Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Soccernostalgia Interview-Part 19 Interview with Mr. Steve Pye on Arsenal’s League Title win, 1988/89 Season)


For this interview, I look back at Arsenal’s Title win in the 1988/89 League Season.

The Interviewee is:

Mr. Steve Pye





Mr. Pye is a blogger (‘That 1980s Sports Blog’) and contributor to Guardian Sport Network/The Gooner.


Mr. Pye’s contact info:

twitter: @1980sSportsBlog

Blog: http://that1980ssportsblog.blogspot.com/





Soccernostalgia Question: Let’s discuss the state of the affairs in the summer of 1988. Arsenal had not won the title since winning the double in 1971. George Graham had been appointed as Manager in 1986.

Liverpool had just been champions for the 7th time in 10 seasons. what was the mood and expectations with the fans going into the season.?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I can only speak personally, but I had a feeling of cautious optimism. The early to mid 80s were fairly depressing times for Arsenal fans, but when George Graham was appointed in 1986 all of a sudden there was hope. Winning the Littlewoods Cup during his first season was an unexpected bonus, and in both 1986/87 and 1987/88 the team topped the table at various points. George knew though, and he constantly said that the team wasn't ready in those first two seasons to win the title. I think deep down that I didn't expect us to win the league in 1988/89, but I thought we could push Liverpool hard and build on the progress made in the previous two seasons.


Soccernostalgia Question: Let’s look at the transfer activity. Steve Bould had arrived from Stoke to bolster the defense. Graham Rix left to join Caen and Steve Williams went to Luton, and Kenny Sansom would leave for Newcastle in November. How do you view the transfer activity?


Mr. Steve Pye response: On the face of it, bringing in just one centre back didn't sound that exciting. But the Steve Bould purchase was the final part of the jigsaw George had been building over the last few years. Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Kevin Richardson, Brian Marwood and Alan Smith had been introduced to the team during George's reign, and these combined with a fantastic crop of youth players - Tony Adams, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Merson - plus the likes of John Lukic, David O'Leary, Paul Davis, Martin Hayes and Perry Groves, meant the squad looked capable of a tilt at the title.


Photo From: France Football, Issue 2236, February 14, 1989 

Soccernostalgia Question: At this point, generally speaking were the fans behind George Graham?


Mr. Steve Pye response: The fans were most definitely behind George at the start of the 1988/89 season. I think there had been frustration at various points of the previous two seasons that we didn't strengthen the squad when we looked like we could win the title, but George would never be rushed into panic buys, and he knew what he was doing.


Soccernostalgia Question: As far as rivals, Manchester United would have a poor season, while Liverpool would have a poor start. In contrast Arsenal started well and led the table for much of the season. What was Arsenal’s improvement and consistency down to?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I would say that we finally had the players in place that suited the system George wanted. It is no coincidence that Alan Smith won the Golden Boot in both 1988/89 and 1990/91 when he had brilliant wingers in place to fire in crosses from the flanks - Marwood in 88/89 and Anders Limpar in 90/91 - and now Smith also had a fine strike partner in Merson. The midfield trio of Davis, Thomas and Rocastle were full of energy, skill and power, and were superb both defensively and going forwards.


The famous back four was now fully established, and George had been training them relentlessly, working on building that unit, and of course the famous offside trap. This was the first full season Nigel Winterburn played at left back, and Bould had obviously just joined in the summer, and once the back four started to gel then the team knew that generally they wouldn't concede too many goals.


Soccernostalgia Question: At what point during the season, did you feel Arsenal had a realistic chance of winning the title?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I think I started to believe around the beginning of 1989. There was a 3-1 win at Everton that made me wonder if the team could go the distance. Everton had declined from their title winning teams, yet Goodison Park was never an easy place to go to. Obviously as soon as I started to believe then the team went through a rocky patch in February/March, but Arsenal never like to do things the easy way.


Soccernostalgia Question: What was the most memorable match from that season that you remember (whether you attended or not)?


Mr. Steve Pye response: It looks like I'm going to talk about the obvious choice for most memorable match later, but if I had to pick an alternative then I would opt for the 4-1 win at Nottingham Forest in November, live on ITV. That Cloughie team was under rated, so to go to the City Ground and win 4-1 (and Arsenal missed a penalty) was a result that made you stand up and take notice. Stevie Bould scored a header from a near post flick-on corner routine that would become so familiar, and the day was capped off in fine fashion when Marwood got the better of Des Walker (not many did that) to finish the scoring.


Photo From: France Football, Issue 2236, February 14, 1989

(Paul Davis)

Soccernostalgia Question: The biggest beneficiary of the season were the likes of David Rocastle, Alan Smith and Brian Marwood who gained caps due to Arsenal’s form. Though none of them were called up consistently by England (in case of Marwood only once), was this due to Arsenal’s playing style?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I've always wondered why some Arsenal players did not earn more England caps. Our back four was so good that surely it must have been tempting for England managers to pick most of them together, although Stuart Pearce and Des Walker were fine defenders. Smith had a lot of competition up front, and perhaps the style Bobby Robson was looking to play did not suit him. Marwood had a very short England career that coincided with his fabulous start to the season, but one man who I felt should have been capped more was David Rocastle. Such a talented player, so passionate, and for him to only gain 14 England caps feels an inadequate return for such a fine midfielder.


