It's a bizarre coincidence that the two most dramatic finishes in English football history occurred on 26 May in 1989 and 1999. There are many similarities between Arsenal's title win at Anfield and Manchester United's European Cup victory over Bayern Munich – not least the instant realisation for fans of each club that it would, could and should never get any better than this. There was also one big difference: the reaction of the managers.
Sir Alex Ferguson was miles away, lost in the pure joy of achieving his lifetime's ambition, able only to utter the brilliant phrase "Football? Bloody hell". If he was emotionally naked, then George Graham was hiding under about 15 layers at Anfield a decade earlier. He was eerily placid. When the final whistle went at Anfield, he shook Kenny Dalglish's hand, briefly clenched his fist and then even tried to calm the celebrations around him. When he was interviewed on the field by ITV's Mark Austin a few minutes later, he sounded like a man doing small talk with his newsagent about whether the local paper was as good as it used to be.
It was an extraordinary and fascinating reaction, not least because everybody else had pretty much lost it. Lee Dixon burst into tears after Michael Thomas's goal, and was wiping his eyes while the match continued. David O'Leary broke down in tears after the game. Even ITN lost it. The first bong of News at Ten was followed by Sandy Gall saying, "The League Cup goes to Highbury".
We might conclude that Graham overdid the decorum, worried about causing offence in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Except he was the same in the privacy of the team coach on the journey home. "'We call upon George to sing us a song,' we demanded, but he wouldn't," remembered Tony Adams in his autobiography. "He just sat at the front with his own thoughts, savouring the achievement."
He had been equally tranquil before the game. Look at his pre-match interview. Long before Arsène Wenger was around, George knew. George knew all week. He knew exactly how Arsenal could win the title. Clearly there was a degree of bluff – there had to be with a task this formidable – but it was still a staggering managerial performance, not just during but also before the match.
He decided that the team would not stay overnight before the game, preferring his beloved John Wayne method of getting in, getting the job done and getting the hell out of there. In the build-up to the game, with Arsenal appearing to have blown the title after losing at home to Derby and drawing at home to Wimbledon, he decided to give the players a couple of days off to assuage their nerves. He knew full well that, for many of his players, the only thing up for grabs now would be a succession of pint glasses, but it was worth it to take their mind off things. The players didn't disappoint: Adams, Niall Quinn, Steve Bould and Paul Merson kickstarted a bender by spending the Monday night at Windsor races. Afterwards they went on a Thames cruise, during which Adams and Quinn chatted up the wrong women and ended up having a full and frank debate with a couple of bruisers over the binding nature of matrimony.
Adams was still going strong 30 hours later, back at Quinn's flat. "There was half of north London fretting about the title race and me, the team's captain, on a bender," he said. He was still living with his parents at the time and finally called them on the Wednesday to confirm that, yes Mum, he was OK. Two days later, on the day of the match, Adams played his part in soothing his team-mates' nerves, setting himself up to be the butt of various jokes by inventing a story about a date with the Page 3 girl Suzanne Mizzi.
To most, Arsenal winning 2-0 at Anfield was an even unlikelier story than Adams having a date with a Page 3 girl. Liverpool hadn't lost for nearly five months and had reeled in Arsenal, who led them by 18 points at the end of February. It felt like a re-assertion of the natural order: Liverpool top, the rest scrapping for second. Few people bothered to even pay lip service to Arsenal's chances. The Daily Mirror headline two days before the match captured the mood: "YOU DON'T HAVE A PRAYER ARSENAL."
Graham may not have had a prayer, but he did have a plan. He knew all the momentum was with Liverpool, so he settled on the counter-intuitive tactic of bringing in an extra centre-back, Steve Bould. "If we concede an early goal we're f****d," is how Perry Groves recalls Graham's teamtalk. "What I want to do is go in at half-time at 0-0, then I'll be happy."
The plan was to score one after half-time, allow Liverpool to think the unthinkable and see where the chips fell thereafter. Alan Smith scored early in the second half; you know the rest. Thomas missed a sitter in the 75th minute and then, from an almost identical position in injury-time, achieved immortality with one unfathomably calm stab of his right foot. It was, said Thomas, "an out-of-body experience".
In a sense Graham was out of body too, in a zone of rare serenity, as he had been all week. Afterwards Groves sat with Bould, Merson and the Championship trophy in the dressing room. "Do you realise," said Groves, "that everything he said came true?" They knew. George had known all along.
