1987 is a year which has largely been consigned to the wastelands of many people’s memory. It is in many aspects a year in which not much especially new or interesting is remembered as happening in either the footballing spectre or society in general.
However, a closer look at the twelve months shows that like most years it bore its share of spectacular events and tragedy, combined with memorable and scintillating football, and in doing so laid waste to an ever-changing political, social and sporting landscape.
The winter of 1986 to 1987 was a particularly cold one with snow covering much of the country in the early months of the new year. Football in January 1987 kicked off with the two Merseyside giants, Liverpool and Everton, locked into yet another title battle at the top of the First Division, alongside the two North London sides, Arsenal and Tottenham, who were both emerging from the shadows after varying spells of mediocrity.
Having replaced their incumbent managers in the summer of 1986, Arsenal and Tottenham had new men in charge in the shape of George Graham and David Pleat respectively Graham had been recruited from Millwall in place of Don Howe and was putting his faith in youth as players such as David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Niall Quinn and Tony Adams were making a charge for regular first-team spots. Despite Graham stating that Arsenal wasn’t ready to take the title, it was actually the Gunners that led the table by four points on the first day of the new year.
David Pleat had been headhunted from Luton Town to replace Peter Shreeves and he had made some astute signings in the shape of Nico Claesen and Mitchell Thomas, and combined with the talent already at White Hart Lane, was in the midst of spearheading a continental-style 4-5-1 system with Clive Allen playing as the lone striker.
Previous season’s challengers, Chelsea, West Ham United and Manchester United, were suffering hangovers from their respective failures in 1986 and were mired in mid-table. Manchester United’s start to the season had been so woeful that they had found themselves in the bottom three in the autumn and so had dispensed with the services of manager Ron Atkinson and replaced him with a chap named Alex Ferguson.
The winter drew towards a close and on March 6th a cross-channel ferry leaving the Belgium dock of Zeebrugge sank causing the deaths of 193 passengers and crew. There was a national outpouring of grief, and in keeping with the times, a charity record featuring an ensemble line-up was released. ‘Let It Be’, by Ferry Aid, raised a significant amount of money for the families of the bereaved.
Back to football, and Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham battled it out in not just the league but also the League Cup, by now sponsored by Littlewoods. After Liverpool overcame Everton in the quarter-final at Goodison, a straightforward semi-final victory over Southampton put them through to the Wembley final where they would meet either Spurs or Arsenal who were locked into a three-game semi-final epic.
Despite leading in all three games, Spurs couldn’t hold on and so it was that Arsenal progressed to the showpiece final where two Charlie Nicholas goals were enough to consign Liverpool to defeat for the first time in a match where Ian Rush was on the scoreline.
Tottenham were still going strong and although they would ultimately run out of steam in the league, they did finish third and a 4-1 demolition of Watford saw them through to their third FA Cup final of the decade. A week before their collision with Coventry City at Wembley, Tottenham, along with the rest of western Europe, was treated to the 32nd edition of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Reprising his 1980 victory, Ireland’s Johnny Logan once again took the honours with a ditty entitled “Hold Me Now”.
Tottenham warmed up for their Wembley date with two of their players, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, joining forces in a pop group named, erm, ‘Glenn and Chris’ to release a single. ‘Diamond Lights’ reached number twelve in the charts.
May 1987 also saw Margaret Thatcher win her third successive General Election as the conservatives defeated Labour, now led by Neil Kinnock.
The domestic season came to a head with Everton prevailing in the title race, taking advantage of an uncharacteristic Liverpool collapse and finally finishing nine points clear. Tottenham and Coventry fought out a classic at Wembley where Clive Allen scored after just three minutes to register his 49th goal of the season.
Twice Spurs took the lead and twice they were pegged back and so the match went into extra-time. It was left to Spurs stalwart, Gary Mabbutt, to settle the match in the sixth minute of the extra thirty. Unfortunately for the white half of North London, it was into his own net that he put the ball, thus giving Coventry their first-ever major trophy.
1987 was also the first season of the play-offs. The Football League had agreed to demands of the top-flight clubs to reduce the First Division by two clubs over a period of two seasons and so had instigated a play-off system whereby three clubs would be automatically relegated and two clubs automatically promoted. The side finishing fourth from bottom in the First Division would join the sides placed third to fifth in the Second in the playoffs. The winner of the playoffs would then play in the First Division the following season. The play-off process was then repeated in the other divisions in the Football League except in the Fourth where, for the first time, automatic relegation into the non-league ranks awaited the side finishing in 92nd place.
After the first round of matches, the play-off finalists were decided in the form of Leeds United, who had finished fourth in the Second Division, and Charlton Athletic, who had finished fourth from bottom of the First.
Another three-game epic ensued with Charlton finally winning in extra-time of the third match and thus preserving their top-flight status.
Over the summer, Ian Rush left Liverpool and Peter Beardsley and John Barnes were signed in partial replacement. Howard Kendall left Everton to try his hand managing abroad and Graham Taylor left Watford after ten years in charge that had seen a rise from the Fourth Division to the top flight and into Europe. He took over at Aston Villa who had been relegated just five seasons after winning the European Cup and was replaced at Vicarage Road by Dave Bassett who left Wimbledon after masterminding a rise similar to Watford’s.
Just nine seasons after joining the league, Wimbledon made it into the top flight where they confounded all expectations to finish a remarkable sixth in their debut season.
Also in the summer of 1987, a confused young man by the name of Michael Ryan went on a shooting spree in the English market town of Hungerford which resulted in the deaths of 16 people and injuries to many more.
The new 1987-88 season kicked off in August with the First Division welcoming Derby County and Portsmouth while bidding farewell to Manchester City, Leicester and Aston Villa. Liverpool’s new signings clicked immediately and the Anfield men started the new season in roaring style winning 16 of their 21 league games before the turn of the year and remaining unbeaten as they opened up a ten-point lead.
Reigning champions, Everton, found the loss of Howard Kendall difficult to overcome and lagged behind their noisy neighbours as the autumn leaves came down. Arsenal under George Graham continued to show promise and led the chase to Liverpool, while Tottenham got off to a bad start in David Pleat’s second season.
By now Glenn Hoddle had finally left the club and Pleat had been rocked by revelations regarding his private life in the summer. When further stories emerged in the autumn he was dismissed from the club and Terry Venables took over the mantle of manager. It was a sad end to Pleat’s time at White Hart Lane, but he would go onto manage mostly in the top flight for another ten years or so.
That autumn saw the stock market take an almighty crash with stocks falling an average of more than 25%. It was also at this time that Britain experienced its worst storm in decades as hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage were done.
In popular culture, an annoying Australian soap opera was gaining traction in the United Kingdom and was well on the way to propelling its two main stars, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, to international stardom. Rick Astley and Bros were climbing up the charts and doing battle with established acts such as Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys.
Tragedy once more struck as the year’s end approached when there was a serious fire in London’s Kings Cross railway station. Thirty-one people perished in the most awful of circumstances due to a dropped match igniting and sparking a flash fire. This tragedy struck just a matter of days after eleven people were murdered in a cowardly republican bombing at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
On a personal level, 1987 was spent employed in the reinsurance claims office of a London insurance company by day and studying at college by night. I was also enjoying my first season playing in men’s’ football for Braintree United of the Mid Essex League. By all accounts, it wasn’t a particularly memorable or standout year, but like most others, it did have its moments.