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Thursday, 8 October 2015

The forgotten Arsenal Champions of 1990-91

The men who would be Kings

I was following a Twitter conversation between a number of Arsenal regulars the other day. One of them, Chris Hudson (quite a few of you will have heard of him following an epic rant against Arsene Wenger on Arsenal Fan TV a couple of years ago, others will know him, I believe, from the Arsenal Action Group of the 1980s) mentioned that the 1990-91 Arsenal team is rarely talked of or written about. He is absolutely right. When you consider that this particular squad of players were one game away from being Invincibles, and one semi-final disaster away from the Double, it really is quite the omission. I suspect someone from Arsenal was following the same conversation as they stole a march on me yesterday with their own piece about this great season in our history. I'm about to try and redress the balance slightly with my own memories of the 1990-91 Barclays League Champions.

The new boys

I was 11 years-old in 1990, starting at secondary-school in September of that year. By the time I was there George Graham had broken the spending shackles in fairly spectacular fashion. George not only signed three new first-team players, but he paid £1m or more for each of them. Admittedly a fair chunk of this was recouped in the sales of Martin Hayes, John Lukic, Kevin Richardson and Brian Marwood, but the idea of Arsenal spending out over £3m on three players was unheard of. These were the days when million pound players were still a huge thing. I think I'm right in saying that, at £1.3m, Seaman was Arsenal's record transfer at the time (Ian Wright would come in just over a year later and smash that at £2.5m). 
Seaman's arrival had been controversial. He had looked likely to arrive before the end of the previous season but the move had collapsed. Us fans were none too pleased that our own hero, John Lukic, was being shipped our unnecessarily by George. Big John had been given a massive, and emotional, send-off by the North Bank after the final home game of the season before against Southampton. Seaman would be up against things from the off. Of course he would go on to have a stellar season and prove to us that he was even better than Lukic, and every other English goalkeeper for that matter.
Anders Limpar had just played for Sweden in the World Cup. He arrived from Cremonese in Italy. Just like the man he was replacing, (Marwood) had in 1988-89 he would inspire the team in the early part of the season by being totally unplayable by any full-back he came up against. Anders was a truly wonderful footballer. Unfortunately he had as much ability to wind up George Graham as he did for destroying defenders. Ultimately he would become the latest in a long line of star players to fall out with the Manager, but not before he'd become an Arsenal legend.
Linighan was seemingly signed as the final replacement for the ageing David O'Leary. He would contend for a starting position with Steve Bould for the opportunity to partner Tony Adams at the back. Andy was already an England B player and had been an integral part of an ever improving Norwich City team at that time. The move never really worked out for him in the way he would like. He won his Championship medal by scraping the requisite number of appearances on the final day of the season, but would gain ultimate redemption at Wembley in 1993 of course. O'Leary wasn't to be replaced just yet! The problem for Linighan was that he was a decent player, but Adams, O'Leary and Bould (and later Keown) were top players. Instead of competing for a first-team place in his first season he was mostly found alongside Colin Pates in the reserves.

My favourite Arsenal shirt ever

The first sight most Arsenal fans had of the new players came at Wembley in the Makita Tournament against Aston Villa. Anders Limpar made the sort of impact that had people sitting up and taking notice as he scored a stunning goal from the left edge of the penalty-area. His drop of the shoulder to send his defender the wrong way would become familiar, as would the rocket he hit just inside the far post. In the second-half there was a goal for Kevin Campbell whose impact would be felt after Christmas, and it all seemed to bode well. An unlucky defeat to Sampdoria the following day (Seaman gifted them the winner as Arsenal hit the post on a couple of occasions) did not derail the optimism.
As in 1988-89 the boys got off to a flying start with a win at Wimbledon. Limpar was the creative spark in a 3-0 win, rounded off with a stunning third goal from Perry Groves. By the time David Rocastle and Michael Thomas had been the main architects of the first home win over Luton we were off and running. A strong run of form in September, with Rocastle and Limpar (he scored in successive games against Chelsea, Forest and Leeds - two goals in an important away draw) to the fore left Arsenal up there with an also unbeaten Liverpool. What followed would define the season ahead and show what a camaraderie this group of players had. 

