David O’Leary Breaks Arsenal’s Appearance Record … And Starts a Fight

Extract from an Arsenal programme showing David O'Leary at home with his medals and trophies

After the Old Trafford brawl in October 1990, Arsenal were famously deducted two points, yet recovered to convincingly win the First Division title. Manchester United had only been deducted one point, which wasn’t a reflection on culpability for the incident itself, but down to Arsenal’s previous poor behaviour - most notably in the closing stages of a home game against Norwich on 4 November 1989.

The Norwich match was supposed to be all about David O’Leary, who in playing his 622nd game for the Gunners, was overtaking George Armstrong to become Arsenal’s record appearance holder.

O’Leary was applauded on to the pitch by both teams, and presented with a trophy before kick off. The match day programme was filled with tributes to the Irishman, with the centre spread a sight to behold.
There is so much to love about this snapshot of a successful footballer in the late 1980s. There’s the cardigan, the armchair, and the curtains of course, but my personal highlight is the apparent cheapness of the trophies. They represent many significant achievements, but look as though they were bought on Walthamstow Market.

As champions, Arsenal were having a slightly disappointing season. They'd recovered from a disastrous opening day 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford to go seven games unbeaten, but their form coming into the Norwich match was poor, with defeats at Spurs and Everton, and a draw at home to Derby. Sitting in fourth position, they were however only three points behind leaders Liverpool.

This was a good Norwich side who had finished fourth and reached the FA Cup semi final the previous season, with memories of the 5-0 thrashing Arsenal had given them on their last visit to Highbury, just a few months before, still fresh.

The Norwich players' respect for O’Leary’s achievement ended as soon as the game kicked off and they were 2-0 up by half-time. Malcolm Allen got the first with a move straight from the Arsenal training manual, nodding home from a near post flick at a corner. The second was a beautiful free-kick fired into the top corner by David Phillips. The build up to the award of the free kick gave a hint of what was to come later - O’Leary chopped down Malcolm Allen, then picked him up by his shirt collar, half dragging him towards the referee, clearly suggesting that Allen had been guilty of a couple of stray elbows.

Arsenal certainly started the second half fired up, and soon drew level. First, Niall Quinn had a simple finish after Bryan Gunn spilled Kevin Richardson’s free kick. Then, future Arsenal hero Andy Linighan was harshly penalised for a handball, and Lee Dixon scored the resulting penalty.

Dixon was to become Arsenal’s regular penalty taker for a while, but when asked about the Norwich game and his penalty experience he told a later Arsenal match day programme: “I took a penalty for the reserves at Luton 18 months ago, and another for Stoke in a testimonial ... But Brian Marwood was out - and Rocky had a kick saved at Chelsea, so he didn't want to take them again.” It seems pretty extraordinary that the team drilled with such precision by George Graham would take this apparently casual attitude to such a fundamental part of the game (and be happy to discuss it in the programme), but Dixon backed this up by adding: “In training I'd been joking that I'd take the penalties.”

Arsenal programme from November 1989 featuring David O'Leary on the cover
In an increasingly fractious contest, Norwich came back at Arsenal once more, and regained their lead when Linighan’s header was pushed out by Lukic, but only as far as Tim Sherwood who finished into the roof of the net to make it 3-2 to the visitors. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and O’Leary equalised with a near post header from a Nigel Winterburn free kick. The Irishman was not a prolific scorer, even by centre-back standards, and averaged less than one goal per season over his whole career, so this was an especially poignant moment on his big day.

In the final minute, Norwich could again feel hard done by, when Ian Butterworth was judged to have been holding Michael Thomas - a harsh decision even by today’s standards - and Arsenal were awarded their second penalty of the game. Dixon stepped up to take his second ever penalty in professional football. This time Gunn guessed correctly and got down well to save; however the ball fell rather kindly back to Dixon, who concentrated so hard on not skying the rebound that he rolled the ball slowly into the corner of the net - just evading the retreating defenders. Cue bedlam, as Alan Smith - trying to follow in Dixon’s pea-roller, seemed to get caught between the net and a couple of understandably vexed Norwich defenders, and Arsenal players piled in.
In truth, there wasn’t a great deal in it. “'It's been dubbed a brawl but there's been worse scuffles in the January sales.” was Ian St John’s introduction to the highlights on Saint and Greavsie. But the FA felt compelled to act, at a time when it was very concerned about the English game’s image, particularly overseas, and issued fines to both clubs.

George Graham must have hoped this display of team-spirit and togetherness would translate into a serious attempt to retain their championship, but Arsenal continued their inconsistent form and eventually finished fourth.
David O’Leary would play another 150 times for Arsenal and still holds the record for the most Arsenal appearances, with 722.

See also: When Arsenal beat Glasgow Rangers in the Zenith Data Systems Challenge 

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