“Something happened that everybody said was impossible.”
These were the words of Lee Dixon, speaking at the premiere of 89, a new documentary film that tells the story of Arsenal’s fabled last-minute league win over Liverpool in 1989.
Dixon – an executive producer of the film and full back in that championship winning side – was of course referencing Michael Thomas’ title-winning goal, scored with practically the last kick of the season. A goal savoured by Arsenal fans past and present, and heralded as one of the most dramatic moments in English football history, the subject makes for an enticing watch. Without the interviews that simultaneously help to tell the story and ground it in reality, the implausible nature of Thomas’ winner would certainly blur the lines between fact and fiction.
The cinematic quality of the 1988/89 season is, in fact, evidenced throughout the documentary, which chronologically re-traces the campaign. Arsenal’s underdog status is stressed and contrasted to the footballing dominance that Liverpool had enjoyed both domestically and in Europe throughout the 1970s and 80s. Add to the mix a group of exciting young players stewarded by manager George Graham and a title-drought spanning 18 seasons, and the narrative is further enriched.
Capturing the twists-and-turns of the domestic campaign, 89 explores the lofty highs of an 11-point lead at one point enjoyed by the Gunners, and the deflation of seemingly throwing it all away after being overtaken by Liverpool going into the last game of the season.
Last Wednesday, 8 November, fans and former players gathered on the Holloway Road in North London for the film’s premiere. The occasion was enriched by a pervading warmth of nostalgic joy, with Arsenal’s recent shortcomings forgotten for one night only, and past glories once again celebrated.
Many of the stars of the team were present: Tony Adams – the captain of the side, Michael Thomas – the winning goalscorer, and manager George Graham, along with Arsenal fanatics and documentary contributors Alan Davies and Nick Hornby. Fans were treated to an entertaining round-table discussion compèred by Davies and featuring several of the players, during which the “impossible” nature of the victory was once again pondered.
Thomas indulged the audience with the assertion that the win was fated, fuelling the aforementioned bubble of nostalgia.
He said: “I just knew in my bones that I’d get another chance to finish it off,” referencing an opportunity that he had squandered minutes before his goal. “I wish you’d told us about 20-minutes before,” was Dixon’s retort.
The film’s final chapter, unsurprisingly, covers that match, and moment, at Anfield, deconstructing the game’s minutiae: Thomas’ miss and Alan Smith’s opening goal, among others.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the film, however, is its handling of the Hillsborough disaster, which occurred just five weeks before the face-off at Anfield. Players candidly speak on the impact that the tragedy had on them, with most admitting that it rendered the football itself somewhat meaningless.
Dixon reiterated those feelings at the premiere: “We were all trying to come to terms, somehow, with a thing that was unimaginable, and then to have this match on top of that with the team who was going for it, that thought they lost it, against the great Liverpool side who were going through this trauma.
“That night there was an intensity in that stadium the likes of which I didn’t think I’d ever seen anywhere else.”
The film transitions smoothly, after a touching moment of reflection, back towards the football. An extended re-construction of the match is made strikingly visceral by previously unseen camerawork from pitch-side, and the emotional climax to the piece was celebrated not only by the players on-screen, but also by the fans in the cinema, who greeted Thomas’ finish with cheers.
Tony Adams recalled the aftermath, once the trophy had been lifted: “We smashed all the ceilings in,” he mused. Footage from the film would seem to concur.
All jokes aside, this is what 89 – both the moment and the film – epitomises: the unfettered elation of a title from a bygone era. A time before Premier League money served to engender what has come to be known as a ‘top four.’
Graham, when asked why his team in 1988/89 were so good, simply said: “I had hungry players, desirable players, players with passion.
“They just wanted to get better and better and better.”
Admittedly, this alone is not enough to win a league title – Graham went on to laud the defensive discipline of his side, for example – but many would argue, and some did on the way out of the cinema, that this is what’s lacking in modern football.
89, then, delivers this most precious of commodities – nostalgia – with aplomb. Rather than focusing solely on the famous season-ending fixture at Anfield in isolation, it places the campaign in context, considering along the way the landscape of English football at the time, as well as the tragedy of Hillsborough. Whilst on the surface the documentary could be mistaken for a film exclusively meant for Arsenal fans, the combination of the moments that made up the season, as well as its unforgettable finale, makes 89 an enjoyable watch for supporters of any team.
89 is in Ourscreen cinemas from 11th November and available for digital download from 20 November.
Featured Image © Joe Leavey