Almost Invincible by Dan Betts (An Arsenal book review)

Dan Betts tells us why it is important to remember and celebrate the achievements of George Graham and his Arsenal team who almost pulled off the impossible unbeaten season years before the Invincibles.

“1989 was the exception, it wasn’t the benchmark. It was a miracle. Prior to it, Arsenal hadn’t won the league in 18 years.” (Amy Lawrence)

Today, the Premier League or any top-level league football in general is such an ingrained part of the game that it’s difficult to imagine how revolutionary a professional, structured league was back in 1888.

Illustration by Revant Dasgupta

The Football Association, after a four-year struggle, finally permitted professionalism in the game on July 20, 1885. But, the haphazard system of FA Cup matches, inter-county fixtures and exhibition games would persist until March 22, 1888 when William McGregor, a director at Aston Villa, suggested a league competition guaranteeing a certain number of fixtures each season. The debut season began on September 8 that year. A Second Division would be formed in 1892. And funnily enough, Arsenal (Woolwich Arsenal back then) were not only the first Southern English team to compete, but they were also the first southern team to win the league, though that would be much later, in 1931.

But, fast-forward to the 1988-89 season and the mood surrounding English football was anything but exuberant as the country celebrated the centennial of the oldest league in the world; in fact, throughout much of the larger football world, the reputation of their game was tarnished by hooliganism. In 1985, after the Heysel Stadium disaster, English clubs were banned for five years from European competition, and following a rise in associated violence, Margaret Thatcher’s government initiated a “war cabinet” to combat football hooliganism. The centenary year was struck by the tragedy at Hillsborough which opened up an inquiry into stadium safety standards.The situation was far from the conduct expected from the birthplace of the first organised instance of the beautiful game, far from the principles of equality, fairness, and discipline, the fathers and founders of football had envisioned from the game. You could go so far as to say that, through much of the 80s, English football was suffering a major crisis. However, there was a simultaneous commercial influx and interest into the game, and a consequent pressure for the top clubs to keep their supporters in check if they wanted to benefit from the new broadcasting and distribution deals. Times were changing, however slowly, and you either had to adapt to the transition or be left behind.

Against the backdrop of all this, Arsenal travelled to Anfield to face league leaders Liverpool in the postponed final game of the season (originally scheduled for April 23, but for Hillsborough). The visitors had started the season strong and were league leaders from the Christmas period (at one point they were 11 points clear of Liverpool), but a string of unexpected draws and defeats in the new year saw them lose their advantage. On the other hand, Liverpool had seen their new-year form take them all the way to the top. At Anfield, on May 26, 1989, an Arsenal victory by two clear goals or more would win them the title on goals scored (both teams, in this case, would be level on points, tied on a goal difference of +37). Any other result, including a 1-0 win for the visitors, and Liverpool would continue their dominance over the English league.

To give further context, Liverpool hadn’t lost at Anfield by two or more goals for over three years, while Arsenal hadn’t taken points at that ground in fifteen years. For Arsenal to win, and to score the winning goal just over a minute before the final whistle, was, without exaggeration, a miracle.

Of course, with success comes pressure; even if, as Amy Lawrence has rightly pointed out, the result was as much a flash in the pan as Leicester’s recent title win. A great story for the game, but an exception nonetheless. And critics were proved right in the following 1989-90 season when Liverpool reclaimed top berth while Arsenal could finish only fourth, behind second-placed Aston Villa and, more aggravatingly, third-placed Tottenham Hotspurs (though it must be said they had some appalling bad luck with injuries to star players). But everyone was in for a surprise when the Gunners not only won the title again in 1990-91, but won it having lost only one game. The only person who wasn’t surprised was Arsenal’s extremely detail-oriented and meticulous taskmaster gaffer, Mr. George Graham. He had, after all, been working on this team and fine-tuning this squad since almost the Littlewoods Cup win in 1987.

But, how many fans, especially the younger ones, remember that season as something incredible? With what followed in Arsene Wenger, the two Doubles, and the Invincibles, it’s true that this precursor of sorts to the unbeaten season has been overshadowed. Dan Betts’ new book, Almost Invincible hopes to change that perception by highlighting just why the achievement deserves our attention and its own place in our communal football memory. It takes us through the season and includes insights from many of the legends that graced that squad, including Nigel Winterburn and Alan Smith.

“Hard work gets results.”

“They (training sessions) were brilliant, but pure hard work. He knew what each player needed to do after another had moved. There was no room for slacking off.” (David Seaman)

David Seaman arrived from Leeds to replace the 89 hero, John Lukic. He was, in a stroke of genius, joined by his goalkeeping mentor, as well as bonafide Arsenal legend, Bob Wilson. The partnership, already two-years old at QPR, would really blossom over 13 years in North London, and was crucial for the keeper to settle in, start confidently, and rise from strength to strength.

