It’s been hailed as the greatest climax to a League title race in English football… that unforgettable night at Anfield in May 1989 when Arsenal snatched the crown from Liverpool with almost the last kick of the season.
Thirty years on from that epic encounter, Sky Sports asked key figures on both sides to share their memories.
It was the last match of the 1988-89 season. Eighteen million viewers tuned in live to see which of the two teams would be champions. Arsenal, three points behind the leaders, had to win by two clear goals to snatch the title away from them.
Liverpool, however, had already won the FA Cup and were the team in form…
Liverpool vs Arsenal
August 24, 2019, 5:00pm
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Michael Thomas (Arsenal 1984-1991): “They were just rattling off win after win after win and they weren’t 1-0 wins, they were winning convincingly by three or four. They had the whole of the nation behind them – and rightly so – and the pressure was on us.”
The last few weeks of the season had been overshadowed by the tragic events at Hillsborough. As a result the highly-anticipated meeting of these two title rivals had been delayed until the end of May.
John Aldridge (Liverpool 1987-1989): “It was a case of trying to get over the line and win the Double for the fans and obviously for the Hillsborough people. That was the thing that played on our minds – we were desperate, desperate to do it.”
George Graham (Arsenal manager 1986-1995): “It was a great gesture by Ken Friar, one of the bosses at Arsenal, to have the players go out with a bouquet of flowers and throw them to the Liverpool fans. It was a fantastic gesture.”
Though the first half was keenly contested there were few clear-cut chances. Both sides seemed reluctant to over-commit.
Ray Houghton (Liverpool 1987-1992): “I think we were anticipating Arsenal coming onto us and really putting us under pressure because they had to force the issue – but it wasn’t that way. Maybe their game plan was to see what we were going to do.”
George Graham: “Everybody was telling me that you’ve got to go up there and, from the word go, go out and attack them. I said ‘no, we’ll try to be cautious’. The only thing I didn’t expect was that Liverpool would think the same.”
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Ray Houghton: “At half time sitting in the changing room we felt very comfortable. We knew they would have to do some attacking but, in doing that, it did leave them vulnerable to the counter attack.”
George Graham: “I said they’re going to be nervous if we score and they’re going to have to come at us. I said we’ll then get the second and, with a bit of luck, we might even get three. Anyway, they all looked at me as if I was crazy!”
Early in the second half Arsenal were awarded a free kick outside the Liverpool penalty area.
Alan Smith (Arsenal 1987-1995): “We practised that free kick so much in training and used it so many times in matches but it never came off. We thought ‘oh no – we’re not going to try this one again!'”
This time it did work. Smith converted Nigel Winterburn’s delivery with a glancing header. Liverpool’s players surrounded the referee in protest.
Ray Houghton: “We didn’t think Alan got a touch on it – we thought that when the ball was played in for the free kick it had gone straight into the goal.”
Alan Smith: “We were all convinced that the referee was going to disallow it having spoken to the linesman. When he’s pointed to the centre circle you’re thinking ‘wow’, we’ve got the first goal here.”
Ray Houghton: “It was a game-changing moment because all of a sudden you could see that Arsenal are thinking ‘we only need one more’.
Arsenal feared their chance had come and gone when Michael Thomas prodded a shot straight at the Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar.
Michael Thomas: “I thought I had players both sides of me. I see it now on the TV and I had plenty of time to bury it. I panicked. I didn’t panic the second time!”
With a minute remaining it looked like Liverpool would lose the game – but win the title.
Ray Houghton: “The way things had gone at that stage you’re thinking you’ve done it. You’ve done enough now. Be professional and keep doing what you’re doing. It was very difficult to see Arsenal getting another goal.”
George Graham: “Stupid me, I started thinking I’ve got to say to the press and the media ‘we give it our all but we were a goal short – we give it our all.'”
There were just seconds remaining when John Barnes won the ball in Arsenal’s half – and headed for goal.
John Aldridge: “Barnes found himself on the right hand side. He wanted to get a draw, wanted to try to win the game. He went for goal – but the last touch went to the keeper.”
As Arsenal keeper John Lukic shaped to throw the ball to Lee Dixon in space, Aldridge was in front of him. He says he thought of stopping the ball with his hands.
John Aldridge: “My hands go up and then down. I don’t know to this day what stopped me from doing it. You take the hit for the team, you take the yellow – a red card even! But something told me not to do it. I regret that so much.”Dixon’s ball out of defence found Alan Smith.
Alan Smith: “I’ve just seen this yellow blur in my peripheral vision. It was Michael making one of those barnstorming runs.”
Ray Houghton: “When I’ve seen the play developing over on the right hand side I’m now running back to try to get into position.”
When the ball bounced kindly for him via a deflection from Steve Nicol, Michael Thomas found himself through on Grobbelaar’s goal.
Michael Thomas: “And then it’s who’s going to show their hand first – me or Bruce? I was waiting for him to show his hand and luckily he did. Otherwise Ray Houghton would have tackled me.”
Ray Houghton: “That’s my biggest regret on the pitch to this day. Someone sent me a photograph of Michael going through and me lying on the floor being very close to him. I should have brought him down – simple as that.”
Thomas lifted the ball over Grobbelaar. Arsenal had their two-goal lead. Liverpool had no time to react.
George Graham: “I’m thinking ‘My God!’ – I didn’t know how to handle it. I really didn’t. I wasn’t the type to run around all over the place but it was probably the best moment of my career in football – period.”
At the final whistle George Graham’s side celebrated Arsenal’s first League title triumph since 1971. It was a moment of high drama – and contrasting emotions.
John Aldridge: “It was just gut-wrenching. David O’Leary tried to pull me up and I fobbed him off. Dave’s a mate of mine but that epitomised how we felt. It was like someone had ripped your stomach out because we were desperate to do it for the fans.”
Michael Thomas: “I feel very proud about that moment, what I’ve achieved in the game and the fact that I achieved it with the players I grew up with in the Arsenal youth team.
“The only person I miss to share that moment with is David Rocastle because we grew up playing schoolboy football together in south London schools. Sadly he passed but we miss him deeply – very deeply.”
Alan Smith: “I remember sitting back in the dressing room, sipping on a little cup of champagne and somebody said `lads, we might as well retire now, it’s never going to get any better than this.