Relive the most dramatic final day ever: 1989, the year Arsenal stole the title off Liverpool

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The fight for the title will be decided on Sunday after what has been the tightest duel since Sergio Aguero‘s heroics for Manchester City in 2012.

But neither this campaign, nor Aguero’s dramatic winner, rival what happened 30 years ago when league leaders Liverpool faced second-placed Arsenal in the last match of the season. Nearly 42,000 were at Anfield while eight million tuned in to watch on ITV.

Those clubs will never forget what happened on Friday, May 26, 1989 — the most remarkable final day in football history.

Thirty years ago saw the most remarkable final day of a top-flight season in football history

Thirty years ago saw the most remarkable final day of a top-flight season in football history 

THE BUILD-UP

This fixture was rearranged after the Hillsborough disaster on April 15. Kenny Dalglish’s side resumed their season on May 3 after a period of mourning and had to play eight games in 23 days.

Arsenal, who were trying to win the title for the first time since 1971, had been in control of the race before faltering on the run-in.

Liverpool, the defending champions, had won 17 of their last 18 fixtures in all competitions. They were expected to win again.

ALAN SMITH (Arsenal)

On the Tuesday before the game, we were at the Football Writers’ dinner while Liverpool were playing West Ham at Anfield. We kept getting reports through that they had scored — and scored again. They won 5-1 to go top.

Leroy Rosenior scored for West Ham in the first half and that was huge, as it meant we had to win by two clear goals to take the title on goals scored. Leroy is an Arsenal fan and always tells us he did his bit! We knew what we had to do but nobody gave us a chance.

George Graham's Arsenal needed to win by two-clear goals to snatch the title off Liverpool

George Graham’s Arsenal needed to win by two-clear goals to snatch the title off Liverpool 

JOHN BARNES (Liverpool)

That whole period is a blur. We only carried on with the season with the blessing of the bereaved families. We had beaten Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup final the previous Saturday, then beat West Ham.

NIGEL WINTERBURN (Arsenal)

You have to remember it wasn’t even ‘winner takes all’. We had to be perfect in everything we did. I’ll never forget the noise beforehand. The place was absolutely rocking.

SMITH (Arsenal)

We were conscious of the emotion surrounding Hillsborough. Ken Friar, our secretary, had an idea we should make a gesture and each player came out with a bouquet of flowers. We separated and gave them to all four sides of Anfield. It was very poignant.

KENNY DALGLISH (Liverpool)

Mutual respect defined relations between the clubs. I know some people felt Arsenal were trying to push Hillsborough back into Liverpool minds with the flowers. Personally, I felt they were a touch of class from a classy club.

THE GAME

Liverpool hadn’t lost by two goals at Anfield since February 1986, but Arsenal manager George Graham hatched a plan. He used Steve Bould as a third central defender and his 3-5-2 system was designed to frustrate. To make matters worse for Liverpool, they suffered an early injury blow.

IAN RUSH (Liverpool)

I had struggled with my fitness all season. I wasn’t supposed to play in the FA Cup final but Kenny persuaded me to go on the bench. I came on and scored two, then I started against West Ham. Early on against Arsenal, I had a shot and my adductor went. My body was tired and unfortunately it was a game too many.

A fatigued Ian Rush had to be replaced in the first half for Liverpool pulling his adductor

A fatigued Ian Rush had to be replaced in the first half for Liverpool pulling his adductor

WINTERBURN (Arsenal)

It was not in Liverpool’s nature to sit back and try to defend but George told us to keep it tight and, if we could score, they would panic. It was just a question of a chance.

THE KEY MOMENTS

There were no goals in the first half but the complexion of the game changed dramatically eight minutes into the second half when Arsenal won a free-kick.

BRIAN MOORE (ITV commentary)

‘Winterburn and Richardson are behind it, Adams has made a darting run and there is Smith! Liverpool’s players are surrounding the referee, asking him to speak to the linesman… but the goal has been given! What a game we have now!

WINTERBURN (Arsenal)

For 30 years, Smudge has been telling people it was his goal, but you know what strikers are like!

SMITH (Arsenal)

It was an indirect free-kick, so if I hadn’t touched it, it wouldn’t have counted! Ronnie Whelan and Steve Nicol went to the ref to complain as the ball hadn’t changed direction. I am always asked, but yes — I definitely touched it.

BARNES (Liverpool)

John Aldridge tells me that after the goal, he started to feel tired. The game and the occasion didn’t get to us — and we were not complacent — but maybe the physical effort took its toll.

The 42,000 fans at Anfied began to feel the nerves when Alan Smith scored Arsenal's first goal

The 42,000 fans at Anfied began to feel the nerves when Alan Smith scored Arsenal’s first goal

With time running out and one goal not enough, Liverpool’s Steve McMahon was seen on camera telling his team-mates there was a minute left, as Barnes took the ball into Arsenal’s half.

MOORE (ITV)

‘Barnes will not be denied… or yes, he will! By Richardson! Now Arsenal come streaming forward. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith… on for Thomas! Charging through the midfield! Thomas…. It’s up for grabs now! Thomas! Right at the end! An unbelievable climax to the league season!’

SMITH (Arsenal)

Lee Dixon told me the ref had said to him, ‘It’s over, it’s over!’ When he played the ball up, I just wanted to get a touch on it for Michael Thomas. God, he was so good that night. I just saw a blur of him.

With almost the last kick, Michael Thomas ran through to score a title-winning goal

With almost the last kick, Michael Thomas ran through to score a title-winning goal

RUSH (Liverpool)

I was on the bench next to Barry Venison, our other substitute. I was about to take my tracksuit top off, to go on the pitch at the end, but Barry said: ‘Don’t do it! I did the same in the last minute against Everton at Wembley and they scored!’ I said, don’t be daft, it’s not going to happen again!

BARNES (Liverpool)

I make light of it when I talk about it, why can’t they blame the person who gave the ball to me. If he hadn’t passed it, I wouldn’t have lost it! But, seriously, you can’t talk about winning or losing the league in one incident. We didn’t lose the title because I never went into the corner or West Ham scored on the Tuesday. Liverpool didn’t lose the league in 2014 because Gerrard slipped. It’s decided by what happens in an entire season.

THE AFTERMATH

At full-time, Liverpool players fell to the floor. Arsenal were delirious.

BARNES (Liverpool)

What happened afterwards was the essence of Liverpool. The previous year, when we had won the league, Ronnie Moran threw our medals at us when we got back to the dressing room and shouted, ‘Right lads, pre-season — July 7.’ There was some arguments that night, but once things settled down, Ronnie did the same thing, ‘Right lads, pre-season — July 7.’ You treated the twin impostors of triumph and failure the same. We were champions the next season. Nobody wallowed in self-pity.

Arsenal celebrate winning the First Division title after a dramatic 2-0 win against Liverpool

Arsenal celebrate winning the First Division title after a dramatic 2-0 win against Liverpool

SMITH (Arsenal)

Some of the lads were saying, ‘We may as well retire as it’s never going to get better’. On the coach, the gaffer sat with us and had a drink. You knew it was special if he did that. We ended up back in a snooker parlour with sandwiches, pork pies and more drinks.

WINTERBURN (Arsenal)

I’ll take Smudge’s word for it — I don’t remember a thing! What I do remember is the game, the goals and the home crowd’s ovation for us when we got the trophy. Would that happen anywhere else?

Kenny Dalglish extract comes from his memoirs My Liverpool Home.



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