George Graham had learned from the mistakes of the previous season and bought in reinforcements to accommodate inevitable injuries or simply when a certain amount of rotation was needed. But his training regimen ensured that every player knew exactly what he should be doing at any given moment in time. So, even in case of unexpected injury, or in the case of a new player coming in, there would be a seamless transition without a loss of concentration, discipline or intensity (like Andy Linighan, coming in for a jailed Tony Adams, would find out).

It should come as no surprise that George Graham built his teams around the defence. The centre-back pairing of Steve Bould and Tony Adams was the team’s spine and provided a foundation for the rest of the team. There’s a “rope exercise” that every defender still remembers and should give you an idea of the kind of manager he was. A rope was tied around all four of the defenders, and various scenarios were played out in and around them. This was to teach them about movement and how even a small shift could create a gap that the opposition can exploit. It provided a tangible link to each of their teammates and ensured that the back four would always move collectively as a unit.

David Hillier, then a fresh first-team recruit from the Academy, recalls, how before every game, the gaffer would tell them, “If they don’t score, you can’t lose.”

It may have something to do with the “boring, boring Arsenal” tag the team became famous for. But, while Graham’s teams, throughout his tenure, probably did win many games by a 1-0 scoreline, in this particular season they scored 74 goals, second only to second-place Liverpool who scored 77. And, incredibly, they conceded only 18 goals (the Invincibles scored 73 and conceded 26).

And you might say that the manager, in signing Anders Limpar from Cremonese at the start of the 1990-91 season, probably realised they needed a bit of overt flair. The Swede offered an unpredictability amidst the structure so zealously expected by George Graham that would prove to be many an opposition defender’s undoing.

“All there is to be seen is the blur of legs and the swoosh of leather hitting the net.”

Despite the fraught relationship the two would share and that would eventually break, Limpar was a crucial part of Arsenal’s success in that season.

A rollercoaster of a season

George Graham was clearly a man who liked to account for every possibility that could encountered and humanly prepared for, and that was a good thing, because 1990-91 would test him and his squad of players to their physical, mental and emotional limits. He would need his wits, conviction, and the collective mindset of not accepting defeat that he had been nurturing within his squad.

They would not only have to come back from being docked two points (the only time in English football history that it has ever happened) following a brawl versus Man United (who were docked one point), that would drop them from their 2nd place, a point ahead of Spurs; but they would also have to deal with the absence of their captain and one crucial part of their defence, Mr. Tony Adams, who was jailed for drunken driving in the middle of the season.

They would also have to face losing a difficult game to Chelsea with an offside goal and a team bereft of many of its rocks through injury; they would have to come back from a soul-crushing FA Cup semi-final defeat to a Paul-Gascoigne-and-Gary-Linekar-inspired Tottenham; they would have to pull through not one, but four Cup replays against Leeds.

There were many times in the season when even the best teams could have crumbled or spiraled. But this lot didn’t. There was a fighting spirit here, a group of players who always stood up for each other and never knew when they were beat; there was a cumulative belief in this squad whose manager ensured that every training session maintained the levels of perfection they had reached and the discipline they had accumulated.

Of course, they were aided by the moments of luck (King Kenny’s mid-season resignation to derail their only title rivals), the helpful coincidences, the “slices in time that could have splintered in any direction than the way they did”. But, all winning teams have those and this one shouldn’t be begrudged their share; especially since they also suffered through more than one team’s share of negative, difficult experiences. That, or their sole league loss, shouldn’t take away from the fact that it was the most dominating league campaign by any Arsenal team up until then. The season that followed would see the lifting of the Euro ban. It would see the redevelopment of the North Bank and the opening of a new club shop. Arsenal were on the up and there to stay.

“It was George Graham who, after Liverpool had won the title TEN times, won the League twice in three seasons.” (Amy Lawrence)

There’s a fact often pointed out by writers and fans of sport – what’s the point if we celebrate only the very elite players? Almost Invincible goes even further by asking, what about the very elite players who don’t get the accolades they deserve because they lost that one game in a thirty-eight-game season, even though they won the silverware? Do we only celebrate perfection? The answer, if you were wondering, is no. And I’m glad there’s people like Dan out there who want to equally preserve these moments and accomplishments in all their flawed glory.

Almost Invincible takes us on a season-long rollercoaster ride that isn’t any less exciting because we know how it ends. To use a cliché, it really is the journey and the stories and the people along them that matter. Personally, I’m grateful to this book for adding to the gaps in my knowledge about the club I call home. The language, for the most part, is simple and lets the story stand for itself. There is a tendency at times to wax over-lyrical, but that’s understandable given that he’s a fan. For someone who witnessed that era, this book will be a nice stroll down memory lane; for younger fans (and students of the game), this is a great chance to acquaint themselves with an important part of their club’s history and DNA.

Available at Legends Publishing –

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.