here were four highlights in the season - and three of these games were outstanding away wins ( at Everton, Forest and Anfield ) and only one at home ( Norwich ).
o some extent, Arsenal's league ambitions were helped by early exits in the two cup competitions. Liverpool won a League ( Littlewoods ) Cup third-round tie after two replays, while West Ham caused a great suprise in winning an FA Cup third-round replay 1-0 at Highbury. Arsenal had only managed to draw 2-2 at Upton Park, despite West Ham's dreadful League form which eventually led to the East Londoners' relegation. Arsenal had some minor consolation in winning the Mercantile Credit Trophy, another rather peculiar event which was part of the League's ill-fated centenary celebrations. The final was against Manchester United at Old Trafford and Michael Thomas and Paul Davis goals led to a 2-1 victory.
he League season had begun with one of it's best displays - a 5-1 victory away at FA Cup holders Wimbledon with Alan Smith scoring a very welcome hat-trick to provide a perfect foretaste of what the season was to hold for him. It was the only hat-trick that the club recorded all season - unusual for a Championship winning side with a good goalscoring record ( 73 in the League alone ). Unfortunatley, this was immediately followed by a 3-2 home defeat by Villa and a 2-1 reverse at Sheffield Wednesday.
onetheless, other results were steady and, more as the result of a very mediocre start by the other contenders ( Liverpool, Forest and Everton in particular ) Arsenal found themselves in second place in early November without having had to perform particularly well to get there.
n 6 Novemeber they had an outstanding televised win at the City Ground, totally outplaying Forest in a 4-1 crushing which, for the first time, made the press take Arsenal's season seriously. The goal scorers were Adams, Bould, Smith and Marwood and, although Arsenal were second behind a very fluent Norwich, the almost universal view was still that it was a matter of waiting for Liverpool to come good.
he situation, however, seemed to have changed completely by the second of Arsenal's memorable performances. This was at Goodison on the 14 January and, by the time that match was over, the Gunners had overtaken Norwich and were firmly placed at the top of the table five points clear. This was perhaps suprising statistically as, between Forest and Everton, Arsenal played thirteen first-class games of which they drew four, lost three and won only six. This was not exactly Championship form, but in a topsy-turvy, very open season, it was enough to put them well infront.
hey were also, it must be said, playing very well when it mattered. After the 3-1 win at Goodison, Peter Ball said in The Times: 'In the best superstitious footballing tradition, George Graham is refusing to count the Championship until it is hatched. No one else at Goodison Park on Saturday harboured any doubts about its destination as Arsenal demolished Everton with a massively authoritative performance.' Obviously Mr Dalglish had not been at Goodison that Saturday and, indeed, Liverpool were no fewer than 11 points behind. The gap at one time between Arsenal and Liverpool was as great as 19 points, which Liverpool clawed back between January and the ultimate denouncement on 26 May. That was an astonishing achievement by Liverpool, but not unprecedented - at Christmas time 1986 Arsenal were seven points clear at the top of the League and by the end of March 1987 Liverpool were nine points ahead - a gain of sixteen points in three months. So Liverpool's ability to catch up was not in doubt - it was just that this year it seemed so unlikely that they would, so vulnerable did they look ( they had just lost 3-1 at Old Trafford ).
ut, above all else, it was Arsenal's performance at Goodison on 14 January which was particularly impressive. Kevin Richardson, who scored one of Arsenal's three goals for his first of the season, was exceptionally enthusiastic. 'It's like history repeating itself', he said after the game. 'The pattern, team balance and tactics are all very similar to the way Everton played in 1984-85 and that is why I find it so easy to fit in.' Richardson, who won a Championship medal with that Everton team in 1984-85 continued: 'The manager has laid down the same kind of requirements on closing down opponents, denying space and putting quality balls into the box. The Arsenal players are far more experienced now, having had two season where they'd led the League for a while, and now we have the insurance of a five point lead. If we don't win it now, it will be the fault of the players and nobody else.'
t Goodison, Arsenal brought their impressive away record to eigth wins and 29 away goals, true Championship form.This was particularly good as they were troubled by injury at the center of defence where David O'Leary and Caeser were both only second-choice options, even when available. It was Davdi Rocastle though, who proved Everton's downfall. The first goals was a result of a fierce cross from the right which Merson finished off with the relish of a forward enjoying his sixth goal in seven games. Just seven minutes later, Rocastle went past Sheedy to the bye-line, hammered over a cross and Alan Smith flung himself at it for goal number two. Richardson scored a clever third against his old club after a neat one-two with the outstanding Smith.
ne of the few advantages of Liverpool's dominance of the 1980's was that no-one else was expected to win anything, which took the pressure off them. It was only after the Everton game that Arsenal became Championship favourites and it is an interesting comment on what happened in the next four months that the bookmakers gradually changed their quotes from odds-on at the end of January to no less than 7-1 against on May 26.
s soon as Arsenal became favourites, the pressure was on. Instead of a steady, if not triumphal, progress towards their rightful prize, the campaign became one of slow attrition, with Liverpool gradually creeping up point-by-point, week-by-week, and most people thinking that Liverpool were bound, in the end, to win it. Between the start of the year and that dramatic denouement on 26 May Liverpool, in fact, played 24 games undefeated. In a sense, that was irrelevant to Arsenal. All the Gunners had to do was keep winning with memorable frequency and the title would be theirs. It was not like that of course, as we all know. Of the 17 games between Goodison and Anfield, Arsenal lost three ( two at home ) and drew five. Those 19 points dropped could have been, and indeed seemed, crucial as Liverpool closed a gap that had been precisely that size.