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Monday 26 May 2014

Silver Anniversary of A Golden Gooner Dawn

I should've known far better than to tune into the depressing election news, with all the ominous portents of the increasing popularity of the far-right extremists across so much of Europe and the UK (fancy the French Front Nationale might give UKIP a run for their money as the new bully boys at the free lunches in Brussels). So for the want of some welcome distraction, I thought I might as well post the piece I've written in response to a last-minute request from the Irish Examiner, for a missive to feature alongside a tribute to Anfield '89 in tomorrow's sports supplement.

As ever, delighted to forsake the comparatively trivial world of politics, for the footie



Its mere coincidence for us Gooners to be basking in the glow of our first trophy in nine long years, as the silver anniversary of that magical Mickey Thomas moment rolls around. Yet with us now existing in an age where superstar footballers seemingly measure their worth to their employers in terms of obscene Bugatti style birthday presents, I find myself unavoidably harking back a quarter of a decade and focusing on the stark differences between then and now.

Doubtless Man City fans will look upon their first title win, after such a depressingly long sojourn in the doldrums as being no less dramatic. Yet there was an extraordinary convergence of such bizarre and tragic circumstances, electrifying the whole atmosphere of Friday, 26th May 1989 that will never again be repeated.

Moreover, with that momentous night subsequently proving to be something of a catalyst for the rampant commercialization of the beautiful game that has transpired since and with the technological revolution that now results in the sort of global interconnectivity, which is responsible for the micro-reportage of everything, occurring everywhere and which has subsequently changed the face of football watching, it’s evident that this monumental encounter eventually proved to be right at the fulcrum of two entirely different eras.

Those Gooners privileged to be present on the convoy of 24 coaches departing Avenell Road for an arduous 8-hour drive to Liverpool, were still bearing tickets printed with the original 23rd April date of the postponed match. This was supposed to have taken place on the weekend following the Hillsborough disaster, but with Merseyside (and all fans of the game) in mourning, Liverpool’s fixtures were cancelled for a couple of weeks, before resuming an increasingly condensed end of season schedule.

Even with a delayed kick-off, the Gooner charabanc was stuck in the congestion outside the ground, listening to the start of the game on the radio. But unlike in the past, where this would’ve undoubtedly resulted in the sort panicked crush to push on through the turnstiles, every travelling footie fan was still painfully aware of how often they’d been only a whisker away from being caught up in the same sort of shambolic mayhem witnessed six weeks prior.

Hence the majority of Gooners missed the wonderfully touching and perfectly choreographed moment after the Gunners took to the field holding bunches of flowers, as they all turned to present them to fans in all parts of the ground. This was symbolic of encounter taking place without any loss of the customary rabid fervor, but amidst an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Nowadays we’ve grown accustomed to the denouement of the season being engineered solely to suit the demands of the TV paymasters. But the Hillsborough repercussions resulted in this top of the table clash taking place on the Friday night, after Liverpool had already vanquished their local rivals in an all Mersyside Cup Final at Wembley the Saturday prior. Thus the entire footballing world was focused on this single top of the table title decider.

However, with the Arsenal having failed to win at Anfield in fifteen years and with the poor form that had seen us let a 19-point lead over our hosts slip through our fingers, the Gunners were intended to take to the stage as mere patsies against a positively rampant Liverpool, in what was expected to be the Scousers perfunctory Double-winning coup de grace.

So while most Gooners watched on, more in hope than expectation, mercifully George Graham was reading from a different script. With O’Leary in as a sweeper, Graham tasked his five staunch defensive lieutenants with stifling Aldridge, Rush and Barnes and silencing the crowd, in the belief that the longer the game remained goal-less, the more our chances of nicking a goal would increase as the tension mounted.

But we needed to win by two clear goals to clinch our first title in 18-years, an unheard of feat at fortress Anfield in those days and it wasn’t until Smudger glanced home Winterburn’s free-kick seven minutes after the break that we truly began to believe it might be on.

The absence of a clock anywhere inside Anfield resulted in Mcmahon’s infamously premature gesticulations to his teammates. Then Lukic tossed the ball out to Dixon, when we were begging him to hump it upfield. Dixon whacked it up the line to Smith, who found Thomas tirelessly surging into the box and Mickey made our decade by slotting it past Grobbelar.

Amidst all the euphoria that followed the unforgettable “it’s up for grabs now” moment, unaware how long was left on the clock, Rocky Rocastle admitted that his legs turned to complete jelly when the ref revealed he was only a minute away from fulfilling every Gooner’s wildest fantasy.

In sympathy with the mood of mutual respect, most of home crowd remained for the trophy presentation. A couple of Scousers sprinted the length of the pitch to unfurl a banner in honour of “Those that died”, while the ecstatic Gooners responded with the only fitting tribute, with a heartwarming rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

It wasn’t until alighting from the coaches on arriving back at Highbury in the wee hours and stepping into the sea of detritus in the street that it began to dawn on the travelling faithful the extent of the gargantuan booze-up that was subsequently portrayed in “Fever Pitch”.

The celebrations of the tenth anniversary in the old Clock End complex were somewhat spoiled by Man Utd, as everyone forsake a screening of the game, to watch the TV tuned to the enthralling climax of the Champions League final in the Nou Camp. But there will be no such dampener on the mood tonight, when I might well stroll around to a shindig at the Gunners Pub and raise a glass or two to Mickey, Rocky and all the other heroes, in what must rank as the most stalwart Arsenal side ever, in gratitude to them for sowing the seeds for the fabulous, trophy-laden entertainment that followed.

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Arseattack said...

Brilliant piece! Fun to live and re-love the memory.

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece. It almost gave me goosebumps