So, finally, we come to the end of our ‘Back to The Eighties’ series in which we have looked at events – footballing and otherwise – of every year in the 1980s. Some years were better than others (in terms of football output and society in general) and each year brought about its own problems and challenges as well as high points and success stories.
Now, however, we find ourselves looking at 1989 and the year in which the biggest disaster ever to unfold in a British sports stadium occurred. That disaster, of course, was at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989.
To say it should never have happened and that it marred the entire decade is somewhat a gross understatement, but the fact that such a disaster had been on the cards for some time should not be forgotten. For years, decades even, football fans had been treated like cattle by the clubs and the authorities alike. Supporters were cooped up in metal cages, fenced-in, and treated like sub-human specimens when all the very vast majority wanted to do was watch a football game.
Something had to give, and on a warm spring day thirty-two years ago, it did and 96 people perished.
The year itself started pretty much the same as most others in the decade with New Year’s Day ushering in hopes and dreams of a new beginning and fresh resolutions. A cracking match at Old Trafford on the opening day of the year saw the home side run out 3-1 victors over a Liverpool team still trying to find some sort of rhythm and cohesion. It was a defeat that left Liverpool trailing leaders Arsenal by nine points – a deficit that would be extended to 19 by the end of February, although Liverpool did have three games in hand by that stage.
Making an unlikely run at this stage were the Canaries of Norwich City. Never previously league champions nor FA Cup winners, the Carrow Road side were neck-and-neck with the Gunners as the winter nights turned to warmer spring ones. Managed by Dave Stringer, Norwich had taken everyone by surprise and although their demise and fade away from the title race had long been predicted, by the time the longer evenings started appearing on the horizon, they were still well in touch.
1989 was expected to follow the last couple of years in terms of being a period of economic prosperity, but in fact, the first roots of an impending recession were beginning to embed themselves. The seemingly unelectable Labour Party was fast closing the gap in the opinion polls, and while Margaret Thatcher had become the longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century, her personal popularity was beginning to wane and there were whispers both within and without the Conservative Party that a change at the helm should at least be put on the table for discussion. As unemployment continued to fall, inflation rose and economic growth slowed down, leaving some economists to predict gloomily that a recession was just around the corner.
As fans of the current day Manchester City and Chelsea prepare to watch their respective sides face-off in the Champions League Final in a matter of weeks, those of a slightly more advanced vintage can possibly remember a time when a meeting of the clubs was the biggest fixture of the Second Division calendar. So it came to pass when the two sides met at Maine Road in March 1989,as they hogged the top two spots in the second tier.
Chelsea’s 3-2 victory sent the Stamford Bridge blues back to the top of the table where come the end of the season they would be sitting pretty with 99 points. City just about had enough left in the tank to squeeze into second place after 42 games, some 17 points behind Chelsea and just one ahead of Crystal Palace, who were ultimately promoted via the play-offs.
These three sides would go onto replace Newcastle, Middlesbrough and West Ham in the First Division, but it was at the other end of the table that everyone’s interest was focused as Easter approached.
Since losing to Manchester United on New Year’s Day, Liverpool had put together an unbeaten run in both league and FA Cup, and once again the Double seemed a distinct possibility.
The events of April 15 are well-documented and bear no reason for repetition here except to say that it was not only the current season that was irrevocably altered but football in general.
Things would never be the same again.
As The Bangles topped the charts with the poignantly titled ‘Eternal Flame’ and the city of Liverpool mourned, football returned after an all too brief hiatus.
Liverpool chased Arsenal all the way to the line and when the Gunners stumbled in their last two home games and took but a single point from matches against Derby and Wimbledon, it opened up the door for Kenny Dalglish and his men to take the title. With one game left to play Liverpool led the table by three points and had a better goal difference than Arsenal by four.
That the two sides were meeting in the last game of the season only added to the drama, and nobody really gave Arsenal much of a chance of coming to Anfield and prevailing by a two-goal margin. George Graham had other ideas and as has gone down in the history books, tactically masterminded the greatest victory in Arsenal’s history, secured by a 92nd-minute goal scored by future Anfield star, Michael Thomas.
Six days prior to the title shoot-out, Liverpool had secured the FA Cup courtesy of a 3-2 victory over Merseyside rivals, Everton.
The Goodison Park side had defeated Norwich City in the semi-final and the Canaries were then to fall away slightly in the league and finish in fourth spot, behind Nottingham Forest. Forest would take the League Cup following a 3-1 Wembley victory over defending holders, Luton Town.
In Scotland, the Graeme Souness revolution continued with Glasgow Rangers securing their second title in the three seasons that Souness had been at Ibrox. Celtic, the dethroned champions, got some measure of revenge when they took the Scottish Cup by the only goal of the game.
The qualification process for the 1990 World Cup was underway and England were in a group alongside old foes Poland as well as Sweden and Albania, with only one country qualifying automatically for the tournament. The side finishing second would have the possibility of qualification as one of the best runner-ups, however.
In the calendar year of 1989, the Three Lions would play five of the six matches involved and would remain unbeaten. The three wins and two draws achieved, when added to the single draw against Sweden in autumn 1988, was to prove sufficient to clinch second spot behind the Swedes.
Also qualifying for the tournament were Scotland, who finished second in Group 5 behind Yugoslavia, and the Republic of Ireland who came runners-up to Spain in Group 6.
In August, the new domestic season kicked off at Wembley as Liverpool and Arsenal met once again, this time in the Charity Shield. A single goal scored by Peter Beardsley was sufficient to give Liverpool the trophy.
Arsenal started the defence of their title reasonably strongly and, as expected, Liverpool were also amongst the early front runners. The season’s early surprise package this time round were Aston Villa, now led by former Watford manager Graham Taylor.
Relegated in 1987 under Billy McNeill, Villa had won immediate promotion back to the top division a year later under Taylor but had then struggled in their season back with relegation only being avoided on the last day of the 1988-89 season.
Not expected to do anything other than battle for mid-table mediocrity at best, Villa were actually enjoying a decent season and as the winter months started to draw in, the season was shaping up to be a three-way battle for top spot between Arsenal, Liverpool and Villa.
Norwich City were enjoying a second successive successful season under their manager Dave Stringer and were certainly up for the fight when they visited Highbury in November of 1989. A stunning match saw seven goals and a 21-man ‘brawl’ which, of course, the commentators of the time piously, and inaccurately, condemned as something ‘none of us want to see’.
Away from football, 1989 was the year that the United Kingdom got its first satellite channel when the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky TV started broadcasting; Frank Bruno decided he would make lots of money by allowing Mike Tyson to beat him senseless in the ring for 15 minutes or so; the Berlin Wall came down, paving the way for the reunification of Germany; the Guildford Four were finally exonerated and released from prison after serving fifteen years of a life sentence handed down in respect of an IRA bombing campaign, and the author Salmon Rushdie found himself in hot water with a fatwa placed on his head due to his managing to offend the entire Muslim world with his novel, The Satanic Verses.
And so finally the decade closed with the way it had started ten years earlier: with Liverpool sitting atop the Football League.
It had been a long ten years filled with both triumphs and tragedy alike, and those of us who were there for its entirety emerged a little older, a little more cynical, and, hopefully, a little wiser with the new decade dawning before us hopefully.