Arsenal knocked Liverpool off their ‘perch’ – not Manchester United: Tony Evans Q&A
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Arsenal host Liverpool on Friday. Our Q&A with the broadcaster, journalist and son of Liverpool, Tony Evans will chime with both sets of fans as he recalls memories of this fixture through the years. Read on for 1971 FA Cup Final, Highbury, Anfield 89, terrace fashions and much, much more.
What was your first Liverpool-Arsenal game?
I’m not exactly sure when I first saw Arsenal in the flesh. It was some time in the late 1960s and I was too young to remember.
The first really vivid memory I have is the 1971 Cup Final. Everything about it feels iconic. That yellow and blue kit, the bright sun at Wembley and Charlie George lying on his back. It was everything a 10-year-old imagined football should be like. Except for one thing. Arsenal won. I cried while Frank McLintock picked up the cup.
What are the best/worst matches you’ve seen in the rivalry?
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There are so many. Even the grim ones were memorable. The best? This will probably surprise people. It was a League Cup second replay in November 1988 at Villa Park. George Graham’s great young team were evolving and took the lead in the first half. It was brilliant, combative football and at half-time we looked beaten. After the break we raised our game and won 2-1. It was brilliant football by two teams that were hard as nails and full of flair. When I think back about how the game used to be, I think of this match.
The worst? The first of the 1980s FA Cup semi-finals at Hillsborough was a numbing 0-0 draw. On the plus side, it set up three titanic replays. The two at Villa Park were wonderful – the Holte End split down the middle and the atmosphere sizzling. Of course, it all went wrong at Coventry in the fourth game and Arsenal won 1-0. What I remember most about that night is our coach driver took us to the wrong car park. We were with the Arsenal coaches. When we got back after the match all the windows were smashed. It was a cold journey home that night.
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Who’s the best Arsenal player you’ve seen?
Where do you start with this? Just too many. For skill, Dennis Bergkamp. The closest I’ve seen to Kenny Dalglish. Both had that marvellous, kill-the-ball-dead touch. And Thierry Henry was a joy too watch.
Tony Adams was (and is) someone I admire. His role in the team was crucial. I loved watching him. Mouthy, brutal, good on the ball… a great centre back.
If I could take one player from the time I’ve seen Arsenal? Easy answer: Patrick Vieira. The engine of a great side. Honorable mentions here to Liam Brady and Alan Ball, too.
What are your memories of Highbury?
I loved the old place. The Clock End was one of my favourite away terraces. It was a hostile place. There was always a mob of Arsenal that got in among our lot and kicked off. It was always a bit wild. I’m not saying that this was good, but people often talk about Highbury as if it was friendly in comparison to Upton Park, White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge. It wasn’t.
My favourite game there was in 1983. Charlie Nicolas hit the bar and Dalglish scored a brilliant goal into the Clock End were he dummied the whole defence and let the ball run through his legs. Like most Arsenal fans I miss Highbury.
Clothes were important in the 1980s. Arsenal fans were the first in London to have the casual look. Liverpool came back with the clothes from their trips to Europe. What do you remember of those days and what was your favourite clobber?
Ha! We called it Scal. The look was evolving from 1976. It started off with adidas tee-shirts and then Fred Perrys. When our boys went abroad, they couldn’t find Fred Perry so the came back with the closest to them: Lacostes. It really took off from there. Arsenal were definitely ahead of the London curve. I remember seeing loads of Tacchini and Fila across the divide in the Clock.
This was a time when West Ham were still in their flying jackets and Spurs were getting it completely wrong with their deerstalkers! Of course, we’d moved on from the labels by then. For us it was John Smedley crew necks. My favourite look was a Smedley, faded 501s and suede boots (ideally expensive ones from Jermyn Street, er, liberated by some associates and brought at a knockdown price). Training shoes (Trabs as they’re still called in Liverpool) were an important item in the wardrobe but I never wore them for the match. You dressed up for football!
What about Anfield 1989?
That was a strange night at a very bad time for us. Hillsborough was still very raw and I didn’t believe we should have been playing. But we did and if you go on the pitch, you have to win. When Michael Thomas scored there was a shocked silence and then a voice somewhere behind me said, ‘you know what? Worse things happen.’
The funny thing is that was the moment that restored my commitment to the game. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to carry on going the match at that point. We were drinking with some Arsenal fans afterwards and they were amazed. They said it was like we’d won the league. It felt like the moment when we realised it was alright to move on a bit. The last thing I – we – cared about was doing the Double. Getting over the shock and horror was more important.
Incidently, the one thing that has rankles with me over the years in Alex Ferguson’s ‘my biggest challenge was knocking Liverpool off their ******* perch.’ By the time he won the league, they were long gone from the perch. Arsenal were the team that took on the challenge of confronting Liverpool and succeeded. After 89, we won the title again - the last time we did - but Arsenal regained it the next year.
Manchester United didn’t knock anyone off any perch. They filled the vacuum left by Liverpool and Arsenal’s failure to kick on the league after the second title. The dominant team in the early stages of Liverpool’s decline were Arsenal. United didn’t win the league for three years after Anfield’s last success.
What about the current side?
They drive me wild with frustration. I bang my head on the desk watching them. Mesut Ozil infuriates me. He’s so brilliant. He should be dominating games, leading the team to titles and destroying opponents on a weekly basis. For him and Alexis Sanchez not to bring titles to the Emirates is a scandal.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Why do both full backs charge forward and leave the centre halves isolated? How many times do teams break and get 3v2 or 4v2 against Arsenal’s central defenders? The midfielders don’t protect them either. I feel sorry of Granit Xhaka. He’s playing out of position.
Arsene Wenger transformed the game in this country. He is a true revolutionary and his greatness is without doubt. But he’s gone stale and is tried to methods that are flawed. I want more from Arsenal. They should be better than they are.
Will Jurgen Klopp take Liverpool to where they want to be?
Difficult to answer. He’s been there more than two years and the progress has been very slow. They can be breathtaking but still have serious flaws. He’s was the best manager available to the club and remains so. There are structural problems at Anfield – the recruitment, for example – that mean it would be difficult for any manager. The top four is the height of their ambitions in the league. Don’t see that changing in the forseeable future. It’ll be lively at the Emirates. Don’t think there’ll be much defending.
Tony Evans is a columnist for the Evening Standard and a writer for ESPN. His book about football and politics in 1985-86, Two Tribes, will be published in March.