EXCLUSIVE: George Graham recalls the glory of Anfield ’89
On Tuesday, Arsenal supporters in north London and beyond will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the most remarkable title win in football history. Michael Thomas s injury-time goal, helping Arsenal snatch the 1989 league championship from Liverpool with
On Tuesday, Arsenal supporters in north London and beyond will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the most remarkable title win in football history. Michael Thomas's injury-time goal, helping Arsenal snatch the 1989 league championship from Liverpool with virtually the last kick, remains an iconic moment in English sport. The man who masterminded that stunning victory, former manager George Graham, tells JEM MAIDMENT his personal story of that intoxicating night
If you watch the scenes at the final whistle, as Arsenal's young side raucously celebrate winning their first title in 18 years, among the throng of yellow-shirted victors stands a typically dapper George Graham.
His club shirt, club tie and club blazer are immaculate, he hasn't a hair out of place, despite an absorbing and exhausting 90 minutes culminating in a heart-stopping moment of triumph.
The 44-year-old Scot showed dignity and class despite the high emotion, urging his young players to show equal restraint in front of their beaten hosts.
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Fat chance of that. He remained, however, the epitome of cool reserve. "I'm not sure about that," laughed Graham, who had been a part of Arsenal's previous title win in 1971 as a player.
"I wasn't being cool, it wasn't pre-planned or anything like that. If I'm completely honest I was in deep, deep shock, believe me.
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"Moments earlier I'd been thinking how well my team had played and how they'd put in such a magnificent effort.
"They'd done their best and, even if we were not going to win the title, I was so proud of them.
"Then, it all changed..."
Arsenal, leading 1-0 through Alan Smith's disputed header early in the second half, needed another goal to stop Liverpool from winning their seventh title of the decade.
Inferior goal difference meant a victory by two-clear goals was required. No visiting side at Anfield had managed it since 1986.
"That, in itself, was a huge ask," recalled Graham. "They were the dominant side of the age by some margin. Teams did not go to Anfield and win 2-0."
The night had started with what Graham called a "magnificent gesture" by the club, when Arsenal players ran to all four corners of the ground to hand flowers to Liverpool fans as a show of sympathy following the Hillsborough disaster the previous month.
"It was a decision made by the directors, I think," he said. "It was typical of Arsenal and showed class.
"We had enormous sympathy for the Liverpool fans and families of those who died, so the players were each given a bouquet as they lined up in the tunnel.
"In actual fact, a similar gesture had been made during a friendly between Arsenal and Dynamo Moscow back before the war."
But that charitable attitude ended from the first whistle, with a fired-up Arsenal giving no quarter to the hosts as they looked to make amends after stuttering badly in previous weeks. A shock 1-2 home defeat to Derby, followed by a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon at Highbury, looked to have buried Arsenal's title hopes at the final hurdle. Graham, however, remained confident of getting the result against all odds - and, according to Highbury folklore, predicted exactly how the game would pan out.
But is that really true? "I simply told my players to keep things tight in the first half - it was imperative we did not concede," he recalled. "The papers were saying we'd have to attack from the off, but I was adamant that was wrong. We had nothing to lose and I think that our lads were actually quite relaxed. Liverpool, on the other hand, started cautiously.
"If Liverpool had scored an early goal it would have been over. But they did very little attacking and played into our hands.
"I drummed it into the lads 0-0 at half-time would be fine. Then we could go and get an early goal after the break - which we did - and then really go for it in the final 20 minutes because Liverpool would be nervous.
"My plan went almost perfectly - although I actually expected us to get a third," he smiled.
When Michael Thomas raced through on goal in injury time to prod the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar, it was a fairytale ending beyond any Arsenal fan's wildest dreams.
Graham said the Lambeth-born midfielder was the perfect man in that situation. "Michael was the most relaxed, laid-back person around I can't recall anyone quite like him. He's a quiet guy.
"In training I really had to gee him up and say 'come on Michael, get moving, show us something'. But when he ran through he was exactly the kind of guy you wanted in that situation because nothing ever fazed him. The occasion would not get to him... well, it didn't did it?"
The goal meant Graham had successfully carried out his mission statement on arriving as manager in May 1986, when he asked for three years to win the title. After the game, the team coach bounced back down the M6 as players, management and directors celebrated long and hard. But while most headed off to a north London nightclub to continue the celebrations - the name and venue varies depending on who you speak to - Graham, again, showed reserve.
"The nightclub wasn't for me. We got back to north London in the early hours and I went straight home with my kids and then went to bed," he said.
"I was exhausted and just wanted to get away from it all, so the next morning I went up to Scotland to play golf with my brother."
But he could not escape his mammoth achievements even at the relative sanctuary of the Western Gailes Golf Club in Ayrshire.
"It's funny," he smiled, "but that game was the first ever English league match to be shown live in Scotland, although that is not widely known.
"We were having a lovely game and I was very relaxed, then I remember this chap coming up to me and saying I looked like the Arsenal manager on the telly the night before. So no, even there I couldn't get away from it... even for a few hours."
In the pantheon of great Arsenal wins, it remains at the very top of the tree and Graham admits he never tires of being reminded of it.
"It's nice to look back on it. I can't see it being matched for pure drama. I am immensely proud of what we achieved.
"The most gratifying thing for me being manager of the Arsenal - and really this is what the job should be all about it - is that we managed to give our fans some wonderful memories.
"That night at Anfield and when we beat Parma a few years later in the Cup-Winners' Cup final stand out in many ways because they were achieved against all the odds, which is how we liked it.
"To give our fans nights like those makes me very happy. We didn't do too badly, did we?