Arsenal’s defiant response to their points deduction in 1990

Action from Arsenal 4 Southampton 0 in 1990

Arsenal's title win in 1991 was not as dramatic as in 1989, but possibly more impressive. Despite multiple obstacles being put in their way (many of them self-inflicted) the Gunners lost just one league match all season - they were the ‘almost invincibles.'

As Nick Hornby put it in Fever Pitch: “the Championship was achieved despite almost comical antagonism and adversity.”

In the aftermath of the infamous Old Trafford brawl, there was much speculation as to what punishments were likely to be handed to individual players and the clubs. Arsenal went into full crisis prevention mode, and handed out their own fines to Paul Davis, Nigel Winterburn, Michael Thomas, David Rocastle and Anders Limpar - as well as George Graham.

Arsenal’s public show of contrition, and the admonishment of the players and manager was an attempt to avoid an expected points deduction. Holding the manager accountable for the player’s actions was, according to George Graham, his suggestion: 'It was my idea to fine me, and it was my idea to make it public.' Although he also later referred to this as one of the biggest mistakes of his career.

Within the club, Graham and his players used the media criticism as motivation. In the weeks following the brawl, Arsenal continued their unbeaten run with wins over Sunderland and Coventry and a draw with Crystal Palace. Then - three weeks after the incident - the FA finally announced their decision, deducting Manchester United 1 point and Arsenal 2 points. This larger punishment was a result of a similar incident involving Arsenal players against Norwich the previous year.

The match following the points deduction was crucial in shaping Arsenal’s response to the situation. Southampton were the visitors to Highbury and there was a real sense of shared determination and defiance between Arsenal players and supporters. George Graham may have felt he erred in taking responsibility for his player’s actions, but in fact he had played the situation superbly. He had created the sort of siege mentality that Alex Ferguson would later use to such great effect at United.

Arsenal went into the Southampton match eight points behind Liverpool and it would have been easy to let their intensity levels dip. As Alan Smith recalled in his autobiography, “We felt the FA had practically handed the title to Kenny Dalgish’s side.” However the Gunners tore Southampton apart and were 3-0 up by half-time. The first two goals were tidily finished by Paul Merson and Anders Limpar, after skillful assists from Perry Groves and Paul Davis.

Then Smith got in on the act, netting a classy header and a tap-in to score his first goals since the opening day of the season. A third of the way through the season, you’d have got long odds on Smith winning his second golden boot in three years, but this brace sparked a return to form and he finished league top scorer with 22 goals.

Southampton could easily have been on the end of a six or seven goal beating. As Ken Montgomery, writing in The Sunday Mirror put it, “Somebody was always going to suffer for those two precious points the Gunners lost in a Lancaster Gate committee room earlier in the week. Southampton just happened to be the first team angry Arsenal came up against since their point docking.”

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