What with the lockdown because of Covid19 and the media frenzy that has accompanied it I thought it would be nice to share my story of possibly the greatest evening in Arsenal’s history.
As most will know the football season in 1988/89 was interrupted by the Hillsborough disaster. That day I was in the North Bank watching Arsenal beat Newcastle on a sunny afternoon. As news trickled through on the terraces the assumption was there had been rioting at Hillsborough. News didn’t travel as fast those days. As the disaster unfolded it became clear that football would be put on hold while people were laid to rest.
The football started again, as it always does, with Arsenal in pole position for the league. Things changed: Liverpool had a new purpose to their season and Arsenal started to fold. The Liverpool v Arsenal game at Anfield was due to take place on 23rd April 1989 (I’ve still got the ticket stub) but was cancelled as it was a week after Hillsborough. Instead the league season was extended and the game was moved to become the final match of the season on 26th May 1989. As far as I know it’s the only time the top two teams have faced each other in the final game with both having the chance to win the league. Of course Arsenal needed to win by two!
I had a ticket for the original game, but I was going to struggle to get up to the rescheduled game. It was on a Friday night and I was doing exams at school at the time. Luckily a friend of my Mum knew somebody who was taking a minibus to the game and had a couple of spare seats for me and my mate. Also I didn’t have an exam that day. I’m sure my poor marks in GCSE biology haven’t altered the course of my life too much since!
The chances of Arsenal getting a win let alone a 2 goal victory were remote. Liverpool at the time were virtually unbeatable at Anfield, had won the league many times in the 80’s and had a fantastic side. Arsenal were more industrial under George Graham and hadn’t won the league for 18 years. We went to the game with hope on our side, not much else.
The Friday of the game was a glorious sunny day. The guys with the van wanted to head off early to avoid potential traffic issues on the M1/M6 (wise move) so we set off late morning from Waltham Abbey for the evening kick off. The blokes in the minibus were a nice bunch ranging in age from their 40s to us teenagers. There was plenty of booze doing the rounds and one guy smoked Ganja for the whole journey. We had a kick-about at one of the service stations and then we hit an almighty traffic jam on the M6. As we’d left so much time to get to the game we didn’t miss kick off, but the vast majority of the 3000 travelling Gooners did.
We got to Liverpool and parked up in Stanley Park. The local Scallywags were charging £1 to make sure the tyres weren’t punctured. Real entrepreneurs that lot. Anyway we made it into the away end at Anfield without any bother. When we got onto the visitors terrace there were only a handful of Arsenal fans there, the rest were stuck somewhere down the M6. The visiting supporters at Anfield were given a small corner terrace and some seats next to it in the corner of the Anfield Road end. As with all grounds at the time the fans were crowbarred into a small space with little regard for their welfare. The Kop at the other end was packed with Liverpool fans swaying backward and forward singing away. It was a very intimidating atmosphere.
Before the game the Arsenal players ran out with bouquets of flowers to honour the dead at Hillsborough. This was an amazing touch. Whoever thought that up was a genius. It went down really well with the Liverpool fans, lightened the atmosphere and maybe gave Arsenal something that wasn’t there before.
The game was a blur at the start. Liverpool really had us on the back foot and surely it was only a matter of time before they would score? Somehow Arsenal held it together with some amazing defensive play. We didn’t have much to grasp at that first half apart from holding the Champions to zero goals: an achievement in itself.
At half time the majority of the Arsenal fans arrived and squeezed into the terrace we were on. We went from having a space to sit down on to being uncomfortably squashed into a spot where it was hard to raise your hands from your sides. All terraces at the time were the same for big matches – downright dangerous.
The 2nd half started with the Liverpool fans to our left singing about how they were going to ‘do the double again’ (turns out Arsenal were the first team to win the double twice in ’98). The atmosphere was bubbling, but we didn’t think we had a goal in us until…Smith scored from a free-kick. The Liverpool players surrounded the linesman right near our corner and pressured him to give offside. I think he was turning but the referee was having none of it and awarded the goal – game on!
As the game approached the final whistle we had a great chance with Thomas, but he fluffed his lines. We thought it was game over as time was slipping away. As we know Thomas was just practising his finishing and deep in injury time flicked the ball over Grobbelaar into the net. There was bedlam in the Arsenal end for the next 30 minutes. I remember the guy next to me on the terrace thanking his God for the victory.
We saw the League Trophy presented and it then dawned on us that we had to make our way back to the minibus and get out of Liverpool with our lives intact. The first hurdle was past the mounted police who were meant to be protecting us. One of the coppers looked at me and said “you’re going to get your heads kicked in” as they trotted off into the night leaving us to our own devices. The scousers approached us but instead of giving us a beating they shook our hands and congratulated us. After Hillsborough I think the Liverpool fans had seen enough and maybe the gesture of the Arsenal players laying the flowers had helped.
Things got hairier once we were heading home in the minibus. A group of youths started throwing things at us when we were at a red light in Toxteth. Without a thought the red light was ignored and we were on our way again. A car tried to run us off the road on the M62, but that was the last problem we encountered.
There was an impromptu party at a small service station somewhere on the M62 where about 100 Gooners gathered and we all did a Conga around the forecourt. I remember somebody taking photos of the event. I’d pay good money to see those. We got back home at about 4 in the morning and my Mum had recorded the match, so I watched the last 10 minutes before heading to bed.
We met up with some of the blokes from the minibus a few times, but fell out of contact with all of them pretty quickly. There was a guy called Richard who arranged the minibus; the driver was a big ginger haired bloke; an Indian lad with long hair; Paul with the big ears; little Graham; a lad with a Celtic top and a few others I think.
At the time I thought I was hugely lucky to have been present for possibly the greatest night in Arsenal’s history. I haven’t changed my opinion over 30 years later.
What a day out that was. One I will never forget!
Pete the Thirst