It was to be David O’Leary’s day. The Irishman would break George Armstrong’s appearance record for Arsenal, as he played his 622nd game. It turned out to be a day remembered for seven goals, a 21-man brawl and the police entering the pitch to restore order.
An attendance of 35,345 packed Highbury on Saturday, 4th November 1989 for the First Division match between Arsenal and Norwich City.
Arsenal were sat in fourth place on 18 points, with Norwich, on the same points total, sitting two places behind on goal difference. The last time Norwich had visited Highbury was on May Day that year. They left with a 5-0 hiding, handing Arsenal a real shot at the league title they eventually won in the last minute of the 1988/89 season.
Arsenal: John Lukic; Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Michael Thomas, David O’Leary, Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Kevin Richardson, Alan Smith, Niall Quinn, Paul Merson (sub: Perry Groves).
Norwich City: Bryan Gunn; Ian Culverhouse, Mark Bowen, Ian Butterworth, Andy Linighan, Tim Sherwood, Dale Gordon, Malcolm Allen, Robert Rosario, Jeremy Goss, David Phillips.
Before kick-off, players from both sides lined up to applaud O’Leary as Arsenal made a presentation to him in recognition of his achievement.
In the Sunday Times the following day, Rob Hughes wrote of O’Leary: ‘He was to prove more fallible, more temperamental in the first half than one can recall’.
The scoring began in the 19th minute. A Norwich corner on the left came to Michael Thomas who skewed his attempted clearance across the six-yard box where Malcolm Allen nodded in.
The day was characterised by a running battle between O’Leary and Allen.
Allen had chosen to deal with O’Leary’s attention throughout the game by backing into his marker and frequently finding O’Leary’s ribs with his elbows. O’Leary was uncharacteristically frustrated by this and took every opportunity to dig at Allen off the ball.
On the half-hour, O’Leary pulled Allen down, just as the Welsh forward was about to enter the penalty box. As Allen attempted to climb back to his feet O’Leary hauled him along the ground by the scruff of the neck, earning the Irish international a caution.
John Lukic set his wall up for the resultant free-kick. Norwich then worked a move straight from the training ground. Dale Gordon ran over the ball, and David Phillips hammered it over the top of the wall and into the net.
Alan Smith thought he had pulled a goal back, but his neat finish was ruled out as he had stepped a yard offside.
It would be ten minutes into the second half before the Gunners had their first goal. Thomas back-heeled a free-kick into the path of Kevin Richardson who shot at goal. The ball took a deflection and although Bryan Gunn got to it he couldn’t hold on and Niall Quinn was on hand to bang the ball in.
With 62 minutes gone, Arsenal had a penalty. Andy Linighan was adjudged to have handled. Lee Dixon, taking his first professional penalty kick, stepped up and rattled the ball home to make it 2-2.
Norwich regained the lead on 76 minutes. Gordon launched a corner kick to the edge of the box where Linighan sent a strong header goalward. Lukic got hands to the ball but could only push it out to the feet of Tim Sherwood who lashed it into the roof of the net.
Two minutes later Nigel Winterburn whipped a free-kick into the Norwich box which O’Leary met with his head. Although Gunn got a hand to it the ball went in off the near post for O’Leary’s first goal in seven seasons.
Level at 3-3, the match entered stoppage time.
The ball bobbled around the Norwich penalty box. Although it looked for all the world as if Thomas had backed into Ian Butterworth, as the Arsenal player fell to the ground Referee George Tyson pointed to the spot.
Dixon stepped up to take his second spot-kick of the afternoon. This time Gunn saved, but the ball came straight back to Dixon, and although his shot was tame it crept over the line for Arsenal’s winner.
Like any good predatory striker, Alan Smith was following in and his momentum carried him into Norwich net. As he turned to come back out he was manhandled by first Ian Culverhouse and then Mark Bowen. Nigel Winterburn steamed in to back up his teammate, whereupon Dale Gordon appeared to throw a punch at Winterburn.
O’Leary saw this as the perfect opportunity to continue his running feud with Allen and ran some distance to confront him.
By now arms and legs were entangled and as players pushed and shoved David Phillips had a sneaky little kick at O’Leary.
Three policemen entered the field to break the players apart.
Gunn recalled the incident in his autobiography, ‘In Where It Hurts’, ‘All of a sudden it was kicking off, big time. Everyone started piling in, right in front of me…The only people not involved were John Lukic, Tony Adams, David O’Leary and me…I went over to break things up…and spotted the cavalry coming over the half-way line, in the shape of O’Leary and Adams. I felt it was my job to head them off at the pass and moved in, instinctively grabbing Adams with one hand and thumping him with the other.’
