Forget Sergio Aguero’s last-minute strike against QPR in 2012, the greatest finish to a title race in the history of English football occurred on May 26th, 1989 when Liverpool played Arsenal in the final game of the season at Anfield.
The difference being that the two teams who were competing for the league championship that season were actually playing each other, in the very last game, on the final day, live on a Friday night in a winner takes all encounter.
But to really understand the enormity of the occasion you have to go back at what had happened in the weeks and months leading up to that most historic of nights which had all unfolded in front of our very eyes.
At Christmas it was Arsenal who were favourites to win their first title for 18 years as they battled at the top of the Barclays League Division One table with unfancied Norwich City, whereas Liverpool were back in sixth place and a full six points off their North London rivals.
By January Arsenal had stretched their lead over Liverpool to nine points after something of a collapse from Liverpool; including a New Year’s Day defeat against Manchester United which left their title ambitions in tatters.
That loss would be Liverpool’s last defeat until the end of May, however, as Kenny Dalglish’s men mounted an incredible run which saw them win 15 and draw three of their final 18 games going into the encounter with Arsenal on the final day.
A streak made all the more remarkable seeing as many of these games were played out against the horror and grief caused by the tragedy that occurred at Hillsborough ahead of the FA Cup semi-final on April 15th – which ultimately caused the death of 96 Liverpool supporters.
Liverpool’s next two league games were postponed as the club, its supporters, the nation and the football world mourned and it would be another fortnight before they played again, with the Football League facing something of a headache when it came to arranging the remaining games.
But the enforced break, which had seen some Liverpool players attending as many as three funerals a day, didn’t appear to affect their form on the field and between their first game back following the disaster, when they drew with Everton at Goodison Park, and the eventual showdown with Arsenal, Liverpool played six and won six.
Arsenal, on the other hand, only had to play three times during that period, and somehow managed to drop five points at home as they lost at home to Derby County and drew with Wimbledon at Highbury, seemingly gifting the title to the side who had been all but out of it at Christmas.
When Liverpool ran riot and scored five in their penultimate game against West Ham, not only did it relegate West Ham, it also meant that if the title was to go to London, Arsenal would have to beat Liverpool by two clear goals in the final game of an epic campaign at Anfield.
So as it worked out, a game that was originally scheduled for late April would now be the final act in this most enthralling season some four weeks later with Liverpool facing Arsenal in the last game of the season in a match that would, one-way-or-another, settle the most incredible of title races.
To make their task even more daunting, Arsenal hadn’t won at the home of Liverpool in 14 years and it had been three years since the Reds had been beaten at home by two clear goals.
As a result, most of the 20 million audience that tuned in that night settled back to watch what everyone assumed would be the coronation of Liverpool as First Division champions for the 18th time in their history.
Arsenal, led by former player George Graham, had other ideas however, stifling Liverpool in the first half and playing on the break in the second having gone against the grain on the biggest night in their history and adopting a revolutionary sweeper system.
The game turned on its head when they scored through Alan Smith on 52 minutes to set up a grandstand finish to a blockbuster season and with a minute of injury time remaining the season still hung in the balance as Arsenal ‘keeper John Lukic bowled the ball out to Lee Dixon on the edge of his own box.
The full-back sent the ball further downfield towards Alan Smith who controlled the ball just inside the Liverpool half and before spotting the forward run of Michael Thomas and playing a delightful through-pass.
Attempting to flick the ball past the onrushing Steve Nicol, the ball rebounded straight into the midfielder’s path, leaving him through on Grobbelaar’s goal and the destiny of the league title at his feet as the nation held its breath.
“It’s up for grabs now!” yelled ITV commentator Brian Moore as Thomas seemed to take an eternity, before tapping the ball into the far corner of the net just as several Liverpool defenders threw themselves at him in a desperate attempt to try and block his shot.
Moments later the final whistle sounded and Arsenal had done the unthinkable as the players rushed to celebrate while the Liverpool team, who had endured the most grueling and emotionally draining season possible sank to the ground in disbelief with the Kop saluting their heroes as well as applauding the new champions.
Titles may have been won in dramatic fashion since, but not directly between two opposing teams who have subsequently experienced the joy of victory and pain of defeat right there on the same pitch, in front of an audience of millions.
And that is why Liverpool versus Arsenal on May 26th, 1989 is still the greatest finish to a title race ever.
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