Arsenal’s 1989 title win at Anfield: Football’s most dramatic finale

“It’s up for grabs now,” commentator Brian Moore famously said as Michael Thomas broke away from the Liverpool defence to tap the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. (AFP)
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Updated 25 May 2020

Arsenal’s 1989 title win at Anfield: Football’s most dramatic finale

  • Not even Sergio Aguero’s famous title-winning goal in 2012 can match Michael Thomas’s last-gasp heroics 31-years-ago

DUBAI: It’s up for grabs now.

If you recognize these words, then you probably know one of the most dramatic moments in football history.

On May 26, 1989, Arsenal went to Anfield needing to beat reigning champions Liverpool by two goals to win their first league title in 18 years. Everyone thought it was an impossible mission.

Arsenal, having led the 1988-89 First Division league table comfortably at the turn of the year, had slipped, allowing Liverpool to overtake them by three points by the time the match had been rescheduled for the delayed final day of a turbulent season. This was a Liverpool team, and a city, recovering from the Hillsborough tragedy which would eventually claim the lives of 96 of their fans.

Liverpool had pulled off one miracle after another to get themselves into that position at the same time Arsenal seemingly decided to shoot themselves in the foot. 

Only days before the showdown, Liverpool, then on the same number of points as Arsenal and with an exact goal difference, faced West Ham at Anfield in another match rearranged in the wake of the tragedy.

A storming 5-1 win gave Liverpool a three point lead and superior goal difference of four over Arsenal. The title was all but theirs.

But it was a deceptive, if still hugely significant, lead for Liverpool. Arsenal needed to win by two goals, not four, to swing the situation around.  

The match is now football folklore. Alan Smith scored a 52-minute header to ramp up the nerves at Anfield, but against a visibly tiring home team, Arsenal still needed a winner.

It came, astonishingly, in the 92nd minute.

“It’s up for grabs now,” commentator Brian Moore famously said as Michael Thomas broke away from the Liverpool defence to tap the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar. 

 

 

It was Arsenal, not Liverpool, that had pulled off the biggest and final miracle of the season.

League titles rarely deliver such stunning finales. And the nature of this particular match meant it had a winner-takes-all cup final feel that the guardians of today’s Premier League can only dream of. It was in effect a second-leg of a cup tie and Thomas’s winner ensured that the two clubs finished on the same number of points and with identical goal differences of +37. Arsenal were crowned champions on account of having scored more goals. That goal was, in effect, an away goal that settled a whole season.  

Have football fans enjoyed greater, better matches? Sure. 

But greater moments?

Not even the greatest cup finals of all time can claim bigger stakes being won and lost in such fashion.

The world’s oldest competition, the FA Cup, has seen some memorable stories since its first edition in 1871-72, and Arsenal themselves delivered the greatest end to a final ever. 

In 1979, the Gunners led Manchester United 2-0 as a seemingly average final entered its dying moments. But two goals by Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy in the dying embers of the match stunned Wembley and set up a scarcely believable extra time. Except that from the kick-off Arsenal immediately went up the other end and scored through Alan Sunderland to win what would become known as the “Five-minute Cup Final”.

But just ask any Arsenal fan which moment remains the most dramatic in the club’s history.

Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League triumph makes a strong claim for the most dramatic conclusion to a match ever. But, while the two-goal injury time turnaround was close to miraculous, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winning goal lacks Thomas’s defeat-to-victory aspect.

At the risk of sounding like a killjoy, Alex Ferguson’s men had already saved themselves with Teddy Sheringham’s equaliser and would have had a chance to claim victory in extra-time, a luxury Arsenal did not have in that 92nd minute at Anfield.

And then there is the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. Liverpool’s still incomprehensible triumph over a vastly superior AC Milan team ticks off all the boxes for drama. it boasted some of the best players on the planet at the top of their game. In Hernan Crespo’s third goal for Milan, one of the competition’s finest ever goals. There was a seemingly unassailable 3-0 half-time lead for the favourites. But then a comeback for the ages as a Steven Gerrard-inspired Liverpool equalized the match within 15 minutes of the restart. This was followed by an unbearably tense extra time, and finally a penalty shootout which saw Jerzy Dudek, seemingly in his last moments as Liverpool goalkeeper, redeemed himself to win the cup for the Reds.

Few can argue the Miracle of Istanbul is not a superior match to the 1989 showdown in almost every aspect. But although penalty shootouts are naturally won or lost with the last kick of the game, they inherently lack the element of utter surprise that Thomas’s goal provided. 

The closest comparison to Thomas’s historic moment is without doubt Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal for Manchester City against QPR in the dying seconds of the 2011-12 Premier League campaign. Like Manchester United’s Champions League win in 1999, the two injury-time goals rightfully lend the comeback legendary status. And, like Thomas’s win, it had the winner takes all away-goal factor; there was no safety net of extra-time here for City.

But despite the moment’s extraordinary drama, it still marginally loses out to the events at Anfield. For a start, it was not a face-off between the top two teams. Roberto Mancini’s team were also firm favourites to win against a team fighting for relegation. The match was at the Etihad Stadium in front of City’s own fans and the decisive goals finally arrived against an exhausted 10-man QPR. This is a match City were expected to walk and blowing it would have been the real miracle.

The 1994-95 Premier League season also provided one of the more recent dramatic finishes; it even had a last minute goal, and at Anfield as well. But the fact that it came against eventual champions Blackburn, who could afford to lose 2-1 to Liverpool while challengers Manchester United wasted one chance after another at West Ham to only draw, means it cannot quite be compared to Arsenal’s heroics at Anfield.

