How Arsenal battled, boozed and brawled their way to the 1990/91 title

How Arsenal battled, boozed and brawled their way to the 1990/91 title

Should the morning paper have been lifted from the rack and its back page nonchalantly perused by anybody hailing from the ever-shrinking periphery of football’s all-encompassing sphere of influence, the day after the 1990/91 season had drawn to a close for England’s First Division, the daylight streaming through the cavernous seven-point gap between the league table’s first and second-placed teams may well have lulled the reader into a contemptuous eye-roll in the direction of what they believed to have been a competition barely worth hosting.

To a point, it would be unfair to label their assumption as entirely inaccurate. For the majority of the 1990/91 campaign, the season’s title winners Arsenal were indeed superior to their rivals, and the numbers – a solitary loss and meagre 18 goals conceded during the league campaign’s 38-stop tour of the country – provide irrefutable evidence of their year-long dominance.

But a league table can only tell so much of one season’s story and to suppose that Arsenal’s league win of 1991 had been without its many flaws and flashpoints would be to deprive one of the division’s most outrageously memorable seasons, and one of the club’s most outlandishly momentous achievements, of a great many remarkable events that will likely never be forgotten from their histories.

Long before the glorious fruits of Arsène Wenger’s revolutionary philosophies had sprouted from Highbury’s pristine turf on either side of the new millennium, for many decades preceding the Frenchman’s arrival, Arsenal had maintained a reputation for relying upon a dogged and dislikable style of play, peddled by a great many dogged and dislikable players.

The very antithesis of a trademark Wenger team – slick, attack-minded, highly attractive, but often flawed by a crystalline fragility – the Arsenal of the late 1980s and early 90s were rugged, direct and drilled to within an inch of their sanity.

This austere approach, indoctrinated by their autocratic defence-specialist manager George Graham, garnered what could most fairly be recalled as semi-frequent glory – most notably, it famously won Arsenal the First Division title in 1989, their first title in 18 years, secured by Michael Thomas with virtually the last kick of the game away to Liverpool – and with such a style came a determination to win that became accentuated by a common disregard for sportsmanship and a hatred for losing that predetermined a will to travel to whatever lengths necessary to emerge victorious. Often these were lengths deemed unsavoury by most.

“Fights, tabloid reports of obnoxious drunken behaviour, mass displays of petulance and indiscipline.” These incidents, which erupted regularly and off the pitch, inevitably left a lasting impression on those in attendance. As recalled by Nick Hornby in his famous Arsenal memoir Fever Pitch, “[These events] isolated the club and its devotees further and further from the lip-pursing, right-thinking, Arsenal-hating mainland; Highbury became a Devil’s Island in the middle of north London, the home of no-goods and miscreants.”

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Far from the reluctant respect and grudging admiration imbued upon the once vehemently anti-Arsenal not-so-neutrals by Wenger’s coveted crop – who would come together to form the Premier League’s Invincibles a little over a decade later – even the name Arsenal left a bitter taste in the mouths of many.

Consequently, as the 1990/91 campaign approached, with Arsenal finding themselves very much a part of all early title contender weigh-ins, almost every football fan in the country naturally began the season praying for the First Division trophy to fall into the hands of their own beloved team. Failing that, anybody but Arsenal would do.

Winning the league in such unique and exultant circumstances in 1989, Arsenal’s players were perhaps doomed to disappoint in the following season, whatever their exploits. However, even when spared comparisons to the season that preceded it, Arsenal fell flat in 1990, finishing fourth in the league and without a single piece of silverware from which to sip the bubbly that would numb the pain of their failed title defence.

This immediate reversion to inadequacy imparted to all at Arsenal an intense desire to reestablish their previous dominance and made them all the more desperate to satiate that unquenchable thirst for superiority once again.