Soccernostalgia Question: In Contrast, Tony Adams had lost his place in the England set-up post Euros 1988, how was his club form judged that season?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I think TA suffered a lot of abuse from the terraces from opposition fans after his Euro 88 disaster. But he was always a firm favourite amongst the Arsenal faithful, someone who always gave his all for the club. Being dropped by England at least allowed him to throw himself into his role as captain at Arsenal. It should not be forgotten that TA was only 21 when he went to Euro 88, and to go through that and to have the donkey chants hurled at him every week must have been a nightmare. Obviously we know now that he used alcohol as a way to get through this, but it says a lot about him that he was so important to Arsenal throughout the 88/89 campaign and lifting the First Division trophy was a way to silence the critics.


Soccernostalgia Question: What other players that season do you feel were overlooked internationally?


Mr. Steve Pye response: Immediately Paul Davis springs to mind. A graceful midfielder, he could also look after himself, and he must be one of the best uncapped England players of all time. He started the 88/89 season so well, and it was rumoured that Bobby Robson was going to select him for England. But then came the Glenn Cockerill incident at Highbury, when television cameras caught Davis punching the Southampton midfielder, breaking his jaw. Receiving a nine-match ban, Davis would then miss the end of the season due to injury, and perhaps his chance of playing for England disappeared with that one punch.



Photo From: France Football, Issue 2252, June 6, 1989

(May 26, 1989, Liverpool 0-Arsenal 2)

Soccernostalgia Question: As a fan what was it like to go Highbury to watch Arsenal in that season?


Mr. Steve Pye response: Sadly, I didn't make it to Highbury that season. As a 13-year-old I was reliant on my dad taking me to matches, and unfortunately his work commitments and a lack of desire on his part meant we didn't attend any matches that season. Don't worry, I've forgiven him.



Soccernostalgia Question: We can’t discuss this season, without mentioning Hillsbrough. How did that affect the atmosphere at the remaining matches at Highbury?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I'm not sure I really took in the full horror of Hillsborough at the time. As a teenager I remember being shocked at the tragic events of that day, but it's only as you grow older and develop emotionally that you watch documentaries/read articles about Hillsborough and want to cry at what those Liverpool fans had to experience that day. And of course, their nightmare was only just beginning due to the despicable cover-up operation of those involved.

I'm not sure about how it affected the atmosphere at Highbury, but looking back, how the Liverpool players managed to get through the rest of the season is beyond me. I know it was their job, yet they had been attending funerals on a daily basis and then had to try and flick a switch and resume football. Maybe it helped them, I don't know, yet in hindsight it is little wonder that Kenny Dalglish resigned in 1991. That disaster understandably changed him forever.

One final thing on this - the determination of people to get justice for those who died and suffered that day was exceptional. To face so many setbacks, to be knocked down on numerous occasions, but to keep coming back fighting says a lot about the character of them. They never gave up, and to wait 32 years to finally get the verdict they wanted is astonishing. They deserve so much respect.


Photo From: France Football, Issue 2252, June 6, 1989

(May 26, 1989, Liverpool 0-Arsenal 2)


Soccernostalgia Question: Describe the vibe ahead of the final day match at Anfield vs Liverpool. Did you as an Arsenal fan believe it was realistic to win?


Mr. Steve Pye response: As a young fan I was optimistic of our chances. I remember saying to a friend that we would win 3-1, but that is the beauty of being young, you believe a lot more and you haven't been through enough crushing disappointments to let realism enter your thoughts. I know my dad was not optimistic that we would win by two clear goals at Anfield, and to be fair to him, you can understand why. But George had his plan that night and it worked a treat - keep it tight, 0-0 at half-time, grab a goal, and then Liverpool won't know whether to stick or twist.


Photo From: Match, June 3, 1989

(May 26, 1989, Liverpool 0-Arsenal 2)


Soccernostalgia Question: Describe in your own words and experiences the pandemonium afterwards?


Mr. Steve Pye response: It will always be the greatest night of my life (excluding family stuff, of course). The events of that evening are still so clear: the delayed kick off; Arsenal players handing flowers to Liverpool supporters after Hillsborough; Steve Bould almost opening the scoring; Smith's header to give us the lead, although we were sure that it would be disallowed because it was at Anfield; Michael Thomas missing a glorious chance; David Pleat annoying me; Steve McMahon and his "one minute" signal.

And then the glorious conclusion. Waiting and waiting for Mickey Thomas to flick the ball past Bruce Grobbelaar, fearing that he would be tackled before he got the shot away. When the ball hit the net, I flew from my chair and our cat was so alarmed that she ran out of the room! I was then flooded with fear that Liverpool would score, but when the final whistle went I was bouncing.

