Last week I was running a coaching session for children and put them into a small sided game. One team were given orange bibs and named Holland. The other set of bibs were coloured pink so I thought – Juventus (who else wears pink?!).
One kid noted, ‘but league teams don’t play international teams’. Fair point but then I thought; there was that time when France came to Highbury for a friendly in the 1988-89 season. The kids were fascinated to learn that this once happened, as well as being confused with one kid pointing out “But Arsenal have so many French players how does that work?”
Of course in 1989 we had no Frenchmen in the squad. Our sole overseas players were Ireland’s David O’Leary and Niall Quinn. Every other player was eligible to play for England.
It’s my understanding that this game came about because France were playing Scotland in a vital World Cup qualifier and wanted some experience against a British team. From our point of view it was a game worth playing because we had no European football due to the ban on English clubs between 1985 and 1990.
That night in February 1989 Arsenal played in the yellow away kit which became immortalised a few months later with the title win at Anfield. With no away fans and the game being a friendly, the Clock End terrace was closed off, however, the North Bank made up for it with passionate vocal support. Despite being just a friendly the game did have a competitive edge to it, and beating a team like France carried plenty of kudos in our eyes. Three years earlier they had made in to the semi final of the 1986 World Cup and were one of the best teams of the 1980s; though by this point were a declining force.
From kick off it was clear that the French had better technique and moved the ball around very well. But George Graham’s team had great organisation plus an attacking edge and we won the game with two goals of quality. The first came about when Paul Merson scuffed a shot on the 20 yard line which was the opposite of quality; luckily, the ball rolled to Martin Hayes who smashed it past the great Joel Bats and into the top corner.
Later in the second half, Perry Groves made a great run down the right wing and crossed the ball into the box. Niall Quinn stretched out his long leg and with a beautiful touch softly chipped the ball over the head of the stranded Bats.
Despite being a friendly with a lower than average attendance, the goal celebrations from the players and the crowd were no different to any other game. Beating France mattered as we had no other opportunity to prove ourselves against the best overseas teams. The irony is that in recent years it’s been easier to field an Arsenal team versus England than it has against France. In the last couple of years the breakthrough of Wiltshire, Gibbs, Chamberlin and Walcott has slightly redressed the balance of English players.
Highlights of this game from 1989 can be found on youtube and I certainly recommend giving it a watch as a unique moment in Arsenal’s history. Put it this way: will we ever play France again?