How Arsenal Won the League in 1988/89

When people think about dramatic endings to a league season, many minds will wander back to the famous “Agueroooo” moment involving Man City and Queens Park Rangers. While the Argentine striker supplied us with the most climactic ending to a Premier League campaign, the way Arsenal clinched the First Division in 1989 was just as breath-taking, if not even more so.

In fact, it would be fair to say that the ending of the 1988/89 First Division is perhaps the greatest all-time conclusion to an English top-flight league. You may disagree if you are a Liverpool fan, of course, but for the Arsenal faithful, or any neutrals, 26th May, 1989 served up an incredible day of football.


George Graham, manager
George Graham, manager (Rob Mieremet | Wikipedia)

Towards the final stages of the 1988/89 First Division (then the top tier of English football) we had a two-horse title race on our hands. Nottingham Forest had been contenders earlier on but they endured a seven-game winless run, starting in March, which removed them from all contention. Their huge slump let Liverpool and Arsenal battle it out, head-to-head, for the league title. The Merseysiders were the defending champions while Arsenal had only finished sixth the season before and were 18 years without a league trophy.

The Gunners remained in pole position as the clubs entered the latter stages despite Liverpool enjoying nine victories on the bounce across March and April. With just three games to go, Arsenal stood on 72 points with Liverpool trailing on 70 and with an inferior goal difference (+33 versus Arsenal’s +36). Perhaps the pressure got to George Graham’s men at this stage though as they then lost 2-1 at home to Derby before only managing a home draw with mid-table Wimbledon.

With Liverpool winning both their games in the meantime, this put the Reds three points clear of Arsenal coming into the final game of the season. Not only this but because they had thrashed West Ham 5-1, this meant they enjoyed a +4 goal difference advantage over Arsenal. Normally this would mean the title was all but settled but Arsenal’s destiny still remained in their own hands because the final game of the season saw the Gunners travel to Anfield.

The Stage Is Set

Arsenal’s superior goals scored record meant they needed to win by at least a two-goal margin to pip Liverpool to the title. A two-goal win would see the clubs level on points and goal difference, at which points goals scored became the tie-breaker. Anything less than this, so a loss, a draw or just a one-goal win would have handed the title to the reigning champions.

Here we had this truly fascinating ending to the 1988/89 season, the absolute definition of a title-deciding match. Winning one match by two goals certainly sounds possible but Arsenal were facing a team that had not lost a league game since New Year’s Day. In fact, across all competitions, Liverpool had only lost two home games over the entire campaign and both by a one-goal margin.

Evidently, beating Liverpool by at least two goals on their own turf was going to be a monumental challenge. For many Arsenal players, it was a challenge seen as too great to overcome. Midfielder Michael Thomas later admitted that:

None of the boys believed we could turn it round. The only one who really 100 per cent believed was (manager) George Graham.

The Big Game

David O'Leary
David O’Leary (Marcel Antonisse | Wikipedia)

Arsenal had played the 1988/89 season with a back four but given the position they found themselves in, Graham opted for a different approach. Rather than a more adventurous back-three, Graham went for a back-five, deploying David O’Leary as a sweeper. While it puzzled some players, Graham knew conceding the first goal would have killed any realistic hope of getting the result his side needed.

Rather than any sort of gung-ho approach, Graham sought to nullify the Liverpool threat and attack on the counter or from set pieces. The tactical decision seemed to be paying off when Alan Smith put the visitors ahead after 52 minutes when heading in a long hopeful free-kick. Now just one goal from throwing away the title, the Kop tried to rally their troops but the hosts struggled to find a way past a robust Arsenal rearguard.

The Reds were at least able to remain solid themselves though and as the clock ticked on, expectations grew that the hosts would hold on. This confidence was summed up when, with just seconds to go, John Barnes decided to dribble the ball inside the Arsenal box rather than taking it to the corner flag. When Barnes subsequently lost possession, Arsenal flooded forward looking desperately to mount one final attack…

Goalkeeper, John Lukic, threw the ball to Lee Dixon who launched it upfield to Alan Smith. Arsenal’s goalscorer brought the ball down well, turned inside and played a floated ball to Michael Thomas who was making a central run. Thomas’s first touch was loose however and ended up hitting the on-rushing Liverpool defender. The visitors got the slice of luck they needed though as after hitting Nicol, the ball came straight back to Thomas who was still in full sprint.

The Arsenal midfielder, who later ended up signing for Liverpool, was now clean through with just Bruce Grobbelaar to beat. Taking his time, he waited for Grobbelaar to go to ground before hitting the ball with the outside of his boot, over the keeper’s outstretched leg. It was the type of composed finish you might have expected from a top striker, not a man who averaged around one goal every 10 games over his career.

Needless to say, the Arsenal players, staff and fans were euphoric while their Liverpool counterparts were utterly stunned. Manager Kenny Dalglish looked on motionless while many of his players simply fell to the floor in disbelief. Liverpool did have time for one final attack after this moment but it was calmly snuffed out by that man Thomas.


In the words of ITV commentator Brian Moore, Arsenal’s victory at Anfield was the most dramatic conclusion to a league campaign in the Football League’s long history. Sure there have been some truly unforgettable moments like goalkeeper Jimmy Glass scoring in injury time to keep Carlisle clear of relegation, but nothing quite like this. Here you had the two title contenders up against one another, both in control of their own fate, in a kind of cup final. This situation is rare enough but to have such a match settled in the dying moments makes it a truly special, once-in-a-lifetime event, especially for the Arsenal fans!