Though in the shadow of the Hillsborough tragedy the 88/89 season was still the most engrossing English football has seen. It was a flying header from a formerly disgraced Paul Davis that became one of not only the season's but Arsenal's greatest goals.
1988/89 was the first full season of league football that I remember. When the season started I was eight years old, by the time it finished on Friday 26th May at Anfield I was nine, crying tears of joy on the sofa as Michael Thomas scored the most dramatic goal in the history of any football competition in the world ever.
Those were heady days to be a young football mad boy living in Finsbury Park. As an Arsenal fan I’ll be accused of bias in saying the 88/89 season was the most engrossing English football has seen. But it was. The tragedy of Hillsborough overshadows it for most football fans, particularly those from Liverpool but, in a sense, the three week suspension of fixtures in the aftermath of that apocalyptic event served to heighten the tension of those remaining games when the schedule resumed.
1989 also graced us with possibly the best FA cup final ever – a Merseyside derby featuring a brace from Ian Rush and a brace from a mercurial ginger Scottish Yorkshireman in extra time on a scorching hot emotional day at Wembley where Liverpool partially laid to rest the ghosts of Hillsborough with a 3-2 victory.
Elsewhere, Cloughie demonstrated his dislike of pitch invasions; punching several of his own adoring Forest fans in the head as they ran on at the City Ground during a cup tie with QPR.
The Charlton game was one of Paul Davis’s few league appearances that year and the spectacular flying header he scored turned out to be his only goal of the title winning campaign.
For Paul Davis the season proved to be a rollercoaster. Very early on Southampton had visited Highbury and were unlucky to concede an equaliser in the closing moments of a 2-2 draw. The match achieved infamy for an ugly clash in which the usually mild mannered Paul Davis broke Glenn Cockerill’s jaw with a right hook off the ball. It was later suggested the insult that incited Arsenal’s cultured midfielder was Cockerill’s claim that he'd ****ed Davis’s mother the night before and she had screamed for more. Echoes of Zidane on Materazzi. Some players do not take kindly to familial slurs. The Saints captain was a hard man and took it as best he could (considering his jaw was broken). Davis’s punishment was a nine match ban and a £3,000 fine.
He then struggled to get back into the Arsenal starting line up as the gritty, never-say-die Kevin Richardson, an inspired George Graham signing from Watford and a contender for the title of Most Stereotyped Footballing Moustache of the 1980s, slotted in brilliantly to support the young wet-eared Michael Thomas and the precociously talented David Rocastle. That midfield trio supplemented by wingers Paul Merson and Brian Marwood formed a brilliant, industrious engine room complimenting the greatest back four the English game has seen and fuelling the eventual golden boot winner Alan Smith up front. The Charlton game was one of Paul Davis’s few league appearances that year and the spectacular flying header he scored turned out to be his only goal of the title winning campaign. He was never exactly prolific, scoring 37 goals in his 447 Arsenal appearances.
Almost a prototype Patrick Vieira mixed with a Claude Makelele; Davis (a dyed- in- the-wool gooner) conducted his artistry by controlling the midfield with a mix of sensible short passes and accurate long balls. He was always there for the get-out ball. He was a pretty good tackler too. Flying headers were not usually his forte.
The goal, although not enough to earn Arsenal a victory against a Charlton side featuring the likes of Carl Leaburn and Bob Bolder, was important in earning a point in a sequence of three problematic games that included a nil-nil draw with Millwall followed by a 3-1 home defeat to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
I attended three games that season, of which this was the last. The first was a scrappy 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday (Paul Merson equalising after Imre Veradi had put Wednesday ahead), the second, bizarrely, a two nil Arsenal victory in a friendly against a France XI.
The Charlton game was a thriller. It’s difficult to describe the excitement of night games as a kid. The floodlights turn the pitch a luminescent green. The breath of the players on a chilly night clearly visible. The dark night sky outside the ground, eerie and foreboding.
We sat in the East stand observing a quagmire pitch; muddy and patched up with sand, a different world from the bowling ball green of the Emirates. After Arsenal had conceded an early goal to Paul Mortimer and then got one back through Rocastle, the Gunners were still struggling against a team playing as if it were a cup final and the usual Highbury moans had begun. The goal was a classic break-away with more than a hint of long ball but the final three passes in the sequence were majestic. After a Charlton free kick had been punted away by Steve Bould, lumped back in by an Addicks player and again headed away by Adams, Brian Marwood took control, finding Richardson with a ball to feet. As the move developed Paul Davis clearly sensed an opportunity and began an 80 yard run from inside his own half straight up the middle. Arriving at the edge of the box as Richardson crossed from the right the ball arced perfectly towards the penalty spot where Paul Davis, having launched himself both feet off the ground met the ball in mid air with a sensational bullet header that rocketed straight into the net past Bob Bolder.
One of the goals of the season. And what a season. The rest is history.
Paul Davis went on to win two league titles and a Cup Winner’s Cup medal to add to the 1987 League Cup. Deserved reward for a career that had begun at Arsenal in 1977 and ended in 1995. Davis along with players like Perry Groves are emblems of the very last generation of footballers before the money in the game went truly mad. Other players like Tony Adams and Lee Dixon spanned the two eras (‘pre Sky’ and ‘post Sky’) and went from earning normal wages in the late 80s to millions by the late 90s. Paul Davis retired before he was able to milk the appalling, overflowing cash cow that football has become, but let’s not forget that his generation of players commanded a good deal more respect and genuine appreciation from fans than today’s overpaid mercenaries.
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