Alan Smith remembers Anfield '89: 'We'll never see the like again'
'89' is available to watch On Demand from Friday evening.
Last Updated: 08/05/20 7:34pm
Sky Sports pundit and former Arsenal forward Alan Smith looks back at one of the most dramatic games in English football history: Arsenal's 1989 First Division title win courtesy of Michael Thomas' last-gasp goal in a 2-0 victory at Liverpool.
I was at the Football Writers' Dinner when news filtered through of the score at Anfield. Liverpool's penultimate game of the season against West Ham was going to set the scene for a title showdown, now rescheduled for May 26 1989 when every other club had finished their season.
5-1 it finished to the home team. 5-1! In a room full of journalists it wasn't long before someone worked out that my Arsenal side had to beat Liverpool the following Friday by two clear goals. If we could only pull that off, we'd finish level on points and goal difference with the reigning champions, but win the league having scored more goals.
That's how tight it was in a campaign scarred by Hillsborough when 94 people (eventually to become 96) tragically lost their lives. 15th April: I watched our home game against Newcastle from the stand that day after fracturing my cheekbone on the training ground.
At half-time I walked into the players' lounge halfway up Highbury's tunnel to check on the scores, only to see pictures from Hillsborough, venue for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Some kind of disturbance had obviously occurred so I rushed up to the dressing room to tell the lads. Only at the end of our 1-0 win did we start to learn about the full horrors.
That changed everything. Liverpool suspended their fixtures, which included Arsenal's trip to Anfield, and everyone else soon followed suit. For a time, nobody knew if the season would continue. How could we carry on amid so much suffering?
But carry on we did following a pause and after tripping up in our final two home games, a defeat to Derby and draw with Wimbledon, all attention turned to the duel on Merseyside.
Matchday: the lads wander in one by one, not knowing this day would go down in history. As usual, one or two newspapers lay about the place and none of them fancied our chances one bit.
Not surprising really. We're talking about a Liverpool team that had gone on a fantastic run since the turn of the year, a team featuring Alan Hansen, John Barnes, Ian Rush and Peter Beardsley - wonderful talents performing for a club that had dominated English football for a good 16 years while also picking up four European Cups. For them, losing was unusual but losing at Anfield was even more so, never mind by a two-goal margin. So yes, we're talking about an uphill task to put it mildly. No wonder the bookies gave us little chance.
For that reason, we travelled up to Liverpool on that sunny Friday morning feeling fairly relaxed. What did we have to lose? Might as well give it a go.
George Graham, however, changed our mindset a bit with his teamtalk at our hotel. Following an afternoon kip and some tea and toast, the gaffer got out the flip chart and went through our game plan.
Switching to five at the back definitely shocked us. We'd got this far with a back four so why change now for such a huge game? But George was adamant. Because he regarded Ray Houghton and Barnes as a big threat, the boss wanted wing-backs, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, to push up tight.
Surprising us further, he kept banging on about keeping a clean sheet. "We don't want to go chasing the game just because we've got to score two goals", he said. "I want us to be nice and patient, stay solid and frustrate 'em. Let's see how they react."
Those instructions were later repeated in the dressing room, before George stood by the door to shake everyone's hand. That, in itself, had never been known. If we didn't realise before, the enormity of the occasion suddenly hit home.
First Division Table: Pre-game
And I'll never forget the noise once we'd handed out flowers to supporters as a mark of respect for Hillsborough. It was deafening. After so much mourning, at least the next 90 minutes could offer some respite.
Not that the crowd had much to admire in that first half. The pace was unrelenting as tackle after hefty tackle found its mark with little complaint. Watching the game back, that aspect hit me like a hammer. Playacting in this country had yet to properly catch on. The game, meanwhile, refused to settle into any kind of rhythm.
We trooped in at half-time feeling deflated. Apart from one half-chance for Stevie Bould, we'd hardly got near Liverpool's goal. But George was more upbeat. "Brilliant lads! Just what I wanted. Now we just need to push on a bit more and that first goal will come. Then we'll get two and maybe a third."
We looked at the boss and wondered what he'd been drinking! Even so, those words sent us back out full of belief. And he was right. That first goal did soon come in the shape of my header, a well-rehearsed routine that had never worked before.
But wait! The Liverpool lads crowded round the referee and linesman who had come together for a conflab. For whatever reason (I've never found out), those players were convinced the goal should be disallowed. Thankfully, the ref was having none of it and eventually pointed to the centre spot.
Game on. The noise got even louder as our own fans celebrated and the home crowd screamed desperately for a reaction. Yet the Liverpool lads just couldn't raise it. Tired? Emotionally drained? You could forgive them for both. But we certainly didn't help, stepping up our intensity even more in search of the second.
It didn't seem long until the Kop began whistling for full-time. With no clock in the ground, we had to rely on hand signals from the bench. Just before the big moment, though, Lee Dixon asked the ref how long was left. "It's done", he said bluntly. "It's done."
Not quite. Down with cramp seconds before, Kevin Richardson nicks the ball off Barnes who had headed for goal instead of the corner flag. Kev rolls it back to John Lukic who, for some reason, decides to throw it to Lee instead of punting it forward.
I instinctively show for the pass and Lee finds me with a beauty. I take a chance with a turn on my first touch and it comes off perfectly. Head down, I see a flash of yellow out of the corner of my eye and try to find that flash with a dinked pass.
It was Michael Thomas, making the kind of lung-bursting run he had all night. A lucky break of the ball sees him through on goal, at which point the action really does seem to move into slow motion.
None of us, you see, could do anything to help. And all of us could see the red shirts converging. As one of the most laid back characters around, we feared that Mickey was going to leave it too late. After all, he always did everything in his own time. But no. He was just waiting for Bruce Grobbelaar to make his move before making his - a casual flick over the keeper's diving body.
Final First Division table
Bedlam. Chaos. Ecstasy. A few of us briefly rushed to our back-flipping hero before veering away to our fans in the corner. "Come on lads, back in your own half." Apparently the ref still had time on his watch.
Not much though. A long kick from Lukey and the final whistle announced an incredible feat. Anfield could barely believe what it had just seen. And amid all the euphoria in the away camp, it didn't go unnoticed that many Liverpool fans stayed around to applaud us afterwards. That meant a lot given the circumstances.
Back in the dressing room, you can imagine the scenes. Barnes and Beardsley popped their heads round to say well done and the home team's champagne came our way too.
Then one of our boys, I can't remember who, came out with something that stood the test of time. "Lads, we might as well retire now. Because it's never going to get any better than this!"
He was right. It never would, even for those who won the Double with Arsene Wenger.
In terms of drama, people talk about Sergio Aguero's last-gasp goal in 2012 to win the title for Manchester City. Of course it was sensational, the stand-out moment of the Premier League. But it came at home against a QPR side fighting relegation.
This was different. A stand-alone showdown between the two title contenders in front of a TV audience approaching 18 million. Anfield 89: we'll never see the like again.
'89' is available to watch On Demand from Friday evening.