Thursday, April 4, 2013

When It Was 'Up For Grabs Now'

Last season, 2011-12, produced one of the most exciting finishes in football league history, when Manchester City produced two very late goals to win at home and clinch the title on goal difference. However, TV wise, there was one large snag – you could only see the game on Sky. Listening to the game on radio, or watching Garth Crooks jump up and down on the sofa on Final Score, does not have the same effect at all.

For this reason, therefore, we go back to the real winner of the ‘most exciting finish to a season’ award – that of 1988-1989 – not only because the denouement was so unexpected, but precisely because it was something we could all share.

The evening of Friday 26 May saw me take my seat in a crowded common room of Ceredigion Hall, a student hall on the sea front in Aberystwyth. It was the last game of the league season and the big match was live on ITV.

My team, Norwich City, had had a good season, up among the top contenders for the league and getting to the FA Cup semis, but alas a bad April with no wins had seen us fall back out of the race. So two teams emerged from the pack.

The all-conquering, all powerful, Liverpool team were there of course. In the preceding 16 years, Liverpool had won ten league titles, two FA Cups, four League Cups, two UEFA Cups and, the big prize, four European Cups. Managers and players had changed – yet mercilessly the Anfield machine had rolled on.

Meanwhile, Arsenal had also put in a challenge. George Graham had put together a good team based on a solid defence with the famous back four and offside trap. For much of the season they had led the way. Hopes were raised of their first title since 1971.

The game was originally scheduled for April – but was postponed following the Hillsborough disaster, which of course hung a shadow over the rest of the season. Because of fixture congestion, the game could only be fitted in, right at the end – unusually to take place on a Friday.

On 13 May, Arsenal were five points ahead of Liverpool with three games to play and home games against Derby and Wimbledon to come. Liverpool had four to play.

But, shock, first, Arsenal lost to Derby 2-1 with Liverpool beating Wimbledon 2-1 - and then Liverpool beat QPR 2-0, before Arsenal drew 2-2 with Wimbledon. Points and goal difference were equal but Liverpool had one game in hand.

On Saturday 20 May, I was in that same common room watching Liverpool beat Everton 3-2 in a dull FA Cup final which only livened up in extra time. Tuesday 23 May, I was in the pub down the road (The Sea Bank – sadly no longer with us) as I heard the news that Liverpool had beaten West Ham 5-1. Using peanuts (well, we were students) we calculated, as the rest of the country knew, that Arsenal had to beat Liverpool at Anfield by two clear goals to win the title on goals scored. We all thought Arsenal had blown it. Liverpool simply did not lose at home! They rarely lost at all! And they had hit form while Arsenal had lost theirs. 

The game started, the cans got opened. A dull first half before Alan Smith scored early in the second. Suddenly we all sat up – Arsenal might do this! The game opened up, both sides created chances, Liverpool scored but disallowed for offside. The game wore on, eventful but without many events - if you see what I mean.

As the TV clock ticked past 90 minutes, Kevin Richardson was on the ground being treated for an injury. In those days we did not have the board to tell us how much injury time there would be, and so the whole room – possibly much of London as well – shouted ‘get up!’ at the top of our voices.

Lukic to Dixon, long ball to Smith, it’s with Mickey Thomas, he’s through, and, as Brian Moore so memorably said, ‘It’s up for grabs now’ as Thomas slots the ball away. 2-0 to Arsenal.

As the final few seconds were played out, and the Liverpool fans in the room sat in stunned silence, the rest of us partied as the whistle blew and we watched Tony Adams lift the trophy at Anfield before we were off to catch last orders . Truly the most magical TV moment of the 1980s.

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