How Arsenal almost blew the chance to win the league at Anfield in 1989

Arsenal Programme from the 1989 match against Derby

In the week following the Hillsborough disaster, it was hard for anyone to imagine the season re-starting. There was serious talk of abandoning the season. Liverpool players, staff and fans were not just dealing with the aftermath of a horrific event; they were attending funerals - most of them for children and young adults.

When the season did re-start, Arsenal thrashed Norwich 5-0 in a dominant performance, then followed it up with a gritty 1-0 win away at Middlesbrough to make the Gunners firm favourites for the title. Liverpool had re-started with an emotional 0-0 draw at Everton, then narrowly squeezed past Nottingham Forest, with a John Aldridge penalty the only goal of the game. This left Arsenal with two home games to clinch the title and to make the rescheduled trip to Anfield a formality. The Gunners went into the match against Derby County on 13th May, five points clear at the top of the table (although Liverpool did have a game in hand). Derby were a decent side who would eventually finish fifth and in Dean Saunders, signed from Oxford the previous October for £1 million, had one of the division’s top scoring strikers. They also boasted the top flight’s best defensive away record. Despite this, and with what was at stake, Arsenal were expected to win comfortably. In his programme notes, George Graham wrote: “We've gone from red hot favourites to no hopers to favourites again! The good thing is that we hold our destiny in our own hands.”
However, nothing went to plan. Saunders opened the scoring in the first half with a great volley. With Arsenal pushing for an equaliser, Derby scored their second. It was a personal nightmare for Tony Adams who first lost the ball to Saunders, then clumsily tripped him for a clear penalty. Adams admitted being turned inside out by the Welshman, later adding: “It has always been the small nippy strikers who have given me the most trouble.”

Saunders dispatched the penalty with ease, and in the closing minutes Alan Smith scored perhaps the most crucial un-celebrated goal in Arsenal’s history. His near post header from a corner seemed irrelevant at the time, but without it Arsenal would have needed to win at Anfield by a three goal margin.

Liverpool played Wimbledon the same day and recovered from an Alan Hansen own goal to win 2-1. With the pressure ramping up, Arsenal faced the same opponents four days later.

It’s worth remembering how dominant this Liverpool side were. They had won seven of the last ten championships, and boasted international experience in almost every position. While this young Arsenal side had showed they could compete with Liverpool, they had no championship pedigree. George Graham said in his autobiography: “We should have sewn up the title before travelling to Anfield, but nerves got the better of what was a relatively young and inexperienced team.”
Liverpool followed up their victory at Wimbledon with a 2-0 home win against Queens Park Rangers, making Arsenal’s fixture against Wimbledon seem like a must-win game.
Complacency played a part as well as nerves. In his autobiography, Tony Adams says of the Wimbledon game: “They had nothing to play for, and we thought they would just play out the game” and that Arsenal “really expected to win comfortably.” After all, this was the same team Arsenal had thrashed 5-1 at Plough Lane on the opening day of the season. This proved to be a serious underestimation of the ‘Crazy Gang’, who took every opportunity to knock more established clubs off their perch, famously doing just that less than a year earlier, when they beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Final.

The game started well for Arsenal. Ex-Wimbledon player Nigel Winterburn scored the goal of his life, with a thunderous drive into the top corner in front of an ecstatic Clock End. The fact that the shot was hit with his right foot must surely have convinced the players that fate and destiny were on their side. Winterburn was a fantastic player, but was so left footed he could often be seen running around in little circles to avoid kicking the ball with his right foot.

Related article: Five of the best Arsenal goals from full-backs

Alan Cork equalised for Wimbledon with a header from a Dennis Wise cross, before Paul Merson, who had just been named PFA Young Player of the Year, latched on to a flick from Alan Smith to smash a close-range volley high into the net. Wimbledon were determined spoilers though, and conjured an equaliser from Paul McGee, who was making his league debut for the Dons. The way the Wimbledon players celebrated the goal showed this was far from meaningless for them, and at the final whistle there was a palpable feeling among Arsenal fans and players that they had blown their title hopes. In his autobiography, Alan Smith remembers that at the final whistle: “An air of resignation hung over Highbury. You could hear it in the half-hearted applause. You could see it in the fans’ faces”.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby talked about feeling enraged after the Derby match, but about the Wimbledon game said: “ I had no rage left, just a numbing disappointment. For the first time I understood the women in soap operas who have been crushed by love affairs before, and can't allow themselves to fall for somebody again.”

Liverpool still had to play their game in hand, against West Ham at Anfield, but no-one connected with Arsenal expected the Hammers to do them any favours and they were duly thrashed 5-1, to set up one of the most memorable football matches of all time..

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