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‘Arsenal’s 1989 title win was one of those moments – you remember where you were’

PUBLISHED: 15:09 18 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:43 18 October 2017

Arsenal's Alan Smith opens the scoring at Anfield to put the Gunners 1-0 up. At this point, Arsenal needed one more goal to become champions. Picture: PA

Arsenal's Alan Smith opens the scoring at Anfield to put the Gunners 1-0 up. At this point, Arsenal needed one more goal to become champions. Picture: PA

PA Archive/PA Images

Has there ever been a sweeter Arsenal title win than 1989? A new documentary tells the amazing story of that special night at Anfield. James Morris speaks to its editor, Sam Billinge.

It’s one of the most iconic moments in Arsenal’s history. Scrap that – in football’s history.

May 26, 1989. Liverpool v Arsenal. First v second in the last game of the season. To take the title off Liverpool, George Graham’s team have to win 2-0. There’s just one minute to go, but the Gunners are only 1-0 up.

John Barnes wins the ball in midfield. He drifts down the right. Take it to the corner flag and it’s game over. Foolishly, fatally, he cuts inside and tries to attack Arsenal’s goal. It comes to nothing. Within 13 seconds, Arsenal’s history has changed forever.

Goalie John Lukic throws the ball to Lee Dixon. Dixon lofts it 30 yards forward to Alan Smith. Smith flicks it into the path of Michael Thomas. Thomas’s first touch is poor and it bounces off a Liverpool defender. Yet it lands straight back into Thomas’s path. Suddenly, inexplicably, he is through on goal.

Arsenal midfielder Michael Thomas lifts the 1989 first division trophy at the Islington victory parade. Picture: John Stillwell/PAArsenal midfielder Michael Thomas lifts the 1989 first division trophy at the Islington victory parade. Picture: John Stillwell/PA

Thomas bears down on goal. He takes one last touch as he steadies himself. But still no shot. 
Why is he waiting so ridiculously long? Two Liverpool defenders are about to tackle him! Then, in the nick of time, he calmly pushes the ball into the net. Arsenal are champions for the first time in 18 years.

It’s a moment the 57,000 (slight exaggeration) Arsenal fans who crammed into the Anfield away end will never forget. Especially with a new documentary about the game, entitled 89, set to be released next month.

Sam Billinge, from Tufnell Park, edited the film, which features interviews from Graham, captain Tony Adams and Thomas himself.

“Even aside from that final game,” Sam says, “it’s an amazing story. Arsenal was a failing team without success. Then in 1986 it brought in this manager, George Graham, from Millwall. People thought he didn’t have a clue. He got rid of the big names. He promoted young players. And it worked.

Arsenal manager George Graham, centre, shows off the first division trophy with his son Daniel, left, and daughter Nicole, right, at the Islington victory parade. Picture: John Stillwell/PAArsenal manager George Graham, centre, shows off the first division trophy with his son Daniel, left, and daughter Nicole, right, at the Islington victory parade. Picture: John Stillwell/PA

“The game had been postponed because of the Hillsborough disaster. Liverpool were the dominant team of that era. No one gave Arsenal a chance.

“I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Arsenal’s history. But for those who do, it’s one of those moments when they remember where they were when it happened, like JFK or 9/11. It might not have been the best game, but the drama was unbeatable.”

‘Arsenal of 1989 had spirit – unlike Arsenal of 2017...’

Arsenal’s 1989 title win is one of English football’s legendary stories. So how did Sam Billinge and director David Stewart present 89 in a fresh light?

“We were very clear it wasn’t going to be a season review. We wanted the energy to be in that final match at Anfield.

“The players were talking about the game as if it was happening in the present. They are incredibly eloquent and smart. There’s an emotional openness that I imagine the modern-day footballer, with all the media training in the game now, does not possess.

“The team was incredibly together and that comes through in the documentary. They had this implicit understanding of each other, something probably lacking in the current squad…”

Asked how it will be received by old school Gooners, Sam added: “I am certain they are going to love it. It’s compelling, and true to the spirit of that time.”

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