Opinionista Richard Calland & Lawson Naidoo 23 May 2014

Football’s unthinkable moment: The last minute of the last game

26 May 1989 – one of the most dramatic matches in English football history. The last game of a tragic season – 96 Liverpool fans had died at Hillsborough, crushed on the away-supporters’ terraces. Six weeks later and Arsenal had to do the unthinkable to deny Liverpool the league – win by two clear goals at Anfield. We have vivid memories of the night – Calland was at Anfield, Naidoo in North London. Twenty-five years on, this is our account of The Last Game.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I drove up to the North-West of England in the morning with my best friend, Pete. My parents had moved from London to Lancaster, about an hour north of Liverpool. It always rained there, depressing my father, but that day the sun shone and we sat outside in the garden drinking tea.

My father was born in Liverpool, but prefers Wagner to the Peoples’ Game. He teased us: Arsenal were dreaming; even my dad knew that no team came to Anfield and won by two goals. It was unthinkable. Besides, the nation wanted them to win – to seal a cup and league double in the year of their Great Tragedy.

But something inside me was full of anticipation. That was why I had paid so much money for our two tickets. I was a season ticket holder, and as a lucratively-remunerated barrister I paid for a second ticket for Pete – a wannabe Wagner conductor. But the fixture was originally set for mid-April, just after the horror of Hillsborough, and because of another commitment I had not applied for the tickets to which I was entitled.

Then, because of Hillsborough, the game was postponed to the very end of an elongated season and it gathered yet more meaning. It was to be the decider. I scrounged around unsuccessfully for tickets and was compelled to buy from a dodgy West End tout – 90 pounds for the two, which was quite a lot of money in 1989, even for a barrister.

But we had to be there. Just in case. This was a test of being a real fan. Not a fair weather fan of the modern-day era – the Chelsea arrivistes whose history does not go back further than Franco Zola and the late 1990s. No: the true supporter who knows that football is a game of cycles, like the economy. Boom and bust. Bust then boom. If you were lucky. Just bust if you were Newcastle United.

As the sun went down the players emerged from the tunnel. Arsenal played an opening gambit even before the game began. They ran to each part of the ground, throwing huge bouquets of flowers into the crowd as a mark of respect for the Hillsborough dead. The gesture was well received. I remember being moved, yet wondering if it was a devious tactical manoeuvre to neutralise the renowned vocal power of famous Kop end.

Whatever the motive, we were certainly glad. Our expensive tickets were not, it transpired, in the Arsenal away-fans enclosure, but high up in the middle of a Liverpool stand – an admittedly fine view of the game, but potentially precarious from a personal safety point of view.

In those days no-one wore replica kits and it was too warm for scarves. We were distinguishable only by our London accents. Keep your mouth shut, I whispered to Pete.

This was not easy; it was a pulsating game. And when Arsenal scored early in the second half, we could conceal our loyalties no more. One-nil to The Arsenal. There were grimaces and narrow-eyed glances around us, but thankfully nothing more menacing.

The rest of the game hurtled by, and suddenly the Anfield faithful were baying for the final whistle. In those days, there was no third official to hold up a digital board displaying the extra time. So we had no real idea, though we sensed the end was nigh. And then…a long ball, a lucky bounce and Michael Thomas was running through to dink the ball neatly over the advancing Liverpool ‘keeper, the Zimbabwean Bruce Grobbelaar. Two minutes into extra time. Somehow we had done it. Uncontrolled celebration from The London Two. Crossed arms and silence all around us. One man in the row in front told us to fuck off back to London, but at the final whistle there were admirably sporting handshakes and words of congratulations from the rest of our neighbours.

Soon the ground was deserted, except for a densely congested corner section of one terrace where the Arsenal fans were entrapped, throbbing in song and dance. I remember thinking how ridiculous they seemed, like a convulsive red-and-white bag of gerbils.

We attempted to walk around the perimeter to join them but were sent back by a stern-faced local copper. The only other people still in the ground were the press hacks high up in the stand, typing furiously on their typewriters or dictating down the line. At the front was the Independent’s Patrick Barclay, now the chief football writer of The Times, and a persistent critic of Arsenal’s style of play. “Perhaps you’ll find something nice to write about them for once, Mr Barclay,” I shouted. A brief look up and a wry smile was all my cheekiness deserved and got.

It did not matter. Nothing mattered. Not even our nervousness in the dark streets of Liverpool. We hailed a cab, whose driver was an Everton fan. He was naturally delighted by the result and took us all the way into town for free. In the pubs and nightclubs that carried us playfully through the night other scousers were no less generous. The violence that had scarred English football through the 1970s and 80s was about to be eclipsed; the massive global product that is the Premiership was around the corner. Things would never be the same again.

For all of us. That was the perfect night. My team performed a sporting miracle and I was there. Yes: I was there. And with my greatest friend. It really doesn’t get any better. – Richard Calland

Watch: Michael Thomas wins league title for Arsenal at Anfield, 1989

* * * *

Between working as a volunteer at the ANC office in Islington in the late 80’s I moonlighted as a painter and decorator, and managed to land a job redecorating a friend’s parents’ house in plush Hendon. It was there that I watched Liverpool being mugged, and the coveted First Division League title heading south to north London. After work on that Friday I settled down with my friend’s dad (and employer), an Arsenal fan, to watch the game on TV over a couple of beers.

I recall the disbelieving excitement in the voice of ITV commentator, Brian Moore, as Michael Thomas delivered the fatal blow to Liverpool’s title hopes in injury time. Two-nil to the Gunners, and as the final whistle went I dashed off down to my local, the ‘White Lion of Mortimer’ in Finsbury Park, just around the corner from Highbury.

Joining a frenzied carnival atmosphere in the heart of Gooner-land, it was not easy to get to the bar… but this was no ordinary night. Drinks were being passed around almost at random, patrons poured out onto the pavements drinks in hand, and no-one seemed to mind. The pubs stayed open well after the rigid 11pm closing time and we joined the reveling throngs that made the way down Stroud Green Road to celebrate at the then home of Arsenal FC, Highbury.

As an Evertonian there was a special, vicarious delight in seeing Liverpool being robbed in their backyard. That it was done by Arsenal was also poignant in that it was a club that was taking a lead in tackling the scourge of racism in English football. Highbury, with black players such as David Rocastle, Paul Davis, Michael Thomas and Ian Wright prominent, seemed to welcome black fans who were shunned elsewhere and I spent many happy afternoons on the North Bank, instilling within me a closet and enduring admiration for The Arsenal. – Lawson Naidoo DM


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