next day in training George came in and said there was a real cocky Spurs supporter up in the board room and he was so confident Spurs were going through, he said to George that he would give us all a suit. "Herbie Frogg was his name, he was a tailor up in London, and he said if Arsenal turned it around he would personally buy every player at the Club a Saville Row suit. So we all headed there a few days after that famous victory, we went to London, got our suits measured and Herbie had to pay. As if losing to Arsenal wasn't bad enough for a Spurs fan!"
* Liverpool had never lost a game in which Ian Rush had scored until the 1987 League Cup final (a competition then sponsored by Littlewoods). Rush gave Liverpool the lead at Wembley before Nicholas scored twice to win the cup for Arsenal.
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