Ahead of the release of ’89’, the movie which looks back at Arsenal’s famous league title win, I chatted to former Gunner Lee Dixon, who happens to be the executive producer of 89, as well as producer Amy Lawrence.
Q: You played Liverpool five times during the 1988-89 season, do you think you had the measure of them?
Lee Dixon: I think that was a big part of the belief that certainly George tried to install in us at the start of the season. We’d just been put together, basically, and that was our first full season [together]. Right from the start he was, when I try to explain it when people talk about now, did you believe you were going to win that night? My head probably didn’t. Going into the game, you kind of think, This is Anfield, are we going to beat them by two clear goals? They’re [Liverpool players] all touching the sign as you’re going out. It’s pretty daunting. And with Hillsborough as well still in our minds, should we really be winning this game? There’s all of those things running through your mind. But with George what he gave me and I’ve spoken about this with the lads [Arsenal 89 players] today about trying to pinpoint what it was that he installed in players and I focus it as being in my chest. There was a deep belief in there as if you did what he said, and trained like he said, and did all the drills, and worked as hard as he said, we’d do all the things together. It’s belief that would get us through the game, and really it kind of worked. On the night, going into the game at Anfield, you have negative thoughts, there was all sorts going through my mind. I had to keep bringing myself out of my head and back into my chest, and that’s ok because we’d have a chance of winning. It was the only way I could rationalise beating Liverpool 2-0. That’s not even in the documentary, being explained like that. It could have been better, but with seeing you guys [journalists] in last couple of days and talking about it [89 title win] constantly, and we’ve talked about it a million times doing the filming, but this concentrated talking starts because people ask the right question by saying ‘did you really believe?’ then another one will go ‘did you really believe?’ and you kind of find a way of saying it differently and then it actually starts to make sense. Its only since I stopped playing because I never had it when I was playing, its there but you don’t know why. Its in your chest rather than in your head about why and that belief.
Q: At the early part of the season, there were a few inconsistent results, starting with a win at Wimbledon, draw at home to Southampton, and lost at home to Aston Villa. Was there a point where you started to believe after that Arsenal had a chance of winning the league?
Lee Dixon: No, it wasn’t until we were top around Christmas that we though ‘hang on, that’s quite a long way into the season, we must be doing something right’. Over the period, the months leading up to that, we [Arsenal] obviously got better because we were more used to doing what we were doing on the training pitch. People think things get fixed overnight and it takes so long to fix a team into a way of playing, its like people say now about the current [Arsenal] team ‘oh they should be doing that’. You can’t go and be a pressing team overnight like they try to be now sometimes. When Sanchez plays up front like he did at the weekend [against Manchester City] and you try to press behind him because he’s going to press regardless because that’s the way he plays so you’ll set up a team so you’ll go ‘oh we’ll press behind him’ when you don’t know what you’re doing and you’ll end up doing what they did, running around and all getting bypassed. That takes months and months on the training pitch, it doesn’t just happen overnight. So by Christmas time, we got what we were supposed to be doing ‘oh, this works’. Then you have no fear because we were a bunch of young kids, talented lads from North London, London, and all those guys mixed with lower league players like us lot who were keen and hungry and quite liked getting hit by a stick by George on the leg because it meant that we do what he says and win a game. Brilliant. Hit me again. So that’s philosophy that got us to where we did and then obviously moving on into the season you start believing that you can win it, not really knowing what you believe in. Then fear kicks in and that’s when it all goes conversely.
Q: You nearly threw it away towards the end of the season, not helped by Liverpool going on a fantastic run, was there a point where you though ‘uh oh, we might have cocked it up a bit here’?
Lee Dixon: Most days. The Derby [County] game, the loss was big but we had Wimbledon a few days later so its alright, we’ll win that one. Then the draw against Wimbledon was like ‘oh’ and you could hear the crowd as well on the documentary when the final whistle goes, the crowd goes (groans), not boos but (groans). And the players were all shaking hands with their [Wimbledon] players and feeling ‘oh we’ve proper messed it up’ because they’ve [Liverpool] got a game in hand now and they’re going to beat West Ham four nil and we’ve had it.
Q: Leading up to that game [against Liverpool], you’re talking about within yourself you didn’t try to over think it, within the team were their doubts?
