Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Wed 30 April 2008

Now That's What I Call A Title Race (Part 2)

The concluding part of our series looking at the First Divison title race of 1988/89.

January 1989
It was a new year but old rivalries remained the same. Arsenal and Liverpool were striving for top spot in the First Division, but The Gunners had a nine point lead over The Reds and you'd be excused for thinking Kenny Dalglish's side were loosening their grip on the League Championship trophy.

Time, then, for a little distraction to test the powers of concentration. Enter the FA Cup Third Round... Arsenal were drawn away to West Ham while Liverpool had the considerably easier task of taking on Fourth Division Carlisle United. What could be easier than that? Going off to play non-league Sutton United, perhaps? Not if you're Coventry City. The part-timers dumped out the 1987 winners 2-1 to join a rare band of clubs from outside the Football League to get one over on their professional rivals in the competition.

As it was, Liverpool made far lighter work of their tie, beating Carlisle 3-0, but Arsenal slipped up. After a 2-2 draw at Upton Park, a replay back at Highbury saw them lose 1-0 to West Ham. The Gunners were now out of both Cup competitions, but at least their league form was more promising. They reached the end of January with two wins and a draw under their belt and were able to claim their second win of the season over Tottenham in the process.

Liverpool, for all their new-found Cup form, were still struggling in the league and ended January with two wins, a draw and their biggest defeat of the season so far, 3-1 away to Manchester United.

At the end of January 1989:
Arsenal: PL 21 W 13 D 5 L 3 F 48 A 22 PTS 44 GD +26
Liverpool: PL 22 W 9 D 8 L 5 F 28 A 18 PTS 35 GD +10

February 1989
There was a marked difference in the activity of our two clubs during February. Though it was a busy time for Arsenal, playing six league fixtures, Liverpool's players only took to the field once in a 2-2 draw with Newcastle. That said, they did also play their Fourth and Fifth Round FA Cup ties which, for once, didn't involve a replay. A 2-0 win away to Millwall and a 3-2 win at Hull City was enough to take them into the quarter finals.

Arsenal entered the month with a league game in hand over Liverpool, but they made up for that and more with a near unbeaten run which began with a 2-1 revenge win over West Ham. What followed was a double header against Millwall that brought them four points out of six and a defeat away to Coventry City, so come the end of February George Graham's Arsenal side could boast a massive 19 point lead over Liverpool (albeit having played four games more).

The Reds would get their chance to play their own glut of fixtures during March, but the stats going into it must have given them something to think about...

At the end of February 1989:
Arsenal: PL 27 W 16 D 7 L 4 F 54 A 25 PTS 55 GD +29
Liverpool: PL 23 W 9 D 9 L 5 F 30 A 20 PTS 36 GD +10

March 1989
If Liverpool's fans were starting to despair of their side's chances in the league at the beginning of March, their worries would be just distant memories at the end of it. This was where Kenny Dalglish's side finally clicked as everything suddenly went right for them.

While Arsenal hit an indifferent patch that saw them draw against Charlton, lose to Nottingham Forest and win against Southampton, Liverpool were in sublime form. During March they beat Charlton 2-0, Middlesbrough 4-0, Luton 5-0, Coventry 3-1, Tottenham 2-1 and Derby 1-0. It meant a maximum eighteen points were taken from six games in which they scored seventeen goals and conceded just two.

This blistering sequence of wins meant the gap between themselves and Arsenal was back down to just five points. The title race, it seemed, was back on again.

Oh, and Liverpool also beat Brentford 4-0 to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup, too. Did we mention that?

At the end of March 1989:
Arsenal: PL 30 W 17 D 8 L 5 F 60 A 31 PTS 59 GD +29
Liverpool: PL 29 W 15 D 9 L 5 F 47 A 22 PTS 54 GD +25

April 1989
Though Liverpool's form continued in much the same vein, their achievements and those of every other club would be totally overshadowed by the events that happened at Hillsborough on April 15th 1989.

Liverpool's semi-final clash against Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday's ground was abandoned after just six minutes when it became clear that many supporters at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium were being crushed. Around 5,000 people were waiting outside to get into the ground just before kick-off, prompting the police to open a set of gates that would allow them to quickly enter the stadium.

The ensuing crush resulted in 95 people losing their lives and many more being injured. It was one of the darkest days in the history of English football and no games were played for more than two weeks as the nation took stock of the harrowing scenes it saw.

As the month ended, Liverpool could at least look back on the three league wins they'd picked up prior to the events at Hillsborough that brought their run of consecutive victories to nine. Arsenal were able to boast an unbeaten run of their own too. A draw against a below-par Manchester United side and wins over Everton and Newcastle meant that when play resumed once again in May, the First Division title would be hanging delicately in the balance.

