Cowley's nostalgic look at the greatest night in Arsenal's history
PUBLISHED: 16:03 05 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:10 07 September 2010
Despite being editor of satirical magazine, the New Statesman, you get the impression Jason Cowley would prefer to talk about left-wingers of the Robert Pires or Anders Limpar variety, rather than Ken Livingstone or Michael Foot. Arsenal is his undiluted
Despite being editor of satirical magazine, the New Statesman, you get the impression Jason Cowley would prefer to talk about left-wingers of the Robert Pires or Anders Limpar variety, rather than Ken Livingstone or Michael Foot.
Arsenal is his undiluted passion, a love affair which began on Highbury's terraces back in the 1970s.
This man is certainly no Johnny-Come-Lately. A veteran of those dark, desperate days when Arsenal's fortunes dipped alarmingly, as did the Highbury crowds, which would regularly drop well below a third of the current 60,000 who pile into the Emirates each home game.
But the decade was to end in the most glorious fashion.
Which bring us to his latest work - The Last Game: Love, Death and Football, his own story of Arsenal's famous 2-0 title-winning win at Anfield 20 years ago next month.
But, as he and the book's publishers, Simon & Schuster, stress, there's a bit more to it than just one game.
"I originally wanted to just write a book about that game, but then I changed my mind," he explains.
What's evolved is a thought-provoking, and thoroughly absorbing, read on Cowley's boyhood experiences as a fan, his relationship with his father - and the huge social trends and global events beginning to shape the 1990s and beyond as Michael Thomas scored that immortal winner.
Those who have read Fever Pitch - which also culminates on that balmy May night at Anfield - may think they've heard it all before. Not so, says Cowley.
"As I said, initially this was going to be a smaller project, just about that remarkable game at Anfield and Arsenal's 1988/89 season," he says.
"But as I began to work on it I quickly realised I needed to texturise it. This period - and for me, this game - was the end of 'old' football, with the Hillsborough Disaster kickstarting huge change in the game.
"In addition, Thatcherism was coming to an end, the Berlin Wall came down that year ... many other things were happening in society that made it a remarkable time.
"As the book developed it became much more personal too, about me and my relationship with my father, but," he adds, perhaps mindful of comparisons with Fever Pitch, "this is not an autobiography."
For those under 30, football in the 80s looks dowdy, miserable, played out in empty, dilapidated stadia with hooligans running amok unchallenged.
Cowley, like many football fans of his age - early 40s - has far fonder memories of that time.
"I love the old culture, I am nostalgic, I lived that era," he says. "There are so many things about 'old' football that I dearly miss; the atmosphere was much better, for example.
"And you could just turn up on the day and pay at the turnstile, knowing you could stand together with all your mates. It was affordable too. That's all gone, certainly at Arsenal and most of the Premier League, and I find that sad."
That said, his view of football past is not completely rose-tinted.
"I hated the violence, hated it. It was horrible and ruined the game for a while," he recalls.
"I hated the racism. It was beyond the pale. At Arsenal we have always been lucky because the crowd was more multi-racial than most; we had Turks, Greeks, black fans ... that has always been a huge positive about supporting Arsenal.
"But we did have anti-Semitic chants aimed at Tottenham. It's awful, but, thankfully, you rarely hear it these days."
Touching on the darker side of football supporters, one part of his book focuses on Dainton Connell, a thuggish hooligan to some, but 'terrace legend' to many.
Connell, who worked as a minder and manager for the Pet Shop Boys for almost 20 years, died in 2007 in a car accident in Moscow.
Fanzines devoted pages to Connell, hardened, middle-aged, ex-hooligans openly wept, his obituary even appeared in the pages of the Guardian, while an unofficial shrine remains outside the Emirates.
An estimated 2,000 mourners marched down Holloway Road in memory of 'The Bear'.
"I went along," admits Cowley. "I didn't know the guy personally, but in my earlier years sometimes pretended that I did, like many younger lads did.
"I just wanted to observe this memorial march, which was incredible. Celebrities like Matt Lucas and David Walliams were there, so was Lee Dixon and Ian Wright.
Journalist Janet Street-Porter and former boxer Frank Bruno also joined them.
"Everybody had heard of him 25-30 years ago. He was admired because he was a black hooligan and played a major part in keeping the National Front out of Highbury.
"He commanded huge respect at a time when racism was massive. Racists had infiltrated many other fans, but not at Highbury.
"The man fascinated me. He was an ambivalent figure - he did lots of bad things - but then so did many of my friends who I used to travel to Highbury with from Essex... many ended up in prison. He clearly left a positive effect with so many and changed as he got older."
But while Cowley, who previously edited Observer Sport Monthly and Granta magazine, admits to longing for the past, he also appreciates the here and now.
"Going to the Emirates is a fantastic, comfortable experience. The stadium is superb and the football Arsene Wenger's multi-racial teams have given us is just amazing.
"The team with Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp all playing at their best takes some beating, doesn't it.
"I loved the 1998 Double side with that wonderful English backbone of David Seaman, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon and Ray Parlour and the foreign blend of Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Nicolas Anelka... that was some team.
"People have to understand after growing up with no titles for many, many years we were not a glamorous club. Even West Ham and Spurs were above us in the table and playing with more style - now we are simply bigger than that, and not even competing with them. We are aiming for the AC Milans and Real Madrids.
"Now, for example, when I go to Africa on business, everybody has heard of Arsenal and our players.
"Before players were far more accessible, but those days at the top level have gone, maybe not at Brighton or Watford, but certainly at Arsenal.
"That is understandable, clubs have to protect their players who are now global superstars. It is sad, but true.
"I mean, I love the Emirates, but I would have much preferred us to stay and redevelop Highbury, but it wasn't to be, that is the way of the world.
"Football changed after that win at Anfield. For me it was like the last kick of the 80's - and the beginning of the end of 'old' football."
The Last Game: Love, Death And Football by Jason Cowley (Simon and Schuster) £14.99 is out now.
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