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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 21 May 2009
Michael Thomas scores the dramatic late goal that won the league title for Arsenal in 1989Michael Thomas scores the dramatic late goal that won the league title for Arsenal in 1989
Did Michael Thomas blow the final whistle on an era?

Richard Osley looks back at the miracle of Anfield and wonders if Arsenal’s stunning last-minute triumph 20 years ago really did kick off a shift in football and society

The Last Game. By Jason Cowley
Simon & Schuster £14.99

FORGIVE the dewy eyes but miracles do happen.
I saw one happen, 20 years ago next Tuesday. It wasn’t the cripple walks again kind of miracle, nothing as fantastical as that. But the sequence of such marvellously unlikely events which unfolded in Liverpool on May 26 1989 seems so improbable now that it has upstaged everything that has gone since for the red side of north London. Somebody who understands the power of the moment should write a book about it.
They have, of course. Twice.
First there was Nick Hornby, whose revered novel Fever Pitch, and its respectful film adaptation was the story of obsessive fandom partly built around the miracle of Michael Thomas and his unique moment in football history.
Now with the same base material and daring to offer something new to one of the most talked about moments in any sport, Jason Cowley, a writer formerly with the Observer Sports Monthly now behind the editor’s desk at the New Statesman, explains the time-stood-still mystique behind Anfield 1989.
Thomas clinched the first Arsenal championship in a generation with the last kick of the last game of the season at Liverpool, who until that moment were boringly brilliant, imperviously collecting trophies every year and not beaten on their own turf for an eternity.
The miracle of it all: Arsenal had to win by two goals otherwise the trophy went to Liverpool, Thomas’s goal was the second goal, cracking the championship code in a final match decider which has had no equal in terms of table-turning, last-moment drama whatever team you follow. It was a film-script ending – only Michael Caine, Pele and Sylvester Stallone had a more impossible finale when they beat the Nazis in Escape To Victory.
For anybody who was tuned into Arsenal before the Emirates Stadium was built, before Diamond suites and prawn sandwiches, even before the Gunnersaurus, watching that clip causes the chest to tighten.
Most of us have come up for air and led normal lives since, but it’s always there, a pick-me-up when­ever the team is beaten by Bolton or a star player joins Barcelona.
Cowley remains so intoxicated by the Thomas miracle that in The Last Game he hands it national importance – presenting a clash between North and South, old and new, and black and white. Here it is a cathartic moment just six weeks after the tragedy of Hillsborough and occurring in the same year that the Berlin Wall fell and a turbulent decade of political extremes was drawing to a close. In a celebration of the 90 minutes, Cowley eyes a more deep-seated meaning to it all, as if somehow Thomas supplied ointment for a country blemished by strikes, joblessness and Thatcherism, showing that impossible dreams and seismic changes could be a reality.
High and mighty maybe, but Cowley maps out interesting forks in the road with a book of clashing views, exposing the dilemma of a fan who hankers for the old days but is so addicted he can’t look away from the modern-day version of our national game, despite its ugly commercialism, corporate hospitality and tickets too expensive for the many. A ticket to that night at Anfield 20 years ago was £7.
Amid the joyous recollections, it is a sombre book with death haunting the text at several turns. There is the passing of Cowley’s father Tony, a West Ham fan to whom the book partly forms a tribute. A disillusioned supporter who tore up his match tickets after the horror of Hillsborough and dreamed of the days of Bobby Moore, Cowley Snr died from a stroke after playing table tennis. There is also the tragically premature death of David Rocastle, who, like Thomas, and Paul Davis were black boys who joined Arsenal from council-estate upbringings to become the heroes of the day, a soul boy crew whose life stories were completely at odds with the privileges of their modern-day equivalents.
And in passages which look as if the New Journal was part of the research material – a compliment delivered without a namecheck – there is also coverage of the death two years ago of Dainton Connell, the “main face” bruiser who once ruled the Highbury terraces. It’s a warm tribute to a folk hero of sorts, if not sitting comfortably with the author’s condemnation of football violence earlier in the book.
To me the most poignant tale running through it all is what happened to Thomas. I met him a few years back and he talked more fondly of how he had settled in Merseyside where he now runs a security business miles away from the fans who can’t say his name without welling up.
Ironically, when he left Arsenal after falling out with manager George Graham he joined Liverpool and has been a reluctant Arsenal hero ever since, fatigued by being remembered for just one moment in time. He wanted to be remembered for a distinguished international career, which sadly never materialised. Painfully bashful, he is resigned to his fate: trapped in the moment, forever bearing down on the Liverpool goal like a character from TV’s Ashes To Ashes.
Cowley seems to have had a similar brush with him when Thomas awkwardly appeared at a celebratory dinner at the Emirates a couple of years ago, finding a man who rarely courts the media or publicly revels in his fame.
Mickey, as we fondly knew him, has moved on. The shame for him is the rest of us can’t.

The Last Game. By Jason Cowley Simon & Schuster £14.99

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