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Fantasy football

Tonight, Steve Bould’s Arsenal side will travel to Liverpool for the second leg of the FA Youth Cup final, carrying a healthy 4-1 advantage from Friday’s home leg.

Only sport could throw up the irony of an Arsenal side playing at Anfield twenty years to the day since another Liverpool v Arsenal match-up which was arguably the single most memorable league game ever. (Doubly ironic, as Arsenal’s kids will tonight be wearing the yellow away kit designed to commemorate that very season.)

If you’re of a certain age, or have any interest in the history of football, the game requires little introduction, but here goes anyway.

Anfield, 26th May 1989

Anfield, on a balmy spring evening. A head-to-head showdown to determine the winner of the League Championship. Just your average Friday, really.

In the red corner: Liverpool, the dominant team in English football. In any other season, the neutrals would have been massed against them, but on this one occasion Liverpool had the collective will of an entire nation behind them, still mourning after the tragic events of Hillsborough. Already FA Cup winners, they are now one match away from achieving the Double.

In the yellow corner: Arsenal. The perennial nearly men. Since winning the FA Cup in 1979, Arsenal had recorded a series of inglorious failures. 1980 had seen the team lose two Cup finals – the FA Cup to West Ham, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, on penalties, to Valencia. They had briefly bucked the trend by winning the 1987 League Cup against Liverpool, but normal service had been quickly restored as a 2-1 lead late on in the final of the same competition the following year against Luton was casually discarded. And, finally, six top-six League finishes in nine years, but never higher than third. If there was one thing Arsenal were best at, it was being second-best.

1989, however, had been different. Arsenal had played superb football throughout and sat atop the League since January, but a defeat and a draw in the last two matches had tamely handed the initiative back to Liverpool going into this final game.

The task now was a stark one. Win the game, on Liverpool’s home turf, by at least two goals. Anfield had long been a virtually impregnable stronghold; it had been three years since Liverpool had last lost a home league game by the required two-goal margin. And then there was the post-Hillsborough effect, adding public goodwill to the Liverpool balance sheet. Obviously, winning the Double wasn’t going to bring back the dead, but it would nonetheless be a fitting end to a traumatic season. And, come on, did anyone outside of North London really think Arsenal were going to come to Fortress Anfield and snatch the title?

Anyway, the game itself is being broadcast live; still a rare treat in these pre-Sky days. It’s clear from the outset both teams are feeling the pressure. Chances are scarce – Liverpool’s John Aldridge snatches ineffectually at a long-range effort, while Arsenal’s tentative probing doesn’t really trouble a typically well-organised Liverpool defence. At half-time it’s still scoreless. Watching at home, I’m struggling to remain calm. 45 minutes gone, we’ve barely had a decent shot worth the name, and now we’ve got just 45 more minutes to try and win by two goals.

The second half starts much as the first ended. Liverpool aren’t threatening much, but they know they don’t need to force the pace. And then the first part of the miracle happens: Nigel Winterburn swings in a free kick from the right, Alan Smith ghosts in to meet it with a glancing header. 1-0. Game on. Come on you yellows!

The game’s on the proverbial knife-edge now; tension cranked up a notch. Liverpool are edgy, but Arsenal are too; they’re aware they are within touching distance of the seemingly impossible. They only need one goal now, but equally to concede a goal would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

With 10 minutes left, Arsenal engineer a clear opening. Michael Thomas finds himself clean through on the edge of the Liverpool penalty area, one-on-one with Bruce Grobbelaar, but he hesitates and his weak shot is easily saved, belying his nerves. The opportunity is wasted – will there be another one?

All of a sudden, the end is frighteningly near. 85 minutes, 87, 89 … the Anfield crowd feel they can almost touch the Double, it’s that close. Arsenal’s Kevin Richardson goes down injured and play is stopped; the clock, however, ticks on remorselessly. The Liverpool players are urging one another on; Steve McMahon, the combative, no-nonsense, run-all-day midfielder, stands in the centre circle, dripping sweat, and relays the message to his team-mates with a raised forefinger. One minute, just one minute more.

For the Arsenal faithful, the dream is fading away. It’s the same old story; I can already taste the bitterness of being second-best yet again. Good, but not quite good enough: they should make it the club motto.

The clock ticks past the 90-minute mark. Now there’s two, at most three, minutes that the referee will add on for stoppages. 91 minutes. The ball’s in the hands of goalkeeper John Lukic, at the wrong end of the pitch. The next few seconds unfold in dreamy slow motion. Lukic bowls the ball out to Lee Dixon. Dixon launches a hopeful long pass up towards Alan Smith. Smith calmly collects, pivots and chips a delicate ball into the path of Michael Thomas’s surging run. A lucky ricochet off Steve Nicol’s back and, as Groucho Marx would have said: it’s déjà vu all over again. Thomas is clean through, Grobbelaar races out to confront him and suddenly there is a hush of anticipation from 42,000 people inside Anfield, and millions more watching at home. 10 months, and the entire season comes down to this one moment. All I can see is Thomas shaping to shoot, and all I can hear is the voice of Brian Moore’s TV commentary – Thomas! It’s up for grabs now! – and before anyone has quite realised what has happened the ball is nestling in the back of the net and Thomas is launching himself into a somersault and a display of demented body-popping as yellow Arsenal shirts engulf him, celebration and relief mixed in equal measure on his face.

There’s a huge roar from the Arsenal fans, a release of 90 minutes and more of stored-up tension and anticipation. And the roar is so loud it feels like it’s coming from my own living room, because it is – I’m jumping up and down and I’m shouting and I’m crying, because never in my life to date have I experienced what it’s like to be able to say, My team are the champions of England!

As a child, no doubt Michael Thomas had some variation on the same dream I and thousands of other kids have had, of scoring the goal that wins the League or maybe even a World Cup final. No doubt he spent many hours recreating that dream in the school playground, as kids do. Real life may have dashed my own fantasy, but nonetheless I feel I understood and in some small way shared in that moment of triumph and elation that Thomas felt as he realised he had fulfilled his – scoring the goal that clinched the League title in the final minute of the final game of the season.

It truly was fantasy football.

The stakes tonight are, of course, nowhere near as high, but in a living room 200 miles away from Anfield I will be raising a glass tonight both to Steve Bould’s kids and the heroes of twenty years ago. Football may be only a game, but what a game it was that night!

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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