When it comes to title deciders, nothing can top the twist of Anfield 1989. But in terms of the whole 90-minute film, Sampdoria's win at the San Siro is like nothing you've ever seen, or will see. It shuddered with intensity from the first whistle. On the night of Sunday 5 May 1991, most of Britain was watching The Darling Buds of May, or All Creatures Great and Small, or Jeeves and Wooster. Those with a BSB squarial had the option of the Italian football on Sky Sports at 8pm. It turned a sleepy night in the suburbs into one that would set up a little camp inside the memory bank.
Sampdoria, chasing their first ever title, led Inter by three points with four games to play – the first of which was away to Inter. The story of this spellbinding game has been told in the Joy of Six before, but it's worth a breathless precis: red cards for Roberto Mancini and Giuseppe Bergomi, a missed penalty, a missed open goal, a dodgy disallowed goal, one shot off the post and another off the line in the same attack, missiles from the crowd causing a five-minute delay, the completion of Gianluca Vialli's stunning post-Italia 90 redemption, and an all-time great performance from the Sampdoria keeper Gianluca Pagliuca, who somehow repelled the human tank that was Lothar Matthäus at the peak of his powers.
There was also one of the all-time great commentaries. The match was shown as-live on Sky (avoiding spoilers was easy in the days before the internet and mobile phones), and the coverage sticks in the mind for one major reason. Never mind Gary Neviile's goalgasm the other night; Martin Tyler – normally such a calm, measured man – almost had an entire gamegasm. When an old-school commentator of Tyler's class cries wolf, you know something major is happening. At one point he was simply shouting; at others he was straining desperately to find words to do justice to the match. Just before Vialli's match-clinching second goal, he found them. "In years to come, people will be saying 'I was here, I was at that game'," said Tyler. "Grown men, hardened football-watchers, are scarcely able to turn their eyes to this."
Those of a nostalgic nature only have eyes for that game when they think of the golden age of Serie A. It really was that good. If you haven't seen the highlights before, give the hairs on the back of your neck a reward.
(If you can tolerate the music, this is another excellent video of the match)
Every legendary team has The Game. Not the one where they claim their first major prize, or their defining victory, but the one where they make the decisive step from very good to great. Often you don't realise the game's significance until later, although that was not the case with Milan's seismic win at Napoli which powered them to the brink of their first Scudetto under Arrigo Sacchi (and their only Scudetto under Sacchi, an odd statistic for an unquestionably iconic team).
Napoli, the defending champions, had started the season devastatingly, winning 16 of the first 19 games to set a new Serie A record. Diego Maradona was playing the best football of his club career – "physically I was on tip-top form, like I had never been before, like a bullet" – and formed a celebrated Ma-Gi-Ca attacking trident with Bruno Giordano and Careca. Even a 4-1 tousing at Milan in January didn't change much. With five games to go Napoli were four points clear (only two for a win in those days). But things were starting to go wrong: a series of injuries were taking their toll on Maradona ("there was nowhere left around my lower back or my knee for the needle to go in"), and the team weren't happy with their manager Ottavio Bianchi. "Bianchi, the w****r, had started experimenting and had left Giordano out," said Maradona. "Everything turned to s**t."
Defeat at Juventus and a draw at Verona meant that Napoli hosted Milan with a one-point lead and three games to play. The match was a bona fide epic. Milan scored early when Pietro Paolo Virdis, a silver-haired sniffer who surprisingly never played for Italy, latched on to a deflected free-kick. Just before half-time, Maradona, who had even been interviewed on the pitch a few seconds before the game started, curled in a mighty equaliser just before half-time; he later said it was the best free-kick of his career.
Even he could not hold Milan, however. In the second half Ruud Gullit was irresistible: a run and cross led to a smartly taken second from Virdis, and then he charged more than half the length of the field to set up the substitute Marco van Basten, who was just coming back from a long injury in time for Euro 88. Careca pulled one back for Napoli, but Milan held on. A fortnight later they clinched their first trophy under Sacchi and their first title for nine years. A great team was born.
The Sure Thing was an underrated mid-1980s film about John Cusack's adolescent search for, ahem, true love. It might also have been a documentary about the Poland defender Michael Kutzop's penalty-taking prowess. Kutzop scored 39 out of 40 in his professional career. The odd one out cost Werder Bremen the Bundesliga title.