At the end of April 1989:
Arsenal: PL 33 W 19 D 9 L 5 F 64 A 32 PTS 66 GD +32
Liverpool: PL 32 W 18 D 9 L 5 F 55 A 24 PTS 63 GD +31

May 1989
All eyes were on Liverpool and Arsenal as the First Division campaign reached its nail-biting finale. The gap between the two sides was now down to just three points but Arsenal had played a game more, and that became two when George Graham's side started the month with a convincing 5-0 win over Norwich.

Liverpool were next to play two days later, but their trip to bitter rivals Everton ended goalless. On May 6th, Arsenal took to the field again to face Middlesbrough, and once again, they emerged victorious - 1-0 winners away from home. Liverpool were now five points adrift with a game in hand.

The following day, May 7th 1989, saw the replayed FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, a game fuelled with emotion which Dalglish's side won 3-1 - two of the goals being scored by John Aldridge. They'd made it through to their third Cup Final in four years, and their opponents, fittingly, would be near neighbours Everton.

The Reds were back in action again just three days later when they played and beat Nottingham Forest again, this time 1-0 in the league. The following Saturday, a full card of First Division fixtures was played, and in it Liverpool won 2-1 away to Wimbledon while Arsenal lost 2-1 at home to Derby. This catastrophically-timed defeat by The Gunners meant that their lead over Liverpool was now just two points, and Liverpool still had to play their game in hand.

The following Tuesday at Anfield, Liverpool played host to Queens Park Rangers. A win would put them top of the First Division with just two games remaining, and they duly got it by two goals to nil. There was more drama to come when the following evening, Arsenal could only manage a 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon. That meant both Arsenal and Liverpool were level on 73 points with The Gunners' goal difference better off by just two.

Before the last two fixtures could be played there was the small matter of the FA Cup Final to deal with, but a resurgent Liverpool proved there was little they couldn't handle when they won an entertaining match 3-2 after extra time. It was an incredible achievement on the part of the Liverpool players near the end of a season that had left them physically and emotionally drained. Could they last out to the end of the league competition and win the double?

Tuesday 23rd May 1989. The pressure was now building. With an incredible sense of coincidence, the last game of 1988-89 was to be played at Anfield between Arsenal and Liverpool, but before that, Dalglish's men had one extra game to squeeze in - a home tie against West Ham. With the goal difference situation being so close, Liverpool not only had to win, but win by as many goals as possible. The final score was Liverpool 5, West Ham 1.

Friday 26th May 1989. The last game of the season - Liverpool v Arsenal. Winner takes all. Having staged a monumental comeback since the start of March that had seen them win thirteen of their fourteen league matches, Liverpool were now on top of the table. They were three points ahead of Arsenal, but crucially their goal difference was +39 compared to +37 for The Gunners.

The stage was set. A 1-0 win for Arsenal would not be enough - they would have to defeat Liverpool by two clear goals to reclaim the First Division title, and only then because Arsenal had a better 'Goals Scored' figure than their opponents. Liverpool only needed a draw.

The match began, and the first half was a tense affair, ending goalless. Liverpool remained in the driving seat, but shortly after the restart, Alan Smith headed in from a Nigel Winterburn free kick to give Arsenal a 1-0 lead.

The visitors had found renewed hope, but their efforts throughout the remainder of the second half were coming to nothing. The elusive second goal they wanted so badly looked unlikely to come, but then in injury time Arsenal's Michael Thomas took up an Alan Smith pass inside the Liverpool half, got past Steve Nicol who tried and failed to win the ball from him, and with the last kick of the game and indeed the season, Thomas slotted the ball past Bruce Grobelaar in the Liverpool goal.

The visiting supporters went wild, the referee blew his whistle and that was that. Liverpool's hopes of retaining the title after an incredible late-season surge had been dashed as George Graham's side won the league when many thought their chance had gone.

End of May 1989:
Arsenal: PL 38 W 22 D 10 L 6 F 73 A 36 PTS 76 GD +37
Liverpool: PL 38 W 22 D 10 L 6 F 65 A 28 PTS 76 GD +37

Number of points gained by Arsenal and Liverpool during the 1988/89 season.

It was Arsenal's first league championship win for eighteen years and the victory was made all the sweeter by the way it had been attained. The narrowest possible margin was what came between Arsenal and Liverpool at the end of the 1988-89 season, and it's doubtless we'll ever see such a remarkable finish to the season again.

Or will we...?

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