In the weeks leading up to the season, Graham made his first move with the club’s chequebook in hand, adding three new components to a squad he believed needed updating. To the tune of almost £4 million he added QPR goalkeeper David Seaman, bought to improve upon current keeper John Lukic; Norwich City defender Andy Linighan, seen as back-up to Tony Adams and Steve Bould in the centre of his prized back-line; and tricky Swedish winger Anders Limpar, acquired from Cremonese. To make room, three Arsenal players reluctantly departed: Lukic joined Leeds, Brian Marwood left for Sheffield United and Martin Hayes became a Celtic player.

In Graham’s mind, Arsenal were edging closer to being ready to compete with the best throughout the coming year. But long before Arsenal’s new-look squad could kick their first ball of the season, their preparations took a turn for the worse. As committed as the squad were to abiding by Graham’s modus operandi whenever on the pitch, when away from it, a handful of Arsenal’s players rebelled against his authority and demand for relentless professionalism, finding their release at the bottom of the bottle.

For some, drinking represented far more than an occasional vice, called upon to temporarily blow off steam or at worst quieten their demons, and some were all too eager to ditch their sobriety come win, lose or draw. For club captain Tony Adams, his two greatest addictions, football and alcohol, would collide spectacularly during the 1990/91 season.

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On 6 May 1990, the day he was expected at Heathrow to join his teammates as they embarked upon their end-of-season tour of Singapore, Adams, then still very much in denial of his growing struggles with alcoholism, sought not to leave early for the airport but instead chose to knock back a couple harmless beers with some mates before leaving. Of course, beers can remain forever harmless, regardless of their quantity, in the adamant mind of the addict.

As they so often would, a couple became a few, which soon became five and then a dozen. The quiet lunchtime drink at a pub in Essex soon became a party in a nearby house, and then a rowdy group audibly enjoying a boozy barbecue in the garden – which would find itself slanderously described in the following week’s tabloids as an orgy, on account of one witness claiming to have spotted a couple sneaking off to the upstairs to become better acquainted – and suddenly all plans of reaching Heathrow were, for a while, long forgotten.

After an impromptu innings of drunken cricket, and all the larger-fuelled merriment one could hope to pack into one afternoon, Adams reluctantly refocused on his professional duties and accepted he must head off home to pack before departing for Heathrow.

As Adams wrote in his autobiography, Addicted: “I did not want to go to Singapore and was beginning to think I might not have left enough time to do what I needed to at home then drive the 60 or so miles to the airport. In fact, I barely got 60 yards.”

While doing almost 80mph down a residential street, Adams ploughed across a dual carriageway and into another quiet road. Craning his neck to look behind him, wondering where on earth he was heading at such speed, Adams lost control of the car. It clipped a telegraph pole, sending him careering onto the other side of the road, spinning, then head-first into the brick wall that separated a resident’s front garden from their house.

It rained glass on Adams’ head as his windscreen shattered upon impact. It was only thanks to the dumb luck that was his altogether uncommon decision to wear a seatbelt that prevented catastrophic injury. With his driver-side door on the pavement, Adams stumbled out of the vehicle to be met by the old couple whose front garden he had renovated with the front of his Ford Sierra, who promptly affirmed their Britishness by immediately offering him a cup of tea to calm his nerves. Barring a few bumps and scrapes, and a hair full of windshield, Adams was unharmed.

The police arrived shortly after and asked Adams to take a breathalyser test. The legal limit in the UK – measured in micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath – was, and still is, 35. Adams’ reading registered 134.

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After being taken to the nearest police station and having given a statement in which he improvised and claimed to have swerved to avoid a reversing car, Adams was tested with the breathalyser once more, by that time whatever alcohol he had consumed would have been processed by his body and been capable of imparting a more reliable reading. This time it returned 137.

Adams was charged with reckless driving and driving with excess alcohol, but despite the ruling was told he was free to leave the station. A trial would be arranged and he would be required in court at a later date.

