LEE WYNNE remembers the dramatic Michael Thomas goal that clinched the title for Arsenal, at the home of the defending champions.
“One minute!” Liverpool’s Steve McMahon raised a finger to his teammates, his voice barely audible above the din inside Anfield. The Merseyside giants were moments away from winning an unprecedented 18th league title.
Liverpool held a three-point advantage and a superior goal difference over Arsenal going into the final league game of the 1988/89 season, having clawed back an 11-point deficit since January. The Gunners had faltered when it mattered most, a 2-2 draw with Wimbledon at Highbury in their home finale meant they travelled to Anfield needing to beat a team on course for a league and cup double by two clear goals.
The Reds had secured the FA Cup the previous weekend after beating local rivals Everton 3-2 in an emotionally charged game for players and fans alike, with the horror of events at Hillsborough in the semi-final fresh in everyone’s minds. Due to the tragedy, the original fixture was cancelled and pushed back until after the traditional season finale at Wembley.
The home side were clear favourites in the lead up to the game, with few outside the marble halls of Highbury giving The Gunners any chance of overcoming an experienced and medal-laden Liverpool side. For Arsenal, to do the unthinkable and get the result needed, they would have to do so at a ground where they had not won in the league for almost 15 years.
George Graham used the lack of expectation to his advantage. On the afternoon of the game, the Arsenal manager announced his starting XI with the experienced David O’Leary operating as a sweeper as part of a five-man defence. The North London side would look to keep it tight, subdue the crowd and not panic knowing one goal would put enormous pressure on the home side, as it was their title to lose.
Millions tuned into the TV coverage at home on a glorious summer evening, and the scene was set for one of the most dramatic climaxes to an English football season seen to this day. Both teams emerged from the tunnel, greeted by a deafening roar from both sets of supporters. All Arsenal players carried a bouquet of flowers to commemorate the fans lost at Hillsborough, handing the gifts of solidarity to home fans around the pitch perimeter prior to kick-off.
The first 45 minutes was high on intensity but low on substance. The Gunners had the best chance of the half when Steve Bould saw a header cleared off the line by Steve Nicol. Liverpool’s chances were hampered when they lost record goalscorer Ian Rush to a groin strain after half an hour.
As the game wore on, Graham’s game plan was working to perfection as Arsenal stifled Liverpool and then took the lead early in the second half through an Alan Smith header. The Gunners were one goal away from lifting the title.
As time ebbed away, John Barnes tried to cut inside towards the Arsenal goal as the Kop urged him to run down the clock. Kevin Richardson stepped in and dispossessed him, sending the ball back to goalkeeper John Lukic to launch what would be their final attack. Lukic, however, threw the ball out to right back Lee Dixon who lofted a ball into the channel for Alan Smith. The forward’s touch was excellent; he controlled and lifted a left-footed pass over the Liverpool defenders Gary Ablett and Alan Hansen towards Michael Thomas who had surged forward.
Thomas’s first touch ricocheted against Steve Nicol but ran perfectly back into his path. Ray Houghton desperately lunged towards the ball but it was too late, Thomas hit the bottom corner of the net with a right footed shot past Bruce Grobbelaar at the Anfield Road end to send the Arsenal players, bench and fans into rapture. Emotion took over, Thomas lurched forward in celebration, rolling and flipping on the ground before being mobbed by teammates.
At the final whistle, inconsolable Liverpool players sat on the chewed-up turf dumbfounded as their North London counterparts celebrated their first league title win since the legendary Bertie Mee’s team of 1970/71. Tony Adams lifted the trophy aloft; Arsenal had defied the odds and wrestled the league title away from Liverpool on their own patch.
By scoring the title-clinching goal, Michael Thomas etched himself into Arsenal folklore. He remained at Highbury for another two seasons where he won a second league title before signing for the team whose hearts he broke in 1991. Despite adding an FA Cup winners medal to his collection in 1992, where he scored a spectacular volley in the final against Sunderland, Thomas will forever be remembered as the player who scored the most dramatic goal to clinch English football’s top prize.