Ahead of the release of ’89’, the movie which looks back at Arsenal’s famous league title win, I chatted to former Gunners David O’Leary and Alan Smith about their famous title-winning season.
Q: What were the thoughts going into the year with a squad made up of new players from various places?
David O’Leary: I was always fascinated when new players came into the club. I’d seen so many come and go. I’d seen so many good players come, not do it at Arsenal, go away, and be good at other clubs but not as big. I always felt they couldn’t cope with the expectation of a big club, and the demands of a big club. You’d make a judgment and think ‘We’re buying [Alan] Smith, Yeah I like him. He’s a good player’. But then you’d be thinking ‘Yeah but can he handle what comes with it’. Dixon came along, I was intrigued about him coming from Stoke to Arsenal. It would be interesting but he [Dixon] relished it, no problem at all to him. You get players that come along. So probably adding to what we’re all here for tonight that I went to Anfield that night, knowing theres a group of players there that wouldn’t be phased going out onto the pitch, It’s Anfield, the occasion the whole lot. They’d relish the occasion. That’s why I always thought we’re in with a hell of a chance. Big ask though, particularly to win by two clear goals. I’ve seen a lot of players come and I’ve seen those good players go and thought they flourished at other places but not that big place but that group we talk about, Nigel Winterburn came, another fella who came who was really good. Steve Bould, a real top class centre back. They all flourished and great signings by George.
Q: What was George like on an inter-relatable point of view? Were current Arsenal players skeptical of their places in the team?
David O’Leary: At one stage, George kept buying off centre-halves. There were tons of the them coming and going. He seemed to have a collection them. I was always into scoring goals, getting good forwards. Good forwards could win you matches. We had centre-halves coming out your ears in this place.
Alan Smith: They were trying to replace you, mate!
David O’Leary: I was for that. I didn’t know George well. I got to know him better and then he asked me to go number two which completely shocked me. I probably had belief installed myself, wanting to go attacking more. II used to like coming out with the ball, I remember my first meeting with George, him saying ‘I’m not too keen on you coming out with the ball as much as you did.” It was a way of saying you’re going to be in this team, you can’t be doing that in the same way. That was George’s way. I was very fortunate at that time, that a group of younger players came through like Rocastle and Michael Thomas. It wasn’t just young players but good players. That came with another group of players. They [Arsenal] wouldn’t just sign us, they would sign players that were good for the club, that worked out well. That was the start of good times for Arsenal again. I was all for that because I’d had a good spell at the club and there was this lean period that I was fed up hearing about. I was fed up of hearing from Pat Rice and a few others about them going over to Tottenham and beating them which must have been great to win the league. I had won cups and various things but thought to myself ‘I’d never won a league’ and never looked like winning the league. Through signings and young players coming through, there was a great character and belief about the team, thinking ‘we’ve got a chance here’. We also had a manager who was strong, hard, and wants to be a winner.
Q: You played many systems particularly in defence, how did you build that relationship with Tony Adams, Steve Bould, etc?
David O’Leary: I always felt that if I was asked to play left back that I could play. Systems never really bothered me, I could adapt. I think what George thought was to play a system “have you got the players to do it?” I think what George thought with that system [three at the back] we wanted to play, we had two top class full-backs in Winterburn and Dixon who had great energy and could get forward. We had centre-backs who complimented each other, who wouldn’t be afraid. George would always say to me ‘always stay in the middle of the two or three of them and if something slipped down Steve’s side or Tony’s side, your pace Dave, you could get there and help them out if they need it’. He always tried to say to me in many ways ‘you be the central one really’.
Q: Was Tony [Adams] the coach of the three of you [centre-backs]?
David O’Leary: I always felt, and Alan [Smith] may tell you differently, Tony was inspirational there, an on the field leader. I always felt Tony’s strength was on the pitch leader more than anything else. I don’t know if it was a coach. I think I suited any, if I played with Steve or I played with Tony. They all loved when the goalkeeper kicked the ball out, they’d love to go and challenge, and head for it. I think the pairings always complimented each other. We had a set of people that complimented each other there.
Q: The Liverpool players were quite notorious for mouthing off at the officials, did they ever give a sledging to you?
