How Arsenal, Not Fergie, Knocked Liverpool Off Their Perch

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The following is an extract from Red Letter Days, the new book by Jon Spurling which debunks the myths that surround Arsenal.

Here's the story of how the Gunners - rather than Alex Ferguson's Manchester United - finally knocked Liverpool from their perch.

On December 2nd 1990, unbeaten Arsenal prepared to take on the unbeaten league leaders Liverpool at Highbury. It hadn’t been the best of weeks for the Gunners. Trounced 6-2 at home by Manchester United in the Rumbelows Cup, they went into the game trailing the Anfield side by a massive six points, following the 2 point deduction following the brawl at Old Trafford. David O’Leary had commented in the Daily Mirror, ‘They might as well hand the title to Liverpool on a plate.’

George Graham’s tone was anything but defeatist. Anders Limpar recalls, ‘The way in which George used the events of the week to our advantage was him at his best. He told us that we owed it to ourselves and the club to come up with a massive performance against Liverpool. I’d never seen him so impassioned. He said, “We’re playing Liverpool, and we all know of their reputation. But I think we’ve got the measure of them. They think they’ve already got the league won. They think we’re down and out. Subconsciously, they feel we’ve relaxed. We’ve been hammered by the tabloids all week, so now you boys need to go out and hammer Liverpool.”

‘When we walked out for the start of the match, the fans made an unbelievable noise. Even their chants had a “fortress mentality” spirit about them. Especially the one which even some of the players began to sing, “You can stick your fucking two points up your arse.” It was a fantastic atmosphere in which to perform.’ Alan Smith recalls, ‘My abiding memory of that period is of the fans chanting, “You can stick your two points up your arse.” It was our mantra. It was a two-fingered salute to the rest of the world.’

The Liverpool game was surely the high point of ‘Grahamism’. Even though it was only December the match already had the air of a title decider. Broadcast live on ITV’s The Match, it signified a fundamental power shift away from Liverpool, permanently.

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Paul Merson squeezed home the first after his half-volley was adjudged to have crossed the line before Venison desperately tried to clear. Midway through the second-half, Dixon scored from the penalty spot after Limpar was brought down by Gary Gillespie. The Swede received criticism for the way he went to ground but Limpar argues, ‘That’s nonsense. Gillespie caught me with his trailing leg. TV rarely conveys just how fast the attacker is running.’

There was a spectacular finale. With Arsenal pushing forward for a third goal, Merson back-heeled the ball into the path of the onrushing Smith, who smashed his shot past Grobbelaar. ‘It was probably the best goal I scored that season,’ confirms Smith.

‘It was a fantastic team goal, and as others have said, destroying Liverpool so convincingly – and on telly too – sent a hell of a message out to other teams. ‘As footballers, you rarely think about what ifs, but if Liverpool had won that day, they would probably have cruised to the title. They would have been nine points clear at Christmas, which would have been very difficult for us to chip away at. As it was, the lead was cut to just three.’ The gap had been narrowed to three points and it would be Arsenal who would seize the initiative from then on. Graham had outwitted Dalglish tactically.

Rattled by his team’s shambolic defensive display at Anfield a week before – they had drawn 2-2 against Manchester City and been lucky to grab a point – Dalglish was uncharacteristically cautious at Highbury, replacing Houghton, Beardsley and McMahon with Nicol, Molby and Venison. Their line- up contained no less than six defenders and Beardsley wasn’t even on the bench. ‘It struck me that Liverpool came for a point, which surprised me,’ recalled Limpar.

Once again, Graham had opted for the sweeper system in the wake of the midweek Rumbelows Cup debacle, selecting O’Leary, Adams and Bould at the back, and they comfortably dealt with the lone threat of Rush while keeping Barnes isolated on the left.

1990 had a decidedly fin de régime feel to it; out-of- touch Eastern European despots were toppled, Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her cabinet, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev officially declared the end of the Cold War, and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison signalled the dismantling of apartheid. And now at Highbury, the old order had been – at least partially – dismantled.

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Liverpool were never quite the same again after that defeat at Highbury. At Anfield in March, Arsenal would deliver their knockout punch. Between January and March, Liverpool won just two league games. Dalglish resigned after an FA Cup defeat to Everton.

The Gunners and Graeme Souness’ Liverpool were neck and neck when the two sides met at Anfield on 3 March. Adams had recently been restored to the starting line-up after his release from prison. The match began with wave upon wave of Liverpool attacks raining down on Seaman’s goal. Beardsley and Rush had crisp shots turned away, and Seaman made an excellent save from a trademark curling Barnes free kick.

In one of his first – and finest – matches for the club, David Hillier stifled Jan Molby’s creativity, but opportunities were thin on the ground. Liverpool finally cracked early in the second-half when Merson picked up Beardsley’s stray pass. He played a sublime one-two with Smith and galloped forward. Merson waited for Grobbelaar to commit himself and nudged the ball gently to the goalkeeper’s left before running to the Arsenal fans and flashing them his toothy grin after making it 1-0.

From then on the Gunners did not relinquish their lead in the title race and, with Kevin Campbell and David Hillier becoming regulars in the starting line-up in the New Year, they also had a depth to their squad which had been absent before. Eventually they won the title by a comfortable seven points as Liverpool uncharacteristically crumbled at the death. Not as dramatic as two years before, certainly, but in Graham’s eyes it had been a more polished season with his ‘Rolls- Royce team’.

There is a lingering feeling that Arsenal never received the credit they deserved for their monumental victories over Liverpool in 1989 and 1991. Perhaps it’s because, for all his side’s doggedness in the first of those seasons, Graham’s side will always be regarded as the ‘spoilers’ who took advantage of Liverpool’s emotional grief following the Hillsborough disaster.

It might also be because the late drama of that season outweighed the actual quality of Arsenal’s overall play – especially at home. Kenny Dalglish once claimed, ‘They play in a certain way which is not my way.’

For all Alex Ferguson’s claims that his greatest achievement as Manchester United manager was ‘knocking Liverpool off their f**king perch’, Arsenal got there first, not once but twice. Such rewriting of history occasionally rankles the Arsenal stars from that era.

Limpar argues, ‘Has anyone ever challenged Ferguson on this? [Author’s note – No Anders] In 1989 United were miles off [25 points away in fact] and in 1991 they finished sixth. They just weren’t a threat in the league at all. And yet he’s said it again and again down the years.’

The Gunners’ league double over Liverpool in the 1990/91 campaign was arguably even more epoch-defining because it definitively ended the era of Liverpool’s league dominance, whereas after 1989, Dalglish’s side came back once again. But it’s true to say that having created a vacuum, and with Graham vowing that his side ‘will dominate football for ten years’, they failed to replace Liverpool on their (f**king) perch. The reasons? Graham wasn’t perhaps as all-knowing as Arsenal fans thought.

Red Letter Days is out now and you can save 30% on the cost here or buy the Kindle version, here.

Jon will be signing copies of his book at the following branches of Waterstones:
Nov 15th, Hitchin, 11am – 1pm and then later that same day, Hemel Hempstead 2pm – 4pm
Nov 22nd, St Albans, 11am – 1pm
Nov 29th, Enfield, 11am – 1pm
Dec 6th, Chelmsford, 11am – 1pm