To some it might seem unbelievable that a goal scored at a football match at Anfield between Arsenal and Liverpool 20 years ago could be the event around which anyone could write an entire book. But this is exactly what Jason Cowley has done.
Despite a childhood spent in the East End, and with a West Ham- supporting father, the author has been, from an early age, an avid Arsenal fan and wears his Arsenal shirt under his jacket when standing with his father at Upton Park.
This book is certainly not just for Arsenal or Liverpool fans but for all who want to reflect on the huge changes which have taken place in the culture of football over the past 20 years.
The watershed year was 1989. On 26 May, Arsenal needed a two-goal victory over Liverpool at Anfield on the final day of the football championship in order to gain the League title. It was a game they were not expected to win. Cowley, in his final year at Southampton University, had an exam that day and so couldn’t travel to Liverpool.
I, too, had an important clash with the match. I was the Labour candidate in the Vauxhall by-election, due to be held the following week. My agent would not let me take the night off, but did allow me back home to watch the second half. I was Arsenal’s educational adviser and had worked closely with a number of the younger members of the team. Indeed, Michael Thomas, as a resident of Vauxhall, would be appearing in my election address.
Just like every Arsenal supporter throughout the world I remember the last minute of that game as if it were yesterday. We are one-nil up — not enough to claim the title. Then Alan Smith plays the ball through to Michael Thomas, who rushes forward from midfield. He heads off deep into Liverpool territory, miscontrols the ball — it plays off Nicol before coming back to him — and then he just keeps going, right to the penalty box. Grobbelaar moves towards Thomas; Thomas holds off, then free, ‘lost to the moment’ as he would later describe it himself, puts the ball over the goalkeeper and into the net. Like millions all over the country I jumped up and down in front of the television set. Jason Cowley was doing the same in his cramped hall of residence. For both of us it was a moment of euphoria, for Liverpool supporters a moment of agony. Cowley has talked to the key players and has snippets describing the scenes after the game, in the changing rooms and on the journey back on the team bus to the training ground at London Colney.
Hanging over Anfield that Friday evening was the dark shadow of the Hillsborough tragedy which had happened just a few weeks earlier. Ninety-six Liverpool supporters had died when too many were allowed into one of the terrace pens and were crushed against the high fences. It was a disaster that deeply affected every football fan. Indeed Cowley’s father told him, ‘I am finished with football for ever’. The changes that would take place in the environment of football stadiums as a direct result of Hillsborough, and then the Taylor report, would bring about a new era in football and the gradual decline in hooliganism and racism at matches. Whilst welcoming this, Cowley also shows how the game is no longer a ‘people’s game in any meaningful sense’ and is now defined by ‘egoism, rapacity and greed’, and by a ‘grotesque mercantile, neo-liberal winner-takes-all ethos’.
It is particularly timely to read this book, with all the media coverage of the recent 20th anniversary commemorations of the Hillsborough tragedy. Those who only vaguely recall this terrible event will learn a great deal more from this book. They may also understand the hold football can have on an individual’s life and relationships within a family.
I found it very moving, but then I too have the 26 May 1989 indelibly printed on my memory.