In modern footballing discourse, conducted by faceless, 15-year-old Twitter users, it is widely accepted that Manchester City’s 3-2 win over QPR, or more accurately the final goal of that game, is the most dramatic moment in English top-flight history. And in the history of the Premier League, that is probably true. But in the top-flight? That honour belongs to another, more seismic moment. Step up, Michael Thomas.
Thomas had a solid career. Not world-beating, but solid. He won two England caps under Bobby Robson but was never a world-class talent. In fact, if you Google his name, he isn’t even the first athlete to come up. The search engine’s algorithm suggests that a different Michael Thomas, a wide receiver for the New Orleans Saints, is more noteworthy than his namesake.
The original Michael Thomas, however, has a reputation far more distinguished than his career statistics first suggest. His iconography precedes him thanks to one mind-melting moment in 1989.
1989 was perhaps the most dramatic year in English football history, for reasons of contrasting emotional significance. Six weeks prior to the earth-shattering moment which immortalised Michael Thomas and brought untold joy to his club, Arsenal, came an event of utterly disparate emotion. The Hillsborough disaster took place on April 15, the day of the FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The tragedy had a direct effect on the events of six weeks later, 26 May 1989.
The FA Cup had taken on increased significance in the era following the Heysel disaster which saw English clubs expelled from European football for five years. The FA Cup, therefore, served as an auxiliary Champions League. That 96 fans died on such a big stage only added to the despair; what should have been a momentous day for those fans ended in their deaths.
It seemed ludicrously insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but the semi-final had to be replayed, resulting in disruption to the footballing calendar. Liverpool ultimately triumphed in the replay, and the final had to be moved too. This meant that Liverpool’s last remaining fixture in that season’s old First Division would be played later than planned.
Liverpool were top of the league at that time and, as it transpired, their opponents for that final day clash were Arsenal, the team in second place.
For most of that 1988-89 season, Arsenal had sat atop of the table. At one point, they amassed an 11-point lead. Liverpool had been hovering around 5th place at this stage and, though they played mesmerising, full-blooded attacking football, they were not expected to challenge for the title at the midpoint of the season.
But Arsenal stuttered, and so too did the teams around them. Liverpool took full advantage. They won every match between March 1 and April 11. They dropped points in their first match after the Hillsborough disaster, drawing with Everton, their rivals who they would eventually overcome in the FA Cup Final a few weeks later. That 0-0 was expected to be the start of a dip in form, with pundits assuming, not without reason, that the effects of the tragedy would weigh heavy on Liverpool’s shoulders. But that did not turn out to be the case. They won the next four matches, including a 5-1 thrashing of West Ham on the penultimate matchday of the season.
For Arsenal, the omens were not good. In the two games before the title decider at Anfield, they had lost 2-1 at home to Derby County and drawn away to bottom half Wimbledon. They had drawn to Liverpool earlier that season in the league but were knocked out by the same opponents in the League Cup, although admittedly only after two replays.
This was not the Arsenal of the mid-90s through to the mid-2000s. Under the stewardship of George Graham, the Gunners were a side built on defensive solidity. They had a semi-legendary back four made up of Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams and Steve Bould. Up front, there was the talismanic target man Alan Smith, accompanied by one of the more technical, more dextrous players in the team, Paul Merson. Merson was the exception that proved the rule; this was not an exciting side – in terms of their strategy, at least.
Two chants “1-0 to the Arsenal” and “boring, boring Arsenal” were commonplace coming from the terraces, proving that the brand of football that Graham espoused was hardly dazzling or artistic. But, with that being said, they were the division’s top scorers that season. Most campaigns, the goals scored column doesn’t really count for much. Points on the board and occasionally goal difference are what separates teams in the final standings. But in 1988-89, the number of goals that boring, boring Arsenal netted would prove to be the difference.
In contrast to Arsenal, Liverpool were seen as the division’s great entertainers. They were a team with a number of flair players and naturally prolific goalscorers. John Barnes was perhaps the league’s best player, John Aldridge had scored 60 goals over the previous two campaigns, Peter Beardsley was a magnetic driving force, and there was solidity at the back through Alan Hansen and Gary Ablett.
Throughout the late 70s and early to mid-80s, they had been, not just the country’s dominant team, but Europe’s as well. They won the European Cup four times between 1977 and 1984. On top of that, they were the reigning league champions having stormed to the title in 1987-88, losing just two games in a 40-game season.
It looked like they would make it two league titles in a row in 1989, going into the final day with a three-point advantage. But, even with the 5-1 win over West Ham taken into account, Liverpool trailed Arsenal by eight goals scored. Their goal difference, however, was superior. Liverpool had +39 while Arsenal had +35. Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at Wimbledon meant they had 73 points to Liverpool’s 76.
Arsenal had not won the league since 1971. They had not won at Anfield since 1974. That fate had brought these two teams together for the final day of the season was one those wonderful twists of destiny which football occasionally provides. As Brian Moore – the commentator for that night’s television coverage – said, it was a night of “chilling simplicity.” He was alluding to the numbers: Arsenal needed to win, and win by two clear goals if they were to be crowned champions on goals scored.
This did not suit Graham’s managerial style. He was a reactive manager, preferring to respond to events as they happened rather than taking the game to opponents. It is telling that Arsenal played with a back-five in this match in which goals were so important…
While it is easy to poke fun at his conservative approach, his plan worked to a tee. Liverpool’s attacking players were largely muzzled throughout the match. It was Arsenal who had the better of the first half, going close through Steve Bould’s header.
Seven minutes into the second period and Arsenal won an indirect free-kick, about 40 yards from goal, close to the right-hand touchline. The left foot of Nigel Winterburn floated a ball into the box, Tony Adams made a magnificent decoy run, and Alan Smith got the deftest of touches on the ball with his head to put it past Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar and into the net.
The Arsenal fans went wild, and so too did the Liverpool players remonstrating with the referee. According to different accounts, they believed the goal was either A) offside or B) a foul as Alan Smith apparently hadn’t got a touch on the indirect free-kick. Neither claim was true. The referee went over to his linesman who confirmed as much. 1-0 with 38 minutes remaining.
But those 38 minutes elapsed and still there was no second Arsenal goal. With a few minutes remaining, Michael Thomas had been put through on goal but proceeded to poke his effort at the palms of Grobbelaar. It was a miss that, in a different paradigm, could have defined Thomas’s career. But a few short minutes later, an altogether different moment materialised. Luckily for Thomas, it was this that proved to be his moment of truth.
With whistles sounding around Anfield, Lee Dixon launched a tired ball up field. Ever reliable in holding up the ball, Alan Smith controlled and lofted a pass through to Thomas. The midfielder was lucky. He got the better of a rebound off a Liverpool defender when he was trying to bring the ball under his spell and all of a sudden, he found himself through on goal.
Remembering his miss a few minutes prior, this time he decided to try something a little different. He half-stabbed, half-dinked the ball beyond the onrushing goalkeeper. Seconds later, the Arsenal fans were going ballistic as Thomas wheeled away in celebration. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish looked on stone-faced as the Arsenal bench erupted into ecstasy. Arsenal had won the league in stoppage time.
The late 80s was a reserved era. There was none of the Sky Sports melodrama. Football was something that happened to be on TV rather than reliant on it. But in terms of its gravity, this moment exceeded anything that a television producer could dream of. Thomas would leave Arsenal in 1991 after 163 matches for the club. Where to? Liverpool; where else.