When Arsenal beat Glasgow Rangers in the Zenith Data Systems British Challenge

Imagine the reaction if the Premier League arranged an additional high-profile fixture over the Christmas period? Almost as barmy an idea as a winter World Cup in the Middle East.

But in December 1989, the snappily titled Zenith Data Systems British Challenge saw Arsenal – the English Champions – travel north to face their Scottish counterparts, Glasgow Rangers. It was one of a series of matches in the late 1980s which were in part designed to fill the gap left by the ban on English clubs participating in European competition.

During the summer, Arsenal had beaten Independiente of Argentina to win the Zenith Data Systems Challenge Trophy, while in the Autumn of 1988, the Gunners also won the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, in a short tournament which marked the 100th birthday of the Football League.

Arsenal’s title defence ultimately fizzled out rather disappointingly in 1990 - they eventually finished 17 points behind a resurgent Liverpool - but the Gunners came into this fixture top of the First Division. Rangers too held a narrow lead in the Scottish top flight.

Both clubs took the prospect of British bragging rights seriously, and the pre-match talk from the managers was bullish. “Everyone in England seems to think that English football is a lot better than Scottish football, it's a great chance for our lads to prove those people wrong.” was the rallying call from Rangers’ boss Graham Souness.

George Graham was slightly more measured saying: “'As a Scot I know all about Rangers' pride. They'll want to beat the champions of England, just as we'll want to beat them!"

No tickets were made available to Arsenal fans. Instead, the match was shown on the big screen at Highbury where Kevin Connolly - Arsenal’s Programme Editor - reported on an evening “packed with the ingredients of Christmas melodrama.”

Iain Cook, Club Historian at Arsenal, confirms there were 3,012 fans at Highbury on a freezing cold night, while Arsenal fanzine ‘The Gooner’, featured a match report from ‘a team of Gooner reporters’ who made their way up to Glasgow and were warmly welcomed.

There was an added international dimension to the game. England and Scotland had both qualified for the 1990 World Cup and a number of players from both sides were on the fringes of their national teams. In fact, Rangers’ team featured six Englishmen: Chris Woods, Nigel Spackman, Terry Butcher, Gary Stevens, Trevor Steven and Mark Walters. All except Spackman and Walters would make the England squad.
Both managers started with strong line ups. Rangers were missing Ally McCoist though injury, while for Arsenal, Niall Quinn and Paul Davis came in for the injured Alan Smith and Michael Thomas. Before the match George Graham somewhat prophetically talked up the two players’ opportunity, calling Davis: “a very classy player, and saying of Quinn: “He’ll be trying to prove a point.”

The match didn’t disappoint and got off to a frantic start with chances at both ends. Arsenal - in the famous yellow shirts and black shorts they had worn at Anfield six months earlier - took the lead in the 28th minute. Quinn flicked on John Lukic’s long kick, and Paul Merson challenged for the loose ball with Butcher. Paul Davis, bursting through the midfield in a manner not dissimilar to Thomas against Liverpool, fired a fine left-foot shot past Woods and into the top corner.

Back at Highbury, Kevin Connelly - reporting for the Arsenal match day programme and warming to his seasonal theme - wrote: "When Paul crashed home that left foot shot to put us ahead it was like watching one of those old fashioned Christmas movies when the good guy wins in the end."
Early in the second half, Rangers equalised. Mo Johnston bundled the ball in with what looked like his arm – The Gooner’s report rather beautifully called it: “a B-movie version of Maradona's 'Hand of God.” But the referee allowed the goal, and it was anyone’s game.

On 58 minutes, Lee Dixon sent Paul Merson down the right wing, and Merson’s near-post cross was converted by a sliding Niall Quinn. Rangers put Arsenal under a bit of late pressure but defended resolutely, with even the much maligned Gus Caesar playing an important role. The Gooner singled him out as: “playing a blinder.”

After the match, Arsenal were presented with a modest looking trophy, and Tony Adams waved it in the direction of the couple of hundred Arsenal fans who weren’t supposed to be there.

Back in England, Arsenal lost their next two matches over the Christmas period, away to Southampton and Aston Villa and their title defence never recovered.

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