Arsenal Fan Relives Michael Thomas' Winner Against Liverpool 24 Years On
24 years ago, Michael Thomas’ last-minute goal clinched an unlikely league title at the expense of Liverpool, their opponents that day. But it was about more than silverware: the context of the night, how the events unfolded and the way they were described marks it out as the national game’s most glorious moment.
Twenty-four years ago today, the greatest moment in English football history unfolded: Michael Thomas' championship-winning goal in the dying seconds at Anfield. It still gives me goosebumps, man.
Brian Moore was a great commentator, with a baritone delivery brought alive by an unbridled enthusiasm for what he was describing. As someone who watched the game from their grandparents' sofa, it's impossible to disentangle Moore's commentary from what actually happened.
Lee Dixon's underhit long ball: "Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack."
Alan Smith's control and chipped pass ahead: "A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith."
The onrushing Thomas driving at the leggy Liverpool defender Steve Nicol, careering through him with, somehow, the ball still at his feet: "Thomas... CHARGING THROUGH THE MIDFIELD!"
As the the ball slows, threatening to get stuck under the midfielder's feet... as Bruce Grobelaar and Steve Nicol move in to swallow up the angle... as Alan Hansen stretches a long, right leg in to steal the ball away... Thomas strokes the ball with the outside of his near foot, lifting it over the keeper and into the net: "THOMAS. IT'S UP FOR GRABS NOW!!!"
“THOMAS!!! Right at the end!”
Basically, it knocks the also-great Martin Tyler's "Agueroooooooooo!!" into a cocked hat.
Ok, so as an Arsenal fan, I'm biased. But the difference between the decider of the 1988/89 season and 2011/12's final moments is that the two teams with a hand on the trophy were playing each other, and everything else that had happened that season.
The two league leaders, the monolith casting the rest of English football in its shadow and the privileged underachievers who had squandered a significant lead in the final weeks of the season. For Liverpool, victory would bring catharsis and a sense of emotional healing to a club so gravely wounded by the Hillsborough Disaster a little over a month earlier. For Arsenal, victory was not enough: a two goal margin, at the fortress that was Anfield, had to be achieved.
Which is why George Graham, a man who could teach Tony Pulis a thing or two about functional football, started with five in defence. Steve Bould - lovely Steve Bould - foreshadowed William Gallas by taking to the pitch with a 10 on his back.
Graham knew what he was doing. Arsenal got to half time with the match goalless, knowing one goal would see the nerves set in among the favourites, who were that night shouldering much more than the expectation of victory.
When Alan Smith got the faintest of headers on a Nigel Winterburn free kick to score yet another goal in a prolific league campaign, the mission was half complete. But, a Thomas half-chance aside, it looked like Liverpool had safely negotiated their way to another title as the clock ticked past 90 minutes.
Until Michael Thomas and Brian Moore intervened.
I don't think I'll experience joy like it ever again. As a kid, things like that are so unencumbered by context, or self-consciousness, and I ran through the house screaming.
But thinking back on the game now, especially now the lies and deceit around Hillsborough have been washed away, it's impossible not to feel a twinge of guilt that Liverpool had to endure such a jarring defeat. If you see pictures now, it's apparent the look on Steve McMahon's face, as he screams to his team mates that one more minute is all that stands between them and victory, isn't just his trademark determination. He looks up to the heavens and shouts "Come on!"- it means the world to him.
I didn't get that when I was younger. But while that complicates the moment, I think it also makes it better. It was a game, a goal, a razor's edge, where there was ecstasy or agony; dreamlike victory or desolate defeat. And nothing in between but Brian Moore’s perfect intonations.