Watching the celebrations at Anfield and around Highbury was special. It would have been great to have been there, but we had our own party at home. My dad went to the pub immediately, and I think he had a great night. He had been lucky enough to live through the 1970/71 double winning season, but also unlucky in the regard that he had to wait 18 years for our next Division One title, so he deserved a few drinks to celebrate.



Photo From: Match, June 3, 1989

(May 26, 1989, Liverpool 0-Arsenal 2)

Soccernostalgia Question: The film ‘Fever Pitch’ tells the story of that season, how is this film looked upon by Arsenal fans?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I can't answer for all Arsenal fans, but I love that film. It captures a lot of what it means to be a devoted football supporter, the endless worrying about things that are beyond your control and in truth the selfishness it takes to be so dedicated to a club. I've been to over 400 Arsenal matches, and I know my girlfriend (now my wife) probably found it very testing when trying to organise things around my football calendar. There was a lot of the character Paul in Fever Pitch that rung a few alarm bells in my head.

I love the fact that the film focusses on that 88/89 season though. The soundtrack brings back so many memories, and naturally the conclusion to the film is epic. But the real-life story was epic, so the film had a lot of material to work with as a starting point.



Soccernostalgia Question: Those yellow/Black away kits have become classics. Do you think it’s because it’s synonymous of the Drama of the final day at Anfield?


Mr. Steve Pye response: That yellow and navy blue kit remains my favourite Arsenal kit. I loved it when it was introduced at the start of the season, and for it to be associated with that evening at Anfield is fitting. There was something about the way that kit looked under the floodlights that made it even more special in my eyes, but I'm probably getting a bit over sentimental now.



Soccernostalgia Question: How did you view this title compared to subsequent titles especially compared to those of the Premier League era?


Mr. Steve Pye response: There is no doubt in my mind that Anfield 89 is the greatest conclusion to a title race. For the top two to go head-to-head on the final day of the season, and for the away team requiring a win by two clear goals, is something that may possibly not be repeated again.

It makes me laugh when Sky try to say the Aguero goal against QPR was the greatest ending ever. Don't get me wrong, it was a stunning sporting moment, and it is rightfully celebrated by City fans. But there is simply no comparison. City scored a late winner against a relegation threatened QPR, who were down to ten men. And don't get me started on the commentary. Brian Moore's "It's up for grabs now" line is a stunning demonstration of just how good a commentator he was. Screaming "Agueroooooo" just doesn't compare.

I was present the night Arsenal won the league at Old Trafford in 2002, which I would have to say is my most enjoyable match that I attended. But there wasn't the jeopardy that night; if we lost then we still had a chance to clinch the title against Everton. Winning the league in Manchester was fantastic, but nothing can compare to Anfield 89.


Photo From: Match, June 3, 1989

(May 26, 1989, Liverpool 0-Arsenal 2)


Soccernostalgia Question: For a new Generation of fans, born in the Premier League era, is this title forgotten or is it referenced by the Arsenal faithful?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I can only speak personally, but as soon as my son was old enough to understand then I started telling him about the 88/89 season, and the dramatic ending. It's definitely something that will be passed down the generations. Quite simply, it's the greatest night in our history. I'd argue that even if we do go on to win the Champions League one day that Anfield 89 will never be surpassed. But maybe that's because I grew up in that era.

There are reminders of that night when you go the current stadium. The banners around the ground, Michael Thomas' goal shown on the big screen in montages before the kick off. I'd say the 90/91 title is almost forgotten in relation to 88/89. That was a remarkable season in which we only lost one league match and had to cope with a two point deduction and our captain going to jail. It probably lived in the shadow slightly of 88/89 though, as it didn't have that memorable conclusion.



Soccernostalgia Question: In closing, after the title win, as a knowledgeable fan, did you feel it was a one-off thing, or did you think it could be the start of a new era?


Mr. Steve Pye response: I'm not sure I was all that knowledgeable due to my age. But I could see no reason why we wouldn't go on to compete for more silverware. The team was young and hungry, but George probably failed to strengthen the squad after 88/89, and the hangover of Anfield meant we couldn't defend our title. But he learned his lesson. In 1990, he brought in David Seaman, Andy Linighan and Anders Limpar, and there was no stopping us.

That was when I thought we were on the brink of a new era. That 1990/91 team was immense, but maybe in hindsight George had got as much as he could out of most of the squad. Before too long, Thomas and Rocastle had left, Limpar was in and out of the team, and Ian Wright was purchased, which changed the style of the team. A big turning point for me was the European Cup defeat to Benfica in 1991. Losing 3-1 at home hurt George, and he definitely shifted his tactics after that. We became a dangerous cup team, difficult to break down, but really not consistent enough for a title bid.

I would like to conclude by getting this off my chest, though - a lot of people say it was Alex Ferguson who knocked Liverpool off their perch. For me, it was George Graham and Arsenal that really deserve the credit. Sadly, Hillsborough was a huge factor too in that Dalglish eventually resigned due to the strain of that horrendous day, but on the pitch it was Arsenal that competed consistently with the powerful Merseysiders, and won championships either side of Liverpool's 1989/90 title. A lot of football that took place before 1992 is often forgotten, but us Arsenal fans of a certain vintage know the score.



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