In Spain, Atletico Madrid went to the Nou Camp on the final day of the 2013-14 La Liga season needing a draw against the Barcelona of Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi to claim a shock title win, but when Alexis Sanchez gave the home team the lead, it looked like Atletico’s dream was over. But a 49th minute equaliser from Diego Godin gave them a priceless point that would see them crowned champions.

A head-to-head final day clash between the two top teams had been won by the underdog, just like in 1989. But this was an underdog needing only a draw, and there were no comparable last-minute heroics or drama.

Perhaps closest was the conclusion of Portugal’s 2012-13 Primeira Liga race. On May 11, 2013, Benfica travelled to the Estádio do Dragão to play fierce rivals Porto, with a two-point lead over their opponents. As the match entered its final seconds locked at 1-1, Porto broke away to score an astonishing winner and break their opponents’ hearts. All over the pitch, there were tears of joy and despair as Porto leapfrogged their opponents in the standings at the death. It was one of the most dramatic matches the Portuguese top division has ever witnessed.

However, this was only a de-facto finale; watching those dramatic scenes now, it is often forgotten that there was, in fact, one round of matches left. Both teams would win their last games, with that late winner proving ultimately decisive, though not quite with the finality of Thomas’s strike.

But what about matches of sheer importance? Surely many World Cup moments are bigger and more dramatic than a First Division title win. But which?

The 1970 World Cup semi-final between West Germany and Italy is often dubbed the “Game of the Century”, and for good reason. In an unforgettable back and forth battle with many incredible moments, Italy would prevail 4-3 after extra time. But the fabled match does not have a last-minute goal, and ultimately the winners went on to lose the final.

In that final they played a Brazil team considered the greatest football team of all time. Pele, Jairzinho, Tostao, Rivellino and Carlos Alberto put on a masterclass that day, eventually destroying their exhausted opponents 4-1. For many, it remains the greatest football match ever played.

But it was, especially in those final minutes, literally a walk in the park for Brazil.

The 1982 World Cup saw two truly stunning matches within days of each. Italy got revenge for 1970 with Paolo Rossi’s hat-trick in a 3-2 second-round group win over Brazil; and then West Germany’s semi-final penalty shootout win over France after a controversial 3-3 draw.

Both were matches of extraordinary tension and quality; but without a magic moment to rival Thomas’s silver bullet.

In his era-defining book “Fever Pitch,” Arsenal fan and author Nick Hornby tried and, and his own words, failed, to describe the drama of that finale at Anfield. No metaphor or event, footballing or otherwise, could quite convey its sheer joy and improbability.

“Childbirth must be extraordinarily moving, but it doesn’t have that crucial surprise element.” he said, adding: “What else is there that can possibly provide the suddenness?”

And the answer is nothing. 

Sorry, Sergio. Sorry, Manchester City. But football's most dramatic moment is not up for grabs.


Milan turn to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Liverpool to revive glory

Updated 09 July 2020

Milan turn to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, Liverpool to revive glory

ROME: Preparing to complete a ninth Serie A campaign without winning the Scudetto, AC Milan decided returning to the pinnacle of football required a new approach.

Jay-Z’s entertainment agency Roc Nation is at the center of it, linking up with Milan to scour the world for sponsors and use concerts and other high-profile events to attract new fans.

And who better to ask about how to end a title drought than the team that just won their league for the first time in 30 years?

“We have been talking to Liverpool,” Milan chief revenue officer Casper Stylsvig told The Associated Press, “because they’ve been through the same path as we are going through now.”

Milan are enduring their longest Serie A drought since the 1980s. Despite beating leader Juventus on Tuesday, even the top four Champions League places are out of reach in this pandemic-delayed season. It’s been seven years since Milan last competed in Europe’s elite competition.

“We’re working very hard to get back to where we should be, and from that perspective, it does help open doors when you have won seven Champions Leagues,” Stylsvig said. 

“Playing European football is top of the agenda. It is our natural habitat and somewhere we should be.”

Only Real Madrid has lifted the European Cup more often than Milan. But that seventh title was won 13 years ago, by beating Liverpool.

Now Liverpool are the lodestar for Milan, which have fallen to 21st in the Deloitte ranking of football’s moneymakers with revenue of €206.3 million  ($234 million) in the last financial year, a third of the income at the newly crowned Premier League champions.

“Four, five years ago, no one considered Liverpool and see where they are now,” Stylsvig said. “They obviously play very attractive football. They are winning, they have a fantastic manager, a fantastic team and now they are following suit from a commercial perspective. It has taken time, but their model seems to work.”

Liverpool have been run for a decade by John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group. Milan have also had American ownership for three years since the takeover by the Elliott Management hedge fund.

“We are obviously a global brand,” Stylsvig said in a telephone interview. “I’ve probably been talking too much in the Italian market in the last few years and (the coronavirus) sort of pushed us to think more global again.”

The pandemic that shut down sports produced the first public manifestation of the partnership with Roc Nation when Milan staged a live virtual fundraising concert headlined by Alicia Keys.

“I do think merging sport and entertainment could be the way of engaging new fans,” Stylsvig said. “The world has changed dramatically and we need to follow suit. Roc Nation is helping us, challenging us with that, having someone on the sideline to do that.”

The biggest audiences logging in to watch “From Milan with Love” were from China and the US.

With no games being played during the three-month Serie A shutdown — and crowds still prohibited from matches — Milan have had to find new ways of connecting with its fan base and fulfilling commercial deals.

“It’s been incredibly challenging,” Stylsvig said. “You basically have to rethink the model. So one of the first things we did was focusing much more on a digital space, creating content and trying to be engaging and trying to talk to our partners.”

Further down the line is moving into a new stadium, with plans to rebuild the San Siro it shares with Inter Milan.

“That will change the club,” Stylsvig said. “The revenues are incredibly important but also for the perception of the club.”