In the meantime Arsenal, with Adams for the time being still in tow, were able to kick off their season in style. Away at Wimbledon’s Plough Lane, Arsenal sauntered to a 3-0 victory, soon to be followed by a 2-0 win at home to Luton. Early questions were raised over Arsenal’s capacity for consistency when successive draws came at home to Tottenham and then away at Everton, but were emphatically answered when Chelsea arrived at Highbury hopeful of earning a positive result, only to be sent back across London having found themselves on the wrong end of an assertive 4-1 loss.

Four more points were quickly earned, away to Leeds and at home to Norwich, before the Arsenal team travelled to Old Trafford. With high hopes, Arsenal fans journeyed north confident that their squad – with the most stubborn of defences, having leaked just four goals in their opening eight league fixtures, and the likes of Limpar, Merson, Rocastle and Smith already shifting into what certainly resembled top gear – could orchestrate a memorable performance in Manchester. That they did, though no welcoming party awaited them back in the capital afterwards; only vitriol and condemnation.

The game crackled and spat with an intensity that was becoming ever more typical of encounters between Manchester United and Arsenal, but the clash spilled over like no meeting of the two sides had done before as the hour mark approached.

As Denis Irwin lunged at the feet of the game’s only goalscorer, Anders Limpar, Arsenal full-back Nigel Winterburn quickly leapt to Limpar’s defence, returning the favour as he flew into Irwin over the ball, seemingly intent on connecting with the defender’s ankles. Winterburn’s tackle incensed both Irwin and the nearby Brian McClair who took advantage of the Arsenal player’s prone position by aiming a flurry of angry kicks at his back.

Despicable as McClair’s actions were, they perhaps came as no surprise. Following his failed penalty conversion in the dying embers of his team’s 2-1 defeat at Highbury in an FA Cup tie three years earlier, McClair was harassed by Winterburn who approached the United player the moment he had missed his attempt from 12 yards, electing to jog back up the pitch with him, all the while taunting him and mocking his skyward spot-kick. To say the two shared a grudge would be to speak kindly of their relationship.

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And so, as the stopwatch ticked down to impending detonation, which Arsenal player should fate have present himself to McClair but Winterburn? The kicks of Irwin and McClair brought the red flag into view of an entire field of willing bulls, as every player but one – the afternoon’s most conscientious objector, David Seaman – sprinted to the scene of the crime to play their part in what the tabloids labelled a “21-man brawl” the morning after.

Though a handful of punches were thrown, many necks wrung and shirts pulled, in truth, few players did anything but try to ease tensions, grabbing their own teammates, attempting to haul them away in order to diffuse the situation. But that didn’t prevent the referee from issuing Limpar and Winterburn with yellow cards, as the Manchester United players in question somehow escaped uncarded, though far more severe punishments were still to come for both teams.

Despite both clubs openly admitting their wrongdoing and fining a selection of the players involved to publically evidence their remorse, the FA delivered their own sanctions. Three days after the game, the FA fined both teams £50,000 for their misconduct and for their roles in bringing the game into disrepute, in unprecedented style, points were deducted from both clubs. Manchester United were deducted one point while Arsenal – who had found themselves at the centre of a similar on-field fracas during their controversial 4-3 win at home to Norwich the preceding season – were handed a more severe two-point deduction.

After moving swiftly on from their recent indiscretions, a determined Arsenal followed their success at Old Trafford with wins against Sunderland, Coventry, Southampton and QPR, four results that bookended a hard-fought 0-0 draw away at Crystal Palace.

Though Arsenal appeared once again intent on taking to the pitch to do nothing but win football matches, captain Adams couldn’t help but flirt one last time with a lack of diplomacy that came so naturally to some of the Arsenal players as he joined in the celebrations brought about by Merson’s equaliser at QPR by flicking an unmistakable ‘V’ sign in the direction of the home fans whose donkey-oriented chants had troubled him from the very first whistle. For his troubles, Adams was warned and fined £1,000 by the FA.

