Date: 19th February 2011 at 10:13pm
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Every club has signposts in its history. Checkpoints when the wheel begins to turn and steadily creek in a particular direction. Leeds` failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2001 sent them hurtling into oblivion. Manchester United`s 1990 F.A. Cup triumph ushered in an era of dominance. Arsenal`s history is no different. As we look forward to next Sunday`s League Cup Final, it`s perhaps worth looking into how the competition has helped to shape our history. The 1969 embarrassment to Swindon at Wembley was pointed to my members of the 1971 Double squad as the unifying instant that the team found a renewed vigour and desire for trophies.

In the 1980s, Arsenal hit something of a buffer. Losing renowned stars such as Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady rather sucked the life out of the club. Particularly as their replacements were unsuccessful forays into the market, such as Vladimir Petrovic and Lee Chapman. The club laboured under Terry Neill, never able to recapture the sort of cup runs that saw the Gunners appear in four finals in three years (3 of them lost). Don Howe tried hard to revive the club, but to no avail. A rebellious culture had taken over the club; the squad was talented, but lacked discipline. Capable players such as Woodcock, Mariner, Samson and Rix were also just as likely to indulge in heroic drinking sessions as match winning performances. Don Howe eventually walked out, feeling he could not revive a club perennially stuck in mid table. (Charlie Nicholas describes a 1-0 home defeat to Coventry in 1985 as “utterly soul destroying, the worst game I`ve ever played in.”) The club could see the place needed new life breathing into it and appointed George Graham to wield the whip. He immediately looked to the club`s academy to promote the likes of Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, David Rocastle and Niall Quinn. His reinvigoration worked to the point that, on their 100th anniversary, Arsenal were actually top of the 1st Division. (Though Graham was at pains to point out he didn`t think they were ready to stay there).

In 1986-87, Graham`s first season, Arsenal was beginning to feel like a club revitalised. With an exciting crop of emerging youth team talent slowly ousting the complacent old guard, the crowds began to return. Graham impressed upon his players that standards were different at Arsenal- he made players wear official club blazers and ties en route to away matches. The belief was coming back to the Marble Halls, but it was the 1987 Littlewoods Cup that proved to be the springboard for success. Arsenal disposed of Doncaster Rovers, Bournemouth, Stoke City and Everton, setting up an epic two legged semi final clash with Tottenham Hotspur. Clive Allen`s goal in the first leg at Highbury had given Spurs a 1-0 lead to take to White Hart Lane. It was Allen again whose first half goal in the second leg gave Tottenham a two goal aggregate lead with ¾ of the tie played. The Tottenham PA system brashly announced ticket details for the Final. It was the first sign of the siege mentality that Graham fostered in his time at the club as Arsenal roared back with goals from Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn. This in the days before away goals, the tie would be decided by a one off replay. A coin was tossed in the centre circle at full time and Spurs won it, so the decider would be played at their home once more.

In a rather extraordinary act of déjà vu Clive Allen once again gave Spurs a one goal lead which they held for most of the match. But in a topsy turvy final seven minutes, the young Gunners pulled off an unlikely turnaround, having spent around 70% of the three games chasing Tottenham`s advantage. With eight minutes left, Ian Allinson turned in an equaliser. Arsenal scented blood and in the 88th minute, following a goalmouth scramble, the ball fell to Lewisham lad David Rocastle, to poke a late winner home. Arsenal supporters in attendance that night usually point to the game as the most satisfying of North London derby victories, suffering as we had at the hands of Spurs during the 80s. They had watched the likes of Hoddle, Villa and Ardilles whilst Arsenal fans groaned collectively at John Devine and John Hawley. Graham spoke that night of building a platform. But the Gunners faced a bigger obstacle yet if they were to put the Littlewoods Cup onto a sideboard that had been gathering dust since 1979.

That obstacle was named Liverpool, who were in the midst of their dominance as behemoths of the English game. The Final took place on Sunday, 5th April at Wembley in scorching heat. It was Liverpool`s eighth visit to Wembley in ten years for a domestic final. It was Arsenal`s first since the 1980 F.A. Cup Final defeat to Second Division West Ham United. In the same timeframe Liverpool had accumulated 5 league titles, two European Cups, an F.A. Cup and 4 League Cups (won consecutively) and were defending the Double. It goes without saying we were hugely unfancied. Commentator Barry Davies described a sun-kissed Wembley as “a confusion of colour, with red and white visible at both ends.” On 23 minutes, it appeared the final was going to be little more than a Liverpool procession. Jan Molby hit a raking cross field pass to Steve McMahon on the Liverpool right, with Kenny Samson caught too far up field. O`Leary raced across to plug the gap, but McMahon pulled a clever, disguised ball back to Ian Rush, who calmly slotted the ball past John Lukic. There was an infamous statistic doing the rounds that Liverpool had never lost in any of the 148 games that Ian Rush had scored in.

