Arsenal legend David O’Leary shares his memories of Anfield 89 ahead of Liverpool
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David O’Leary spoke exclusively to the Islington Gazette ahead of Arsenal hosting Liverpool at the Emirates on Friday.
The North Londoners are set to host their old rivals in one of the most evocative fixtures in the world of football.
The eagerly-awaited clash between these two giants of the English game will be watched by countless millions around the globe.
But it is another Friday night match, the never-to-be-forgotten triumph at Anfield on Friday May 26, 1989, which will forever have a place in Arsenal hearts.
David O’Leary, who is Arsenal’s record appearance holder, shared his memories of that unforgettable time.
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Recalling that incredible time in which Arsenal triumphed against-all-odds to lift the Division One title – the club’s first in 17 long years – he said: “It was an amazing occasion. I thought maybe in the two games before we’d messed up the season making Liverpool real favourites. I thought with the team we had and the character we had a chance of winning alright. I just couldn’t convince myself we’d beat them by two clear goals.
“But when Alan Smith scored the first goal I started to get real belief and thought the miracle could happen.
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“I’d been to Anfield a lot and I knew how Liverpool could influence referees and I just thought to myself: ‘It was a genuine goal and I’m not going to let them talk the referee out of giving it.’ It was a genuine goal.
“After Derby then Wimbledon I felt we’d blown it. But we were given a chance to rectify – a hard chance but a chance nevertheless.”
The side led by the wily George Graham were a well-drilled outfit, with belief, ability and huge reserves of character.
The speech Graham gave to his team before the match when he said they would reach the half-time interval at 0-0 has gone down in Arsenal folklore.
As one of the elder statesmen in the team Stoke Newington-born Irishman O’Leary was present during Graham’s history-making address.
O’Leary added: “We knew what we had to do. When George gave that speech some of us were going: ‘What, we need to score two goals at Anfield in the second half?
“But he had huge belief and it rubbed off on all the lads.
“Everybody was telling me on the Friday evening they were going to watch the game. I don’t think anyone went out.
“It was a unique game, an amazing game with an amazing atmosphere and build-up and an amazing occasion when the referee blew the whistle at the end.
“I’d done everything at Arsenal but the only thing I had left that I wanted to do was win the league.”
The rest as they say is history. What made the triumph even more special for the Irishman was that his unstinting loyalty to the club had finally been rewarded with a League Championship medal.
When others such as Frank Stapleton had left for more money at Manchester United, and Liam Brady – albeit far more understandably – left for the exotic climes of Serie A and Juventus, O’Leary stayed at Highbury all through the barren years of the early 1980s.
He added with genuine affection for The Arsenal: “I loved the club.
“Everyone says I did 20 years there – but it was easy to do because it was a great club and a club I loved.
“Being a Stoke Newington lad I was local too despite the accent. My parents took me to Dublin but I ended back there and it’s nearly 45 years for me in London now. I honestly don’t know where the years have gone.”
O’Leary is a true Arsenal legend, despite playing for Leeds United at the end of his career and a difficult spell as boss of the Elland Road outfit.
And when the Islington Gazette spoke to him at the premier of 89 The Film his pride in being a true Arsenal was as evident as it was all those years ago at Anfield – and throughout every one of those record breaking 722 appearances was a stylish centre-half.
With the premier being at the elegant Art Deco Holloway Odeon self-deprecating O’Leary added: “As a North London boy I used to pass this cinema a lot – but I never thought I’d be walking up a red carpet!”
89 The Film is out now on DVD.