The newspaper headlines in the lead-up to the Division One climax on May 26, 1989 have become almost as famous as the titanic title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal itself.
The Gunners had failed to win either of their final two league matches at Highbury – in fact they lost to Derby County before drawing with Wimbledon – while defending champions Liverpool hammered West Ham United 5-1 in their penultimate game of the season.
That left George Graham’s men sitting three points behind the leaders, needing to win by two clear goals to capture their first league title since 1971. To all intents and purposes, the Gunners were written off.
The Daily Mirror yelled “You don’t have a prayer Arsenal”, and in light of Arsenal’s Highbury meltdown, The People claimed: “George Graham tried to put on a brave face and even forced a weak smile. But behind it was the haunted look of a man ready to reach for the cyanide tablets.”
Yet it was The Sun’s heading – “Men against boys” – that became the most infamous of all the tabloid assessments of Arsenal’s chances. In an interview with Ken Gallagher, former Liverpool star Graeme Souness claimed: “The November night I watched Liverpool beat Arsenal in the Littlewoods Cup at Villa Park [a second replay] also told me who would be champions. It was a case of men against boys and my old Anfield team were the gaffers for the whole 90 minutes.”
By late May, Kenny Dalglish’s side had gone more than 20 matches unbeaten, and no team had won by two clear goals at Anfield for three years. But there were a number of things that Souness and the press had overlooked: Arsenal had been formidable on their travels that season, losing just three times, and The Sun article neglected to refer to the initial November Littlewoods Cup clash at Anfield, where a huge Arsenal following watched the Gunners draw 1-1 and come close to grabbing a winner.
Still the 3,000 supporters who travelled north on May 26 boarded the coaches and trains more in hope than expectation. Even the normally optimistic London newspapers appeared to have given up hope on Arsenal’s title challenge, with The Evening Standard conceding, “Barring a miracle Liverpool now look certain to end this harrowing season with a record 18th league title as a memorial to those who died at Hillsborough.”
The Arsenal players were taciturn in the lead-up. “George told us not to stoke the fires beforehand,” recalls Perry Groves. “He told us that he would handle the press in the lead-up, and that we were to focus only on the game.”
At their team hotel following a pre-match meal, Graham asked the dining room staff to vacate the room, where he delivered arguably the most prophetic speech in English football history. After briefly referring directly to the “Men against boys” article (the players claim this was the only time he referred to a specific article in front of them), he set out his grand vision for the game. “Be patient – we don’t want the game won in the first five minutes. If it’s 0-0 at half time I won’t mind. Score early in the second half and Liverpool won’t know whether to go forward or defend and then the next goal will come. You’ve got nothing to lose. Go out and play and don’t be frightened.”
When the Arsenal players – average age 21 – ran on to the pitch, each of them carried sprays of red roses and laid them in front of the Kop in memorial for the Hillsborough victims. On a calm summer evening, the early stages were something of a phoney war, with both sides probing for weaknesses. Arsenal trudged in at half time defiant and unbowed.
Alan Smith recalls, “George Graham reminded us not to panic about the game being goalless, and that he was confident we would score early in the second half.” With 52 minutes elapsed, Nigel Winterburn curled in an indirect free kick, and Smith glided in to guide the ball into the bottom corner of the Liverpool net.
A wave of confidence swept through the Arsenal players. Mickey Thomas probed Liverpool’s backline. David Rocastle pushed further and further forward. The bite offered by Kevin Richardson in midfield was never better illustrated by his tackle on Ray Houghton late on, which signalled how Arsenal’s midfield had been on top for much of the match.
But for all of Arsenal’s gallant efforts, they looked set to fall agonisingly short. As John Barnes slalomed his way into the right-hand side of Arsenal’s penalty area, Richardson dispossessed the Liverpool winger and tapped the ball back to Lukic. In a scene that is now part of cinematic history, Lukic threw the ball out to Dixon, and his measured pass found Smith. And then…
For so long castigated as a typical Arsenal buy – safe and unadventurous and described harshly by a tabloid hack as “a man with the charisma of a regional sales manager from Slough” – Smith chested it down and knocked the ball on to the galloping Thomas. Despite being surrounded by a pack of Liverpool defenders, a lucky break off Steve Nicol’s legs put him clean through against Grobbelaar, face to face with Arsenal immortality.
Thomas waited for the Zimbabwe stopper to commit himself. The Anfield crowd, whistling for the end, fell into silence. Grobbelaar moved low to his right, and Thomas, dropping his shoulder, flicked the ball to the goalkeeper’s left and scored.
As Thomas performed his somersault on the pitch, and the sea of blue-and-yellow clad Arsenal fans bobbed up and down in the far corner in jubilation, the camera panned to Kenny Dalglish slumped against the dugout and scarcely able to take on board what he’d just witnessed.
Almost in the blink of an eye, tabloid writers were forced to change their headlines: KING GEORGE! (The Sun), MICKEY TAKERS! BY GEORGE THEY’VE DONE IT! (Daily Star) and MIRACLE MEN (Daily Mirror) reflected the fact that in the space of 90 minutes, George Graham’s “boys” had come of age in the most dramatic of circumstances.