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Knocking Them Off Their Perch

BY HUMPHREY ELLES-HILL / @eggsforbrains

“You have to support Liverpool; they’re the best, and they’ve got John Barnes!” He was my best friend, the best footballer at school (even though he was a goalkeeper) and I’d known him every minute of my 8 and a half years alive. I indulged his demand to give the Reds a try, and watched Liverpool on ITV’s The Match that Sunday. They were heavy favourites to win away to a London team that wore red. That team was called Arsenal. It was love at first sight.

Arsenal’s giant defenders were so charismatic and intimidating; Alan Smith was obviously unbeatable in the air up front; this winger called Rocastle had all the tricks and the most terrifying commitment to a tackle I’d ever seen; there was a brilliant creator in Brian Marwood on the left and that chap Richardson looked like he was prepared to die for the cause. Sure, Liverpool’s Barnes was skilful, but the Arsenal no. 10 had trendy floppy hair, no front teeth (like me) and was obviously the best player on the pitch.  Even though Liverpool were the reigning champions and took the lead, it was obvious Arsenal were going to pull it back such was their indomitable team spirit. With all the chances they made – seemingly at will – they were unlucky not to win.

I re-watched the video of that match so many times that I could recite full ten minute passages of Brian Moore’s commentary by heart on request.  The reverse of that fixture later that season proved to be the most dramatic, most wonderful night in Arsenal history, winning the league with the last attack of the season, Michael Thomas toppling the kings of the English game in a wonderful giant-killing act the likes of which I doubt we will ever see again. 

That isn’t my favourite Arsenal match ever though. In fact, neither of those matches – the first time I saw Arsenal and decided they were the ones for me; nor the epic title-match in May 1989 – are even my favourite Arsenal/Liverpool games.

By December 1990 my avid support of The Gunners had reached fever pitch. Every kick mattered, every victory signified the new ‘best day of my life’, and each player was a real hero to me. Liverpool had stolen back the crown seven months earlier and it really hurt. They were six points clear of us, we had been battered by Manchester United in the Rumbelows Cup a few days earlier 2-6, but both teams had unbeaten records in the league coming in to this one. This match was a top of the table six-pointer, a colossal clash.

I remember being sick to my stomach at lunch at home that day and not being able to eat a bite. Instead, while watching the pre-match hype on TV, I bit my fingernails to the quick, and in doing so inadvertently started up a bad habit that I still can’t kick. When we took an early lead through a Merson header (yeah, I know!) I screamed so loudly the cat attacked the dog in panic. My father stormed in to be told in no uncertain terms that he could not watch the rest of the match in the same room as me. His presence could upset my superstition that if I continued to watch this game alone with only the stressed cat and mauled dog for company we would continue to hold the lead.

In the second half things got even better. After a period of total domination over a Liverpool team stacked with legends, Lee Dixon, my favourite player – he never made a mistake! – cracked home a penalty into the roof of the Liverpool net. And in the final few minutes with the game won, Paul Merson played Alan Smith in with a backheel, and Smudger fired past Grobelaar with his right foot.

Three things about this moment were amazing and brought tears to my eyes: first, there was the backheel. These sorts of things didn’t happen in Division 1. We’d all heard about players in Italy backheeling the ball, but noone British could do that. Secondly, Alan Smith fired home from 20 yards with his right foot. He didn’t have a right foot. I still think this is the only time I ever saw him kick with his chocolate leg. Besides, Liverpool were meant to be the entertainers, we were the fabled Boring Arsenal, only good at lumping it long and scoring from backpost headers at corner-kicks. And thirdly, we had toppled the champions, and served notice that we were the best in the land.

We went on to lose only once all season, winning the league at a canter, conceding just 18 goals while at the other end of the pitch Alan Smith won the golden boot with 22 strikes. Liverpool came 2nd, Kenny Dalglish resigned as manager and Liverpool faded as a domestic force. Alex Ferguson wanted to knock them off their perch. George Graham did it for him.

For me, this match was the biggest heavy weight encounter I could possibly imagine, and we had thumped the mighty opposition to oblivion. It remains my most treasured memory of an Arsenal win because of my expectations, hopes and nerves beforehand, and for the outcome far surpassing all that excitement. It still gives me goosebumps when I see replays of that final goal.

Watch the highlights, here. 


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