 Don't mess with this Arsenal team

Ever since Whiteside had got Rocastle sent-off at Old Trafford in the mid-80s things had not been good between Arsenal and Manchester United players. McClair's missed penalty in 1988, his attack on a prone Winterburn in 1989 and further small skirmishes and battles had seen a seething dislike bubbling along. All this came to a head in October 1990 at Old Trafford. With Arsenal leading 1-0 after Limpar's opportunist shot had caught out Les Sealey, things kicked-off big style in the second-half. What happened is well documented. The long and the short of it is that the Arsenal players saw one of their own getting kicked while on the floor and they piled in to deal with the problem. Limpar, Adams, Thomas, Davis, Rocastle, even Alan Smith were all flying in to show you couldn't intimidate The Arsenal. I remember the game was live on BBC Radio and that idiot Alan Green was going in to one about the "disgraceful" scene as he knew a young family in the crowd and wondered if they would ever go to a football match again. My Dad was none too pleased with the nonsense commentary and was telling the radio what he thought of the clown. 
The fallout from the incident went on for weeks. Arsenal kept on winning games amid the media storm that sat all around them. Given that this was before the days of Sky's saturation coverage of football it is quite amazing that it became such a massive issue. The FA, as ever, bowed to the media pressure and hit Arsenal with a two point deduction in mid-November. Arsenal had already dealt with it internally by fining a number of players and the Manager - such public bad behaviour was not the Arsenal way, of course. From the fans point of view it was great, apart from the point deduction. The hatred and bile directed at Arsenal by the newspapers meant it was us against everyone once more. The whole thing ended up with an in-house Arsenal camera crew being allowed to film George talking to his players about their behaviour - you can see it here - but in private the players would now tell you that George loved the way they had gone about looking after each other. Arsenal had done their PR bit very well, but George Graham and his players weren't going to change anything.

Anders v Liverpool, December 1990

Alan Smith hadn't scored in Division One since the first game of the season at Wimbledon. The two point deduction, which looked so certain to hand the Title to Liverpool, seemed to galvanise him as he went on an incredible run of scoring that never really let up for the rest of the season. A late November home thrashing by United in the League Cup was followed by the visit of Liverpool. Like Arsenal they were yet to lose a game, and were now clear at the top following the FA decision. On that early December day at Highbury they were dismantled in the grand manner. Merson, a Dixon penalty, and a wonderful team move rounded off by Smith saw Arsenal hammer the league leaders. In hindsight that day marked the end of Liverpool's dominance in England. It was the day that they were humiliated by the new guard and by the end of the season Dalglish was gone and Liverpool are still waiting for a Championship some 25 years later. It goes unnoticed now that we drew our next three games, simply because there was a further massive event that Christmas that ought to have totally obliterated Arsenal' season.
Tony Adams scored in a 2-2 draw at home to Wimbledon (we conceded an awful equaliser in injury-time) but by the end of the following week our Captain was in prison. Tony had been caught drink-driving earlier in the year after crashing his car in to a wall. Unfortunately for him he would face his sentencing hearing in the week that the police launched their annual Christmas campaign against drinking and driving. Tony was made an example - a high-profile public figure, the Captain of Arsenal, an England international - and was sentenced to six-months in prison. There can be no condoning of what he had done but when, even today, people walk free from court after ending lives through the same offence you can see that Tony was dealt with because of who he was, rather than what he had done. 
I remember our next game was at Aston Villa, a couple of days before Christmas, and Andy Linighan came to the fore for the first time. His performance that day is often forgotten but he had a fine game as Arsenal eked out an important 0-0 draw. Had the referee not missed a clear foul on Perry Groves in the penalty area it could well have been a huge win. Three straight wins over the rest of the Christmas period showed the sheer resolve of the team, while Paul Davis took over from TA6 as skipper and was a different, but just as effective, leader of the team.
In mid-January David Seaman really started to show his value to this Arsenal side. In the North London Derby he made some stunning saves, one to deny Paul Allen sticks firmly in the memory, to earn a point. We ended up going to Chelsea in February still unbeaten. Of course this would be the game where Arsenal would finally lose. The circumstances totally built up against the Arsenal players. By the time Chelsea got their second goal we had young David Hillier in the back-four as Steve Bould had gone off injured. It's probably fair to say that, had Bould not been stricken, this squad would have gone on to be Invincible. That is genuinely how close they came. If there was a positive from the defeat at Chelsea it is that this is where Kevin Campbell first really got involved. If you think of Ljungberg's impact at the back end of 2001-02, I can tell you that Kevin Campbell did the exact same thing in 1990-91. 
In early March Arsenal went to Anfield to face Liverpool who had lost their boss and two games in recent weeks. The game was live on ITV and my brothers had gone to it on the special train that Arsenal had laid on. I rushed through my homework that Sunday so that I could be ready to watch what looked like being a bit of a decider between the top two. I've watched the game many times since then (we still have it on VHS recorded off the telly that day) and Liverpool really did go for it. David Seaman put in the best individual display of goalkeeping I have ever seen to keep us in the game. In the first-half he made some truly incredible saves. Then, during the second-half, Paul Merson broke away and finished beautifully past Grobelaar to give us the three points. The sight of the Gooners celebrating in the Anfield Road End is one of the iconic images in my mind from that season. Two weeks later I was present to see Kevin Campbell single-handedly beat a dogged Leeds (with John Lukic in goal) by scoring a brace of corkers in front of the North Bank. I think, from then on, we were really odds-on to take the Title, even though Liverpool regained some form for a while.
The home highlight of the season was against Aston Villa in a 5-0 win. Tony was back by then and had scored the winner in the FA Cup quarter-final at home to Cambridge. That night against Villa Arsenal played some of the best football I've ever seen, and I include the great Wenger teams in that assessment. Smith and Campbell bagged two goals each and Paul Davis scored a spectacular volley - a personal moment for him as reward for leading the side when Tony wasn't there. Of course it's most famous, perhaps, for David Platt having to go in goal and momentarily wearing an Arsenal shirt - the North Bank serenaded him with "you'll never play for Arsenal" - little did we know!
I'm deliberately not going to go over the FA Cup semi-final. It is the elephant in the room of this season and it can remain so. Suffice to say that George, for once, got his tactics and selection wrong. We got blitzed early on, Seaman had a 'mare, and we might still have won the game even from 3-1 down had we not kept hitting the Wembley posts or Thorstvedt hadn't played the game of his life. Let's move on.
The Title ended up being decided on May-Day Bank Holiday weekend. Chelsea beat Liverpool at Stamford Bridge before we were due to play Sunderland in a late Saturday kick-off live on ITV at Roker Park. A win would have meant celebration of the Title there and then, but Sunderland were desperate in their fight against relegation and played like men possessed. In the final minutes Gary Owers played a lovely one-two on the edge of the penalty-area and curled a beautiful right-foot shot in to the top corner of the net. Only it didn't reach the net. David Seaman was there again with a truly astonishing save to secure a 0-0 draw. I watch that save from time to time and I still don't know how he gets there. A top goalkeeper wins you points and wins you Title's. For all the goals that Limpar, Smith and Campbell and Merson created and scored, I have picked out at least five points in this piece that were won for us by Seaman that season. Incredible.

