This article originally appeared in issue 214 of the Gooner. It looks better in print.
Part two appears in issue 215, currently on sale, and I will post it here once that issue is no longer current.
It is Bank Holiday Monday, May 4 1991, and it is raining at Roker Park, the home of Sunderland. The ground has seen better days, and Arsenal’s away followers are massed on an open terrace with our backs to the North Sea, which is chucking everything it has at us. We’re here to see the championship won back off Liverpool, who we handed it back to rather limply last season. The rain and a fairly dour display by Arsenal mean that 0-0 is a fair result, and the title would have to wait until we’ve dragged our soggy bodies back to London.
Of more immediate concern is the mob of angry Wearsiders occupying the standing enclosure and, highly unusually, the upper tier of the stand to our left. From the moment the gates open they’re making a huge racket, one clad in a Hummel-era Spurs top just to irritate. The rest of them dredge up every 1970s chant about what they’re going to do to us outside. Combined with the poor football on show it’s like stepping back 20 years. Just as we’re all wondering how fast a fat man from Sunderland can run after us the mood changes. Possibly aware they’ve just seen this year’s Champions, or just to show they were only messing when they were threatening to tear us several new ones, the Sunderland lads suddenly want to be our best mates. They break out in song, swap scarves through the fence and shake hands, wishing us well for the run-in.
It was just one event in a very eventful season.
The George Graham years, and indeed the entire history of Arsenal from 1980 to 1996 revolve around one moment: Michael Thomas’s immortal surge through the Liverpool defence (click for video, go on) and flick past Bruce Grobbelaar to take the 1989 league championship. The drama of that season, and that defining goal, overshadow much in the memory of everyone connected with Arsenal of what came after. But 1990-91, which was twenty years ago this season, offered thrill after thrill, and twists and turns to keep us all gripped from the moment the first ball was kicked.
It was a big season for me, too, my first of following Arsenal away pretty much everywhere. I was an Arsenal obsessed 14-year-old and life revolved around Saturdays, home or away, heading up the motorway with my Dad and some friends.
So much has changed in twenty years. England had just reached the World Cup Semi Final and the humdrum reality of league football seemed to contrast with the glamour of the tournament in Italy. There was one ITV game a week on live if you were lucky, and no European football at all.
We were playing for the Barclays League Championship, an ugly triangular shaped thing with the graceful Football League trophy, now awarded to the winners of the Championship thrown in as an afterthought. Ian Wright was playing for a youthful Crystal Palace side that would finish third and impress everyone in the process. Highbury was, apart from the recently-erected executive boxes and roof over the Clock End, pretty much unchanged in fifty years. The Taylor Report was soon to change that, but as the teams ran out for the first home game of the season, an evening match against Luton Town attended by 32,723 the players applauded the West Stand with Junior Gunners enclosure in front of it, the Clock End, East Stand still with old school greenhouse-style dug outs and the boisterous North Bank, enclosed by its low, noise-echoing roof.
Before that we’d kicked off the season at the Makita International tournament at the old Wembley Stadium. Both the weekend fixture against Sampdoria and the evening victory over Aston Villa, managed by Dr Jozef Venglos, the last and possibly only man with a doctorate to manage in England, were played in very hot weather, and the heat went up a few degrees at the latter when new signing Anders Limpar (some great goals by the original Super Swede here), who looked like a pacy replacement for the departed winger Brian Marwood, burst through the defence to lash home from a tight angle. He was one to watch. Other new signings were Andy Linighan, an addition to the already-established back four, and most controversially David Seaman in goal. He’d nearly joined us on deadline day the previous season but the deal had fallen through. Arsenal fans had rallied around John Lukic and Seaman got a mixed reception at first. He won us over by being fantastic.
The first day of the season took place against a club who no longer exist at a ground that is long gone. The tube journey to Plough Lane, Wimbledon through the longest tunnel on the Underground seemed to take forever, and when we got there we were greeted with a ground offering, like so many others, unreconstructed Victorian facilities. Years after this match I went to Tanzania and used a pit latrine and the smell reminded me instantly of this afternoon: a slowly boiling outdoor toilet. Goals from Merse, Alan Smith and an absolute belter from Perry Groves got us off to a winning start.
My ticket stub collection for this season is a bit sparse, not because I wasn’t at games but because you could often pay cash on the door at many away grounds. At Nottingham Forest’s City Ground a policeman stopped me, baffled, at the turnstiles and asked what the large wooden block I had in a bag was. My father, who had made the item, explained that it was for me to stand on as I was a bit of a short-arse those days (I still am), and the copper gave me a stern glare and ordered me to ‘grow!’. This box was a feature of that season. People next to me would try to knock me off it to get a better view themselves, and when a goal went in and everyone went flying I had to push through the post-goal scrum to try and retrieve it.
The previous season we’d gone to Old Trafford on the first day of the season as champions. Michael Knighton had just had his bogus bid to buy the club accepted and jogged round the pitch bouncing a ball on his head. Gus Caesar had a shocker and we’d taken a 4-1 hammering. A couple of years before there had been two bad-blooded encounters, one as we lost a long unbeaten run at the same ground and then when Brian McClair had missed a last minute penalty, earning him a taunting from a delighted and relieved Nigel Winterburn. Their fans were confident, taunting us as we walked around the ground beforehand. Long queues formed by red-brick turnstile blocks three hours before kick off. It was never going to go down well then when after United throwing the kitchen sink at a by now firmly established David Seaman for half an hour we scored from an Anders Limpar wonder-shot from by the corner flag. United were seriously wound up and Arsenal weren’t giving an inch.
The second half brawl didn’t affect the result but it made the day unforgettable. The United fans behind the away enclosure were baying for blood and we were kept in for a long time afterwards. Not that it mattered, three points under those circumstances was a triumph to savour. Incidentally, it cost £5 to get into Old Trafford that afternoon.
To be continued…