Before the club’s next league game, which was to be the first meeting of the season with Liverpool, Arsenal met Manchester United again as they invited them to Highbury to contest their fourth-round tie in the League Cup. Remarkably, Arsenal, a team who were yet to taste defeat so far during the season, were rocked by an inevitably humbling 6-2 loss and with such an outrageous defeat came a flood of fear into the Arsenal fans’ minds.

So far the only criticism of Arsenal’s league endeavours, excluding those aimed at the team’s ill-discipline, was that they were drawing more games than the similarly undefeated Liverpool. But shipping six to United – in the League Cup though it may have been – sent alarm bells ringing.

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As a result, the Gunners went into their home game against league leaders Liverpool knowing that a similarly humiliating outcome could effectively hand Kenny Dalglish’s men the title, despite only being December. Already six points adrift, nine could well have felt insurmountable even if there were more than half of the season remaining.

Instead, Arsenal emerged victorious, goals from Merson, Dixon and Smith earning an impressive 3-0 win that fired an emphatic retort back across the length and breadth of the country, reaffirming Arsenal’s title aspirations to all those who dared to doubt them.

Frustratingly Arsenal failed to build upon their incredible performance, following their win against Liverpool with three consecutive draws. More upsetting, though, was Adams’ drink driving trial, which took place in the days between the two latter fixtures, on 19 December 1990.

At Southend Crown Court, Adams stood in the dock for the trial’s duration, was polite and courteous whenever called to speak, and spent the rest of his time watching nervously as a statement from his absent mother was narrated then followed by a speech from Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. In turn, testaments were given by fellow players David O’Leary and Pat Jennings, in addition to a number of other colleagues and confidants, who each attested to Adams’ wholesome character and law-abiding nature. All things considered, Adams anticipated a slap on the wrist.

“You were out of control for 130 yards, the length of a football pitch. It is incredible that you came out of the car alive, let alone unscathed, and a merciful relief that there was nobody there to be killed or injured.” He was told by Judge Frank Lockhart, at the trial’s conclusion. “You may not have been to prison before, therefore I must consider if there is any alternative to prison today, but because of the serious nature of the offence, I can see no other practical alternative.”

Adams was fined £500, had his driving licence revoked for two years, and was sentenced to nine months at Chelmsford Prison; five months suspended for reckless driving and a concurrent three-month sentence for driving with excess alcohol. Adams was stunned by the verdict. Not once had he actually considered he could end up going to prison.

For the whole of his still blossoming career, and for so many years thereafter, Adams gained fame in a litany of notable, if not typecast, roles: The Number 6, The Leader, The Captain. But for the duration of his time in a cell, Adams had just one part to play: Prisoner No. LE1561.

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While their captain toiled away the hours, splitting his never-so-ample time between his cell at HMP Chelmsford and the prison’s gym facilities, Arsenal continued their pursuit of the First Division title. In total Adams missed eight fixtures while at Her Majesty’s pleasure; dissatisfying draws against Villa and Tottenham, imposing wins against Derby, Sheffield United, Manchester City, Everton, Crystal Palace, and his side’s only loss of the entire league campaign: a tragic 2-1 defeat away at Chelsea.

The loss at Stamford Bridge was also missed by another two of Arsenal’s defensive stalwarts in O’Leary and Bould. The former missed out entirely through injury, while the latter had to be substituted at half-time on account of a similar issue. It was no wonder that the side’s only loss of the league season should come during the 45 minutes in which neither Adams nor Bould were present. All they could do now was curse their absence and bemoan what could’ve been.

On 18 February, Adams’ absence came to an end as he was released from prison, his initial sentence commuted due in large part to his good behaviour while inside. On the day he regained his freedom, his getaway, made while sitting in the passenger seat of his brother-in-law’s car, was to be entirely untroubled by the press who were kept busy watching Adams’ father, the decoy, at the front of the prison while Adams secretly made his way out the back. Evidently, even without a ball or pitch in sight, Adams found use for his inherent tactical know-how.