The final celebrations

On the Monday itself ITV chose to show Liverpool playing at Nottingham Forest as their live game. With Arsenal needing two points for the Title, facing a home game against a Manchester United side with one eye on a European Final, it was a crazy decision. Liverpool played in the afternoon, while we were an evening kick-off. By the time we had got to Highbury we'd already listened on the radio as Dover won the Kent Senior Cup, and then Liverpool went behind at Forest. My brothers were on the North Bank for the game so, as usual, we were at Highbury early for them get to the front of the queue and nab their usual spot on the barrier above the raised section of the terrace, just under the corner of the roof. A friend of mine from school was with us for his first trip to Arsenal (imagine that as your first game) so we went off to Finsbury Park to visit the Arsenal World Of Sport shop. Next door to that, at the entrance to Finsbury Park Station, was the Arsenal Boot Room shop. We were delighted to see that, on the TV screen inside, they were showing the Liverpool game. By this time Liverpool had equalised and me, Tim and my Dad stood gazing through the window at the game. As the trains continued to arrive so more and more people realised they could catch the end of Forest v Liverpool on the TV in the shop. Very soon there must have been hundreds of people massing outside the windows. And then Ian Woan smashed that ball in to the Liverpool net. The whole place erupted. When the final whistle went, with the crowd still increasing, it was bedlam there. Arsenal were the Champions!
I'll never forget the walk to Highbury from Finsbury Park. It truly was the march of the Champions. I'd never experienced anything quite like it - we'd celebrated Anfield '89 at home in Dover. I remember my Dad stopping to buy Champions badges for all of us - even then the street sellers were enterprising enough to gamble on Arsenal getting over the line - and then getting in to the ground to see the players supposedly warming-up, but actually mucking about and celebrating. Each player got their name sung by the North Bank and it was a massive party. As the regulars arrived around us in the East Upper there was much shaking of hands and celebratory back-slapping, especially among the old boys who had seen it all before. There was the massive "This is Arsenal, The Champions" banner unfurled from the Clock End boxes (I think) as the players came out to a guard of honour from a clearly annoyed Bryan Robson and co. And then we went on to witness a master-class as Smith banged in a hat-trick. 
Fans had been told that the players would be receiving the Barclays trophy after the game, as long as they stayed off the pitch. There was a great sense of annoyance, therefore, when those in the Clock End invaded the pitch at the end of the match. Amid announcements stating that the celebrations would be cancelled the clowns still cavorted on the pitch. And then the North Bank spoke. Chants of "You're just a bunch of w***ers" filled the air and the pitch was cleared. Tony and the boys came out and lifted the trophy to the four corners and we all went mad again. The Clock End invaded the pitch again, were called "w***ers" again, and eventually we enjoyed a lap of honour. It was one of THE great nights to be at The Arsenal.

George and Tony

I missed the final game with Coventry on the following Saturday as I had flu. With Limpar grabbing a hat-trick in a 6-1 win (Perry Groves finishing the season as he'd started) it is one of my great regrets to have not been there on the day. I missed all the celebrations with the real League Championship trophy, though I did get to have my picture taken with it (as I had in 1989) just a couple of months later.
The achievement of this side is too often overlooked, as was stated at the top of this piece. It's been a pleasure to write about them over the last couple of hours and it has brought back some exceptional memories. I hope you've enjoyed it.

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