But Graham had not built a side that lies down easily. Within seven minutes, they were level. Davis` free kick was charged down by the Liverpool wall, but Samson sent an intelligent dink back into the danger zone. Anderson tucked the ball back to Adams, whose effort was blocked; the ball ricocheted to Charlie Nicholas, who prodded the ball against the post. But Anderson kept the chance alive, driving a low ball back into the area where Charlie Nicholas poked into a barren net. As he wheeled away in celebration, Tony Adams had him in a headlock, smothering the mulleted Scot. But he got off lightly as far as League Cup celebrations with Adams went. Ask Steve Morrow. (As a brief aside, I recently went to a dinner where Ray Parlour and Paul Merson appeared as speakers. Parlour quipped, “Tone was a great leader who would run through brick walls for the club. To be fair, he drove through a couple too.”) Arsenal laboured to keep Liverpool at bay as the two giants of English football slugged it out. Liverpool were far in advance of their opponents in the “show us yer medals” stakes, but the Gunners matched them for grit.

With fifteen minutes remaining, Graham replaced young beanpole striker Niall Quinn with the nippy young winger Perry Groves. His impact is the stuff of legion. With seven minutes left, Groves scampered past McMahon and then jinked around Gillespie, before pulling the ball back for Charlie Nicholas. As Nicholas advanced towards the ball, Hansen and Whelan desperately lunged into his path, Nicholas` prod was deflected off of Whelan, throwing Grobelaar off balance and the ball crept over the line in slow motion as Grobelaar tried in vain to shuffle his feet. The ball barely had enough puff to even hit the net, but it had enough to win the match. Nicholas had been the landmark signing in 1984 that the board hoped would re-launch the club amongst the glamorous hoi polloi of English football. It didn`t ever really work out that way for Champagne Charlie, whom Graham soon jettisoned that summer after 34 goals in 151 appearances. With Merson coming through the ranks and Alan Smith lined up from Leicester City, there was no space left for Nicholas. But in more ways than one, this was Charlie`s day in the sun. But more than that it was Arsenal`s day in the sun; the Littlewoods Cup was the catalyst that instilled belief in a young side that they could scale the heights of the English game. Though it`s true they suffered an embarrassing defeat in the final a year later to Luton Town, Lukic, Adams, O`Leary, Rocastle, Hayes, Thomas and Groves were all involved in a much bigger engagement with Liverpool a shade over two years later. (If you`re wondering what I am talking about, what the hell are you doing reading an Arsenal site?) The game was simultaneously the last stand for the likes of Nicholas, Anderson, Williams and Samson. Graham gushed after the final whistle:

“This equals anything I achieved as a player and I hope it`s the start of a great new era for this great club. When I took over I wanted to build a platform for success. It`s happened quicker than I expected.” Sky Sports potted version of football history shows Manchester United as having “knocked Liverpool off their perch.” But in reality, it was Arsenal who delivered the first blows to the seemingly unstoppable Red Army. (I`m not talking about communism here, though Liverpool`s dominance and communism appeared to collapse at roughly the same time). Arsenal had the better of encounters with Liverpool after this, not only with the title win at Anfield, but a 4-0 win at Highbury in 1990- crowned by an imperious 40 yard Limpar lob, which really bought the curtain down on Liverpool as the supreme force in English football. In isolation, the Littlewoods Cup trophy was little more than a good day in the sunshine and a satisfying win over dominant rivals after a barren trophy run. But the bigger picture shows it was the springboard for bigger and better successes. As we shape up for the Final in 2011, it`s not difficult to see at least some parallels. Up the Arse.LD.

The teams that day:
ARSENAL: 1.LUKIC, 2.ANDERSON, 3.SAMSON(c), 4.WILLIAMS, 5.O’LEARY, 6.ADAMS, 7.ROCASTLE, 8.DAVIS, 9.QUINN (12.Groves ’75), 10.NICHOLAS, 11.HAYES (14.Thomas ’84).


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