To their credit, Arsenal stood by their man from the beginning of his ordeal to the end, reassuring him of his continued place in the side once his time was served, keeping up whatever contact they were allowed with him while inside, and even paying his wages for the entirety of the 58 days he remained imprisoned; an act of devotion they would be publically denounced for. David Dein and George Graham simply saw it as sticking by their captain. “Tony is a great professional and our stance is that we stand by our players,” read the club’s official statement. The fans believed likewise.

Adams made his return to action in front of 7,000 fans at Highbury during a reserve team game against Reading, during which the reception he received from the home fans almost reduced him to tears. After a handful more fitness-finding run-outs with the reserves, an FA Cup tie away to Shrewsbury Town, and a superb 4-0 home win against Crystal Palace watched frustratingly from the stands, Adams’ name made the team sheet once again, just in time for his team’s trip to Liverpool.

This time Arsenal were only three points behind Liverpool, just as they had been on that famous final day of the 1988/89 season, but this time another 12 fixtures remained beyond the day’s events. Still, the team knew that a win could prove vital.

Merson yet again proved the most vital cog in the Arsenal machine on the day, scoring the winner at Anfield midway into the second half, and with that Arsenal reclaimed their place at the First Division’s summit. No late show would be required for this title win; the Gunners were eager to wrap it up early.

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Despite the growing inevitability of a second grand league success in three years, however, another sharp pang of disappointment awaited Graham’s men on their FA Cup run. Arsenal reached the semi-finals, where they were to do battle with rivals Tottenham at Wembley. Before the game, it appeared for all to see as though Arsenal were cantering towards a league and cup double. After all, Tottenham were just months away from eventually finishing 10th in the league while Arsenal were the same period of time away from winning it comfortably.

Yet on the day, Tottenham proved superior as Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker ran the show from the very first minute. As though being knocked out of the League Cup at the hands of Manchester United wasn’t painful enough, an FA Cup semi-final defeat to Tottenham tested the resolve of even the most masochistic of fans. If it weren’t for the league title they were bearing down upon so unyieldingly, those two defeats in particular would likely still gnaw like a toothache in the Arsenal supporters’ memory, its pain undiluted by two decade’s passing.

As it goes Arsenal closed in on the First Division title unabated, free from nasty surprises. Beyond their victory at Anfield, Graham’s men were held by their irksome rivals to another five draws, but also claimed seven more scalps, leading them far clear of their nearest challengers.

Arsenal ended the campaign riding high on a wave of euphoria. Any meals left unfinished or nights rendered sleepless on account of their uncharacteristic loss to Manchester United were generously compensated by Alan Smith who helped himself to a hat-trick during his side’s 3-1 victory at home to United on the penultimate weekend of the season, while the FA Cup loss and the sight of Tottenham’s eventual winning of the competition, was expunged entirely the moment Tony Adams held aloft the league trophy.

Before the competition came to a stunning close, Limpar responded to Graham’s call to action, telling his team before their final game of the season, to “go out there and look like champions”, by grabbing a hat-trick of his own on the way to thrashing Coventry City 6-1 before a delirious Highbury crowd.

Wonderful though Arsenal’s final two league wins were, they were to be unnecessary as Liverpool’s successive losses away to Chelsea and Nottingham Forest meant the title dream was officially over for them before Arsenal had even kicked-off in their penultimate fixture. What’s more, come the season’s end, with seven to spare, Arsenal didn’t require the two points they’d had deducted by the FA either and this matter ensured the club’s victory at home to Ferguson’s United was played to a unique soundtrack, sung by all who felt compelled to serenade their players with what they believed to be the perfect song to commemorate the occasion.

As they strolled to victory against the very same opponents to whom they had surrendered the ultimately superfluous points, only this time with the league title safely wrapped up, all four corners of Highbury came together and sang, to the tune of ‘She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain’, for the entire country to hear, the song “you can stick your fucking two points up your arse!”

By Will Sharp @shillwarp

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