As an Arsenal fan growing up in the 1990s, my icons were Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Ian Wright. I remember the ecstasy of our first Premier League win in 98, the night we conquered Old Trafford in 02 and the Invincible season of 04. But I wasn’t alive for the most exciting, romantic and important night in Arsenal’s history. I wasn’t there when Michael Thomas’ last-minute goal snatched the title away from Liverpool and handed it to Highbury in 1989.
Unlike Manchester City’s title triumph in 2012, the title race of ‘89’ had the two challengers up against each other on the final day. And this wasn’t the Liverpool I’d grew up watching either, this was the dominant Merseyside outfit that won the league seven times and the European cup three times in those ten years prior.
Last week, the 1989 story came back to life with the world premiere of ‘89’, a feature-length documentary that tells the story of that memorable Gunners side. The film sees contributions from icons including Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Alan Smith, Lee Dixon and George Graham, all of whom speak candidly and bring new levels of insight to the DNA of a title-winning team. As an Arsenal fan in 2017, seeing players discuss a side built on defensive stability and rigorous set-piece practice was a window into The Upside Down, having seen Andy Carroll bag a seven minute hat-trick against us last year.
“It was in my barbershop where I first heard the idea that Arsenal were ‘the black team in those days’.”
It was also the Arsenal team that I hold responsible for making me a fan. It was a conversation at my barbershop where I first heard the idea that Arsenal were “the black team in those days”. A concept I’d never fully considered but one that made sense, when you reflect on stories of black players and fans suffering racist abuse at Chelsea, West Ham and Millwall throughout the 1980s.
To the growing black communities within England and also to immigrants from west Africa and the Caribbean, neither had any longstanding familial or regional connections to English sides. It may be that having black south Londoners like Rocky Rocastle, Paul Davis and ‘89’ hero Michael Thomas in the team was enough to confirm that this was their club.
For so many growing up, myself included, the introduction to Arsenal came from fathers, brothers and uncles. Just as I would later realise – when Ian Wright led the line for Arsenal – support for players that emerged from the same place as yourself can be life affirming.
“It’s still shocking to me how little we talk about this title-winning team.”
Despite my love of this 89 team, I’ll forever bristle at attempts to paint George Graham as a man of complete honour, given his eventual dismissal for taking bungs (and subsequent decision to manage Spurs) but, through gritted teeth I’ll accept his genius as a tactician and man-manager and watching this team over 90 minutes in cinema was a welcome change after a decade of trauma on account of Arsene Wenger’s hopeful, if not naive, approach to big games.
It’s still shocking to me how little we talk about this title-winning team or that unforgettable night at Anfield. Without the iconic Martin Tyler scream, the 30+ Sky cameras in the stands or Geoff Shreeves going pitchside at the final whistle, there seems to be a tendency amongst fans to relegate this moment, or exclude it from its proper place in history.
Had ArsenalFanTV been around 25 years earlier, had Robbie pulled up to Anfield with a shoulder-cam, maybe we’d have more to chew on, in this era of unprecedented access and virality. Instead, all we have is the football and the memories.
’89’ is in ourscreen.com cinemas from 11th November and on DVD and digital download from 20th November.