Lee Dixon: No it wasn’t openly voiced that we’re going to get hammered or we’re not going to do it. There was a relaxed state about the team. You can make your own conclusions why that was. Is that because you’re super relaxed because you think you’re going to win? Or is there an element of ‘we’re not going to win so there’s no pressure on us’. I think it was a mixture but the lad wasn’t saying we’re going to get hammered. One or two might. I said a day before the game jokingly, if we can keep it below four then we’ll have a result, as a joke. But really, if we’d have got beat four by Liverpool, I don’t think anyone in the country would have gone ‘that’s an unbelievable result’. They’d have gone ‘it was always going to happen because Liverpool were doing that and Arsenal were doing that’. We wouldn’t openly say to each other because if George would have heard us saying that then the stick would have been out again.
Q: Ignoring things like Harry Harris’ favourite back page of The Daily Mirror: ‘You ain’t got a chance, Arsenal’.
Lee Dixon: That sort of stuff works in your favour. Graeme Souness did a piece saying Men against Boys so we’re going to send him a DVD! In all honesty, everyone outside the club [Arsenal] thought the same I’d have thought and people inside the club. There’s no way people 100% went ‘course we’re going to win’ because that’s fans attitude. We can talk to a fan now, fans around Amy [Lawrence] saying ‘course we’re going to win’. Blind faith.
Amy Lawrence: I don’t think it was like that. I think people had hope. You wouldn’t say expectancy; I think you thought maybe rather than thinking we’re going to do it. Although going back to Graeme Souness and The Mirror front page, I distinctly remember on the coach everybody was reading the tabloids, it geed up the fans, never mind the players. I think there was this sense of everybody is against you [Arsenal]. There was a real feeling that North London was kind of alive to this thing. I remember the coach driving along Drake Park and there’s a school there with a boat outside, they’re all outside on a break, all the kids screaming. You felt like an army going off to war. Obviously as fans you’re not doing anything other than going and praying, trying to be part of something. You obviously can’t have any kind of effect on any result. I remember seeing four little old ladies out there with their rosettes 11 ‘o’ clock on a Friday morning saying ‘Hey come on’ all dressed up. Even people who didn’t like football were saying ‘good luck’, patting you on the back as you were going as if you were part of something. You didn’t feel as if you were going up for nothing.
Q: George Graham chose to go with five at the back, was there a feeling amongst the players that Arsenal needed to be going for it more in order to get the two goals?
Lee Dixon: He played it at [Manchester] United earlier in the season with the view to playing it against Liverpool which wasn’t, how long was it after…
Amy Lawrence: It should have been the next week after the Old Trafford game.
Lee Dixon: But then it was put off because of the semi-final [FA Cup]. Then obviously we couldn’t fit it in until after. He [George Graham] had a vision of playing it then we went back to a four [in defence] against Derby and then Wimbledon then leading into the game he said we’re going to go with three at the back, push you [Lee Dixon] and Nigel on. The non-informed members of the team, and I would suggest Perry Groves is one of them, from a defensive point of view said in the documentary five at the back but really it was three at the back, Me and Nigel weren’t supposed to be back there unless we were desperately needed and push on as two wingers. That was his [George Graham’s] idea. He was ahead of his time in that respect that he would change a system and I think he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for that in the past. George was very tactically astute for someone who used to stroll around the pitch like he didn’t care.
Q: At half-time when it was 0-0, did you feel more confident that you could go on and win it?
Lee Dixon: The game plan was to be 0-0 at half-time. Obviously 4 up would have been good! To be 0-0 at half-time was George’s blueprint. Be tight in the first half, don’t give anything away. When I think back on it, its genius because what he did instead of putting the pressure on the forwards going ‘you got to get 2 goals’, he turned it all the way round onto us and said ‘you lot have got to keep a clean sheet, if we keep a clean sheet, we’re fine’. That’s what we did anyway so thought ‘that’s no pressure because that’s what we do!’. He took the pressure off the forwards by not asking them to score and he didn’t put any pressure on us because he just asked us to do our job. That’s exactly what we did, we kept a clean sheet and then he [George] knew that we would get chances and sure enough we got three, and scored two of them. That was the emphasis on totally about 0-0 and 0-0 at half-time he came in and was like ‘brilliant! Well done!’ and we were like ‘really? Shouldn’t we be winning by now. Get one in each half’ and he was like ‘no its fine, we’ll get one in the second half and then we’ll win it at the end’.
89 is in cinemas from 11th November and on DVD and Digital Download from 20th November.
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