Alan Smith: Not the defenders, the likes of Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Gary Abblett, not so much. The midfield lads, Ronnie Whelan, Steve McMahon, they would be the more vocal ones, particularly when I scored and they were surrounding the ref and you’re thinking ‘we’re in trouble here’. They carried some weight about them. They were all onto the refs, they had this persuasive argument and they could intimidate refs at times so that’s why we were fearful and we only had David in there as our representative. We were thinking ‘he’s [referee] going to point to the penalty area and disallow it at any moment’. They [Liverpool] were like that and that was through a period and number of years of being successful and as I say, getting on top of refs. To be fair, the gaffer encouraged us to be like that, not abuse him but to be chipping away at him, get into his mind, appeal for everything, try and swing things your way. Certainly George wasn’t averse to that tactic but Liverpool, at the time, were the masters of it.
David O’Leary: I think they built up, over the years going there, I was a kid when I started going. You’d meet them before and all those behind the scenes staff would give you a lot of bullshit beforehand. Afterwards if they beat you, they’d give you bullshit, say how lucky you were. They knew how to play the game. I think referees went there psychologically thinking ‘This is Anfield, we’ve got to give penalties here and anything else, and we can’t give decisions against them”. It’s just something that built up over many years in the place. I remember when Alan [Smith] scored that goal, I remember thinking ‘I’m heading over to his way because I know what this place is like’. The occasion of everything, this place, life, nearly the whole world watching and him thinking “It might have touched his toe, I don’t want to take any chances, and disallow it”. I knew it touched him alright, I’m not going to let them deflect him off the other way. My biggest nightmare would have been knowing Alan scoring a goal, coming in and it’s been disallowed.
Q: When Alan’s goal went in; did you feel a change in the invincibility around Liverpool as a team?
David O’Leary: Alan might be able to say, but I thought it might be impossible to win by two clear goals but when it went in, I thought ‘we’re not far away now’.
Alan Smith: What happened was, the crowd get nervous don’t they and all of sudden now they’re thinking the unthinkable might just happen here. Their anxiety passes to the players, it always will do. I don’t know if the Liverpool lads were properly at it from the start. You could sense they weren’t quite 100% for whatever reason. After the goal, the atmosphere in the stadium changed, it gets a little bit more quitter, a bit more nervous and that plays into our hands. Having said that, we’d gone to the 90th minute without getting the second. They’d been whistling, the fans, for God knows how long for the referee to call time. We didn’t know how long was left, there was no clock in the stadium.
David O’Leary: And why did John Barnes take it [towards goal]? Why?
Q: Going back to the Hillsborough disaster, did that affect you in any way at all?
Alan Smith: I think it upset everybody. We obviously had the break in play. That affects you mentally and physically. You’re watching the tele and seeing the Liverpool lads and Kenny Dalglish, the staff attending funerals every day. You feel for them. The whole thing dominated the news agenda and dominated the country. It can’t fail not to affect you. You were desperate for the first match after that, and that was Norwich on Good Friday or Easter Monday, one of the two.
Q: Was that your first match back after the cheek bone injury?
Alan Smith: That’s right. The gap helped me to get fit again. But Hillsborough affected us in different ways, let’s put it that way.
Q: In the 1988/89 season, you were scoring at a higher rate than you ever had in previous seasons, did that give you belief that would score the two goals in the game against Liverpool?
Alan Smith: I was in good form. You go into it feeling confident. I was vying for the golden boot with John Aldridge. Adidas wanted to do a little presentation at the start, like a shoot-out. They wanted me and John on the pitch beforehand but John in the end, he was unsure, and didn’t want to do it. I had a good season, got on a roll, started at Wimbledon on the first day, got a hat-trick. I was always a player that needed to get on a run. I didn’t have many droughts that season, nothing significant. You just go on a bit of a roll and if it comes, you don’t really think about it opposed to a drought when you snatch at things and you’re not confident.
Q: Is it the Greatest League Title victory?
David O’Leary: I think on the one night it was the most exciting. Leicester was an amazing achievement over a season.
Alan Smith: I think against the odds, that [Leicester] was the biggest achievement.
David O’Leary: I think as a unique, one-off, the drama, tension, the whole expectation, how it had to be done, that was the one.
Alan Smith: If you saw it in a film, you’d think ‘oh yeah’.
David O’Leary: It was the best whistle I’ve heard a referee blow in all my life at the end there. That was the greatest whistle of my life.
Q: Is there any resentment from Sky that they missed this moment?
Alan Smith: We’ve got the Aguero moment, and supporters of a certain age think that’s the best ever. You know what, I do get the hump when people think football started when the Premier League did and you do tend to get left behind a bit.
89 is in cinemas from 11th November & on DVD & Digital Download from 20th November.
What is the greatest English top flight league title win?
The last gasp league title winner at Anfield.
The Invincibles and 38 games unbeaten campaign.
Man City 2011/12
That Aguero goal in injury time.