Not since 1934-35 have Arsenal successfully defended the league title and the 1989-90 effort didn’t come close to changing that stat. By May we had fallen well short to the eventual winners Liverpool; a club who nobody at the time would have possibly imagined would go at least 24 years without repeating that success.
Worst of all about 1989-90 was that we would end up in 4th, one place behind a Tottenham side who had improved since the signing of Gary Lineker (though it’s worth noting that we still finished nine places above Manchester United).
Despite not being a vintage season, there were still some good times such as Tony Adams’s volley into the corner of the net that beat Tottenham 1-0 at Highbury. There was also the 2-1 victory against Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox in the Battle of Britain ‘friendly’ (we of course could not play in the European Cup because of the five year ban on English clubs).
If one match stood out as the most dramatic of the season then it was ‘Fireworks Day’ against Norwich City in November 1989. Proceedings started off on polite and civil terms as David O’Leary came on to the pitch and was applauded by both sets of players. He was making his 622nd appearance for the club which was, and still is, a record breaker.
At the tail end of the previous season Arsenal had put five in against Norwich without reply on route to being crowned champions. It was one of many severe beatings handed out over the years which contradicted the myth that Arsenal played negative football. This time in the November to Remember, City would not go down so easy and by halftime they were 2-0 up.Malcom Allen had scored a close range header from a corner and then Phillips doubled the lead with a great free kick from 25 yards. Before the free kick had been taken, tensions and tempers had flared up that would come to a boiling point by the end of the game. Malcom Allen who had won the free kick, was dragged along the ground and then roughly picked up by an angrier than normal O’Leary, who accused him of going down easy (Allen did indeed go down easy – O’Leary easily hacked his legs and sent him flying).
The game changed in the second half when Niall Quinn scored from close range after a Kevin Richardson free kick was saved by Brian Gunn. Then we were awarded a penalty when future Gunner Andy Linighan handled inside the box. Surprisingly, Lee Dixon stepped up to take the kick. This was a first and most unexpected – Lee Dixon our first choice penalty taker – since when?
In a decisive and confident fashion Dixon put the ball straight down the middle and we were level. Disaster – Norwich went 3-2 ahead. Lukic saved a long range header from Linighan only for Tim Sherwood to put the rebound into the top of the net.
A loss would have overshadowed a day of celebration for an Arsenal legend. O’Leary was a class act in defence and was talented enough to have moved on and represented more successful European sides during the early to mid 1980s when Arsenal were mediocre. He had shown us loyalty and stayed because he loved the club, and on his record appearance O’Leary scored a rare goal to make it 3-3. A cross was put in the box by Winterburn and the Irishman headed past Brian Gunn in front of the North Bank.
That was the icing on the cake – the man of the day O’ Leary had saved us from defeat and we would go home happy. More icing – in the dying seconds, Michael Thomas was brought down in the box by Butterworth and another penalty was given by referee George Tyson. Dixon stepped up again to take the kick. I can’t speak for the rest of the crowd, but I remember not being at all confident that our right back would score two penalties in one game. Dixon shot and missed – but in a day of rebounded goals he managed to stud the ball past Gunn and it slowly crossed the line. We went ballistic as did the players – both sets of players as it turned out. A fight broke out in the goal net: as Alan Smith followed the ball passed the line he was jumped on by three yellow shirts. Smith being the one player in the red and white who couldn’t and never did want a row was set upon. But he was in a team that wouldn’t allow such liberties to go unopposed. Rocky Rocastle once said of the squad “We didn’t start fights but we finished them.” Within seconds, players from both sides were involved in a confrontation that would go on to dominate the back pages for the next week.
Not one punch was thrown, just a bit of pushing and shoving along with one kick from a Norwich player. And despite having not been the side to start the ‘brawl’ the media hacks laid into Arsenal and we were labelled the villains. In 1989 Saint and Greasvie were TV’s most prominent pundits and were a bit more pragmatic over what had happened. Coming from a rougher era, they noted that the incident was no worse than “scuffles in the January sales” but they did criticize the referee for handing out two controversial penalties which they blamed for starting the row.
In general, there was mass hysteria and the back pages carried headlines such as ‘Fireworks’ and ‘disgrace’. It’s important to remember that earlier in 1989; the media’s hatred for Arsenal resulted in one prominent Tabloid’s back page carrying the image of Tony Adams with donkey ears in what was a needless insult. Back then, rival fans and the tabloid media despised Arsenal far more than now. But that was all good fun as it bought a sense of togetherness among the fans and the players. We didn’t care about what they thought, but we would be made to pay the price. The result of such press fury would go on to cost us two points the following season. And that’s another story….