Bremen hosted the reigning champions Bayern Munich, who they led by two points, in the penultimate game of the 1985-86 season. A win for Bayern would give them control of the title race because of their superior goal difference; a win for Bremen would give them the title. The match had needle as well as tension. In the return fixture five months earlier, the Bayern sweeper Klaus Augenthaler had broken Rudi Völler's leg with a bad challenge. Völler was the darling of German football, never mind Bremen; for the next few months, Augenthaler was abused viciously during every away match. He would have received less stick if he'd beheaded Bambi.
Bremen were unbeaten at home all season, although they had a slightly unusual record: their list of wins included an 8-2, a 7-3, a 6-1, a 6-0, a 5-0, a 4-0 and a 4-2, but there were also three goalless draws before Bayern came to town. The game was inevitably tense. Roland Wohlfahrt hit the post early on before their Belgian keeper Jean-Marie Pfaff made a number of good-to-excellent saves. The biggest cheer of the half came when Augenthaler was booked. Bayern, whose team included the formidable pair of Lothar Matthäus and Soren Lerby started to exert some authority in the second half, with Wohlfahrt missing a great headed chance.
From Wohlfahrt to Kutzop's brain fart. After 78 minutes, Völler came off the bench for his first appearance since Augenthaler's challenge. With a minute to go, he chased a long ball with Lerby on the right of the area. Although he crashed it against Lerby's head from close range, Lerby's hands were by his face at the time and the referee gave a penalty for handball. It was a poor decision; Bayern's complaints were such that more than two minutes passed before Kutzop took the kick.
He had scored eight out of eight that season. He was so good that a couple of people on the Bremen bench instinctively celebrated at the moment Kutzop struck the ball. His apparently foolproof system was to wait for the keeper to commit and then pass it to the other side. Pfaff messed with the plan by deciding not to dive. He stood still, and so did time as Kutzop approached, with both men desperate not to blink first. Eventually Pfaff leaned slightly to his right, so Kutzop passed the ball towards the other corner. It smacked off the outside of the post. A man's life, defined in a heartbeat.
Bremen were still strong favourites for the title. All they needed was a draw in the last game, but you know how these stories play out. They lost 2-1 at Stuttgart, while Bayern smashed Mönchengladbach 6-0 to win the title.
No list of title deciders would be complete without a dubious refereeing performance. There's only one place to start and finish: in Turin. Juventus were stripped of a couple of titles in the mid-2000s. In the eyes of many non-Juve fans, the titles of 1981 and 1998 will always have an asterisk against them. The latter came after a wildly controversial 1-0 win against second-placed Internazionale, who weren't given a penalty when Ronaldo was flattened in the box by Mark Iuliano. That doesn't have its own paeg on Wikipedia, mind you. Turone's goal does.
With three games to go of the 1980-81 season, Juventus led Roma by a point as the two prepared to face each other in Turin. A poor game was apparently decided when the Roma sweeper Maurizio Turone headed in after 74 minutes. He was halfway through a full Tardelli when he realised he had been given offside. Replays showed it was the wrong decision. The decision is not quite the shocker it appears to be by modern standards – in 1981 level was offside – but it was still a poor one.
Juventus won their last two games to win the title. Of course they did. Turone's goal became one of the most infamous moments in Italian football history. Never mind the football: the journalist Gabriele Romagnoli argued that it changed Italian history indelibly. Turone's goal became gold for historians, and pornography for conspiracy theorists.
Sometimes you can win the title decider and lose the war. When Ipswich triumphed impressively at Villa Park in their sixth-last game of the 1980-81 season, it moved them to within a point of Villa with a game in hand. "Ipswich," said David Lacey in this paper, "were their old ebullient selves." The highlight was Eric Gates's sensational second goal, which seemed to reflect an essential difference in class between the sides. "We didn't say it, but we thought we'd won the championship," remembered their manager Bobby Robson 16 years later.
But a long season (66 games in all) fighting on three fronts had already started to catch up with a very small squad. Three days before the Villa game they had lost an FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. Four days after it they lost to Arsenal, their first home defeat in 18 months, and Villa were in charge of the title race again. Overall, a spent Ipswich lost six of the last eight league games. The match they won at Villa, which appeared to be decisive, became little more than a footnote.