It’s so quiet at the moment with the international break, we’ll revisit the pivotal moment of the 1990/91 season.
12th November 1990
Judgement Day: all it needed was Arnold Schwarzenegger to arrive a year early and the moment would have been complete. Arsenal and Manchester United were in the dock following the well-publicised brawl at Old Trafford during their league meeting a month earlier. Both clubs had fined players, Arsenal had fined their manager and frankly, anyone who had an opinion, offered it.
The Football Association deemed it so serious that they convened a Commission. Not an Inquiry, a Commission. Not quite sure what the difference is but the FA were and they used it.
Immediate expectations were of a points deduction for Arsenal, the previous season’s misdemeanour during the match against Norwich City had raised that prospect. Despite The Canaries being held as the provocateurs, Arsenal were also fined and this was expected to count against them.
Out of the blue and with more than a hint of reverse psychology, Ron Noades offered the prospect of some sort of reprieve. The outspoken owner of Crystal Palace – and a Football League bigwig – didn’t expect the FA to have the brass balls to dish out such a severe punishment. “Wimbledon or Sheffield United would stand less chance than Arsenal before the FA”, he argued, “and that’s not right.”
Even so, Noades was in favour of a suspended sentence with a substantial fine. Arsenal were the only realistic challengers to Liverpool for the title and he felt that ought to be taken into consideration. “More is riding on the decision than a straightforward points deduction”, he observed, before arguing that he wanted Arsenal and other clubs treated the same when they found themselves hauled before the FA.
Football clubs had long suffered points deductions for financial indiscretions, failing to fulfil a fixture or fielding ineligible players but for on-pitch fights? It hadn’t happened before. Nor since either.
The Football Association weren’t in the mood to listen and duly announced the punishments: fines and points deductions for both clubs. The provocation of the United players which led to the flashpoint was recognised as they lost a single point. Arsenal’s sins were held against them and they received a two-point deduction.
It was open season for the media. It was front page news; not quite usurping Margaret Thatcher’s impending downfall but muscling its way into our living rooms nonetheless. Focus turned to Arsenal and the apparent destruction of their title challenge. David Lacey in The Guardian offered solace by pointing out that appearing in the UEFA Cup as First Division runners-up could be quite lucrative. Not raising as much revenue as the revamped Champions Cup but something nonetheless.
Arsenal took it seriously. In the post-season review video, George Graham laid down the law whilst trying to foster a siege mentality. A show for the cameras, sending the message that the club took it seriously. Except I am sure the late Denis Healey would have viewed it as the players being “savaged by a dead sheep”. When the cameras weren’t rolling, I am sure that a more choice turn of phrase was employed and a lot more was made of being the victims in all this. The world was writing the players off and he would have enjoyed that no end; it made his job in that sense, a lot easier.
Surprisingly, James Lawton hit the right note with his Daily Express column (right). The ones who suffered immediately were the supporters, he argued. Not just those of Arsenal but of English football in general.
Or so it seemed.
In fact, you could argue that we benefited from the extra incentive that the Football Association provided, in much the same way Graeme Souness had in 1989 when he had written off in the build-up to the final match at Anfield.
David O’Leary echoed everyone’s sentiments with his comment about champagne being uncorked at Anfield. It seems surprising that anyone could hear them speak over the clinking of glasses in celebration, even if the words of the Liverpool players and manager were focussed on not becoming complacent.
Anders Limpar stood alone in this, convinced in the immediate aftermath that the title was still on. That mood became more prevalent among the support as the week progressed with a view surfacing that Graham could use this to good effect. Liverpool were due a stumble at some point and a defeat with a couple of draws would see Arsenal all but close the gap.
All Arsenal had to do was keep on winning.
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