Is the film 89 (2017) tone deaf?

89 (2017)

89 is Director Dave Stewart’s ode to the 1988-89 season and final game in which Arsenal won the Premier League title. Interspersing player, manager, and fan interviews with beaucoup game footage, 89 is exciting and well put together. But at the same time, I had to ask myself if this documentary is tone deaf.

After a good start to the season, Arsenal has a run of bad form while the indomitable Liverpool climbs the table. But then the end of the season is interrupted by the April 15, 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which results in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. Games are suspended for 2 weeks. The title-deciding game of Arsenal away to Liverpool is rescheduled from Apr-22 to May-26.

The film assumes you already know the outcome, so it covers the background and how this miracle came to pass, creating a somewhat familiar tale of “there is no i in team”. But there are many nuggets to be found, particularly in the interviews of Manager George Graham, who explains how he built his squad. There is also lots of film footage of practices, fitness training, team talks, and games. Players note that they relentlessly practiced small-sided games of 1v1s, 2v2s, and 3v2s instead of full-field.

The interviews of the players (John Lukic , Alan Smith , Tony Adams , Lee Dixon and many more) are very entertaining; several became pundits and are able to express their passion and fears very well. To represent the fans, the film includes talking-head opinions from Nick Hornby (author of Fever Pitch, which also covers this win), football writer Amy Lawrence, and comedian Alan Davies.

“Arsenal must win by 2 goals to win the title. Anything less and it stays on Merseyside with Liverpool,” 

announces Brian Moore.

But it’s unthinkable because no one has beaten Liverpool by 2 goals at Merseyside. Manager Graham’s strategy is to hold Liverpool scoreless and score the first goal. They also travel on the day of the game rather than the night before, so the players won’t get nervous. 

The film editing readily recreates the tension and drama of the day. There is no score at half-time. In the second half, Alan Smith scores on an IFK set piece (indirect free kick), and Michael Thomas scores with seconds left in stoppage time. Afterward, the team bus stops at a North London bar called Winners, and players mix with fans in the wee hours. For a written recap of the season and the game, read Louis Massarella’s article.

How George Graham built the team

Arsenal line-up for the game

An Arsenal great, Graham had coached Milwall in the 2nd division. He tells his new charges, 

“I’ll give everybody 6 weeks to prove their worth and then I’ll make decisions.” 

He then gets rid of big name senior players, selfish individuals: Graham Rix, Charlie Nicholas, Kenny Sansom, Graham Rix, and Tony Woodcock. He brings in younger players and players from lower leagues who are ambitious. He reads Monday morning issues of all the local papers, knowing that they write about the best players from the weekend’s games. 

Graham recruits for desire, hunger, passion and technical ability.  He brings in outside players: Nigel Winterburn, Perry Groves, Brian Marwood, Alan Smith, Kevin Richardson, Steve Bould, and Lee Dixon. He promotes Home Grown players: Michael Thomas, Tony Adams, Paul Merson, and David Rocastle.

Is the outcome fair?

Because of schedule changes from the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool ended up playing 6 games between May-3 and May-26 while Arsenal played just 3. Liverpool had also just beaten Everton 3-2 in the FA Cup Final on May-20. But not just considering the likelihood of physical exhaustion, there is also the question of emotional shell-shock to Liverpool, who were part of the Hillsborough disaster. 

As a point of reference that same year, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit during game 3 of the MLB World Series. 67 people around the San Francisco Bay Area died from the quake. The 4th game was rescheduled 10 days later, but frankly, locals don’t even remember who won. That series will always have an asterisk next to it. (By coincidence, a different Dave Stewart was MVP of the series.) As another example, there is a long list of sports and other entertainment events that were cancelled in 2001 after 9-11.

The truth is, it took me several tries to finish watching this film, because even though it is very well-done, celebrating 89 just feels wrong. 

In English with English sub-titles

Alternate title is Arsenal: The Goal that Changed Everything

7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7