As the incident died down, Tyson dealt with it by failing to caution or send off a single player. “Once the fracas got underway I couldn’t differentiate between one player and another,” he later said.
The game restarted then quickly finished.
In The Guardian, David Lacey noted, ‘After the match, Tyson, one of the League’s most experienced referees, hurried away from Highbury like a man leaving the scene of an accident’.
“It was all over before it started. It was a game of football and I enjoyed it,” Tyson said. The referee, from Grangetown in Sunderland, had no intention of including the incident in his match report. “It was a melee. There were a lot of people all over the place,” he said.
Alan Smith, quoted in Jon Spurling’s book ‘Rebels for the Cause: The Alternative History of Arsenal Football Club’ said: “Things got a bit heated, but I think both sets of players went for a drink in the bar afterwards.”
Saint and Greavsie pondered the incident on their Saturday ITV programme the following week. “A mass bout of pushing and shoving,” Ian St John called it. “There’s been worse scuffles in the January sales”. Jimmy Greaves felt that Tyson was instrumental in causing the situation, highlighting the two penalty decisions, both Greaves felt were nothing of the kind.
Steve Curry in the Daily Express also felt the referee was to blame. Curry noted that Tyson failed to punish fouls by Norwich players prior to their second and third goals. Both penalties, Curry suggested, were dubious, and Tyson failed to deal with the ‘simmering off the ball feud’ conducted all game between O’Leary and Allen.
The Football Association’s Chief Executive Graham Kelly called for film of the incident, leading to the FA’s decision to charge both clubs. “It is on my recommendation to the chairman of the disciplinary committee, Geoff Thompson, that a charge has been brought following widespread concern expressed to the FA this morning.”
Tyson, who had been a referee since 1965, officiating in the football league since the late 1970s, had, after all, decided to include the brawl in his report. “The referee has reported to us that there was an ‘unruly disturbance’ which he reckoned he sorted out quickly,” Kelly said.
“I couldn’t have stopped the trouble,” Tyson told the press, “but common sense from the players would. I know I had a decent game.”
Norwich moved to impose a strict ‘no comment’ rule on their players regarding the incident.
However, not everyone adhered to it. A journalist from the Today newspaper phoned Gunn and put it to him that Arsenal players had accused him of starting the trouble. Gunn volunteered the journalist’s headline by refuting the accusation and accusing the Arsenal players of being the instigators. ‘Gunn blames Arsenal’ read the headline in the following day’s Today.
Gunn was fined the maximum two weeks wages by his club.
Captain Ian Butterworth was also disciplined by his club for his comments. Accusing Tyson of “Robbing us of three points,” in an interview on Norwich City’s own club call phone-in line.
Gunn was also charged by the FA for bringing the game into disrepute.
Ahead of the disciplinary hearing, Norwich chairman Robert Chase said, “The referee got the game started within 30 seconds and the players were drinking together in the bar within 20 minutes. I hope the FA will not choose to make an example of us”. He suggested that there were “more peacemakers than troublemakers”.
On 27th November the FA announced that Norwich had been fined £50,000, and Arsenal £20,000. The punishments were unprecedented. The FA intended them to serve as a severe warning to other clubs that violence on the pitch would not be tolerated.
The disciplinary committee of Geoff Thompson, the chairman, Bill Fox, the president of the league, and Gordon McKeag, could have imposed a deduction of two points on each club. “That would have been stretching the rules to the limit,” Kelly said to The Times. “The committee felt that, without signalling beforehand that such a measure might be taken, it would be unjust and unsafe to impose it”.
Asked why no individual player was held to account Kelly said, “That could be a dangerous path to follow. Three or four of the Norwich players would, in my view, have found it difficult to defend their actions. That is based not on the referee’s report or of the police, who are at liberty to offer evidence, but on the video of the incident.
“If we used a film to prefer charges on a player, we might undermine the authority of the referee.”
Tyson told the committee that he “saw no individual culprits”.
The FA clearly expected Norwich to take action against their players and expressed disappointment that they had not already done so.
Robert Chase, countered, “We wanted to wait until the committee met before making our own decisions,” he said. “We are going to reflect on the implications but it is a sad day for Norwich, who try to play entertaining football, and we are disappointed in the difference between the two fines”.
Gunn’s FA hearing took place in January 1990. FA spokesman, David Bloomfield, said afterwards, “We have decided to take no further action against Gunn, who expressed his apologies to Arsenal through Norwich. Gunn also gave us assurances that he will be more careful in future”.
It was the first time the FA had held clubs responsible for their conduct of their players, and although Kelly voiced concerns about video evidence being used after the fact it wouldn’t be long before retrospective punishments based on analysis of TV footage became commonplace.