Michael Thomas – Anfield 89 and all that!
The word ‘Legend’ is bandied about far too freely, but no Gooner would argue that the man who scored arguably Arsenal’s most memorable goal, Michael Thomas, will forever be ensconced in Arsenal folklore.
A Londoner who came through Arsenal’s youth set-up to score the most unimaginable and dramatic winning goal in English league football history. Thomas was ‘one of us’ which made it all the more sweeter.
Although a gifted player with athleticism and all the facets needed in a midfield player – like ‘charging through the midfield’ – Thomas had a somewhat mixed career at Arsenal. Like all Gooners, Thomas experienced highs and lows, and having agreed to talk to wearethenorthbank.com we’re delighted to take a trip down memory lane with him.
‘To me it was the most special thing in my life to come through the Arsenal academy alongside my mate David Rocastle,’ says Thomas. ‘We played together at district level and he was at Arsenal before me. I was at other clubs before signing for Arsenal and when they came in for me I was quick to sign as they were the benchmark as a kid at the time.’
‘When I got there I knew all about Tony Adams, with him playing for Essex, and a lot of great players came through the Arsenal ranks with me, like David [Rocastle], Martin Keown, Martin Hayes, Gus Caesar, the list goes on.’
Having been spotted by Steve Burtenshaw, Thomas signed schoolboy forms for Arsenal in 1982 and broke into the first team in 1987, following a spell on loan at Portsmouth – where the turning point in Mickey’s career came.
‘When George came along I was on loan to Portsmouth. I had a month there and I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to play first team football, the last thing I wanted was to play reserve team football.
‘I would’ve left Arsenal as well, but to their credit they wouldn’t let me sign for Portsmouth. They knew what they were doing!’
Thomas talks about his Highbury days with real pride and joy, reminiscing about playing and winning trophies with his pals, and believes a reunion is long overdue.
‘My Arsenal days were great days,’ he says. ‘We were a tight knit group, we got on well on and off the park but it was special that we all made the first team together.
‘I bump into ‘em every now and then and I was speaking to an old teammate the other day and saying how disgraceful it is that in over 20-odd years that squad hasn’t been together since that night at Anfield. We should’ve done something together really. All of us together. Don’t get me wrong though, the club are always there for you, a special club.’
It’s almost impossible to talk to Thomas without mentioning that goal. Many Gooners will be surprised to hear though that Anfield 89 wasn’t the greatest moment of his career.
‘My earliest memory in football was the Cup Final when Southampton beat Man Utd and after that Arsenal v Man Utd in ’79. So I always dreamt of scoring in a Wembley cup final. The whole build up of the week was special, sitting in front of the telly all day watching on.
‘No one ever dreams of scoring that goal do they, the last minute winning goal to win the league? You dream about scoring in an FA cup Final and that was my dream. That topped Anfield 89.’
30 goals in 208 first team appearances was a decent return for a player that spent a lot of time watching the ball travel over his head, from back to front. This was the main reason that bought an end to Thomas’ Gunners career.
‘Let’s clear up the confusion, it was my choice to leave Arsenal. I fell out with George. George is George, and that was George! He didn’t know what a special group of players he had really. He should’ve let us play our normal game instead of playing the long ball game. At the time I didn’t enjoy it.’
And that was the end of an all too fleeting Arsenal career. In December 1991, Thomas was sold to Liverpool, where he went on to live out his boyhood dream and score in the cup final to become an instant Anfield hero. The irony of football.
But what many people don’t realise is that Thomas very nearly returned to Highbury.
‘I nearly re-signed for Arsenal,’ he says. ‘Bruce Rioch was interested in bringing me back to Arsenal. I nearly came back!’
Thomas wasn’t the only player to have a major run-in with George Graham (they have since made up) yet his will to win is something that remained constant throughout. Football has long changed since, and the necessity for Champions League football is something that grates.
‘I’m getting fed up with football these days – top four is all people think about. That really gets my goat up. It’s all about money. In our day, George Graham’s pre-season talk was about going for all four trophies. To win. Wasn’t about being in Europe but about winning. The club’s bigger than that, we’ve gotta be winning trophies.’
So what does Thomas make of Arsenal at present? Does he see Arsene Wenger getting them back to winning trophies? One thing’s for sure, he desperately wants to see Arsenal return to the Arsenal of old, in more ways than one.
‘You look at the Arsenal team that last won the championship, they had the experience and the quality. The last few years they’ve had the quality but the mentality is very weak. They’re not strong enough.
‘It all starts from defence. The spine. Szczesny looks a great keeper but then you need someone who is commanding at the back other than the goalkeeper. How long are you going to wait for Vermaelen? You need someone else with him. You need three quality centre halves that are all commanding and I don’t see it at the moment. There’s no Tony Adams, no Martin Keown that can lead.
‘It’s been said that Pat Rice should be taking the defence – too right he should be taking the defence and taking control, but Arsene Wenger’s his own man.
‘You got a player that has been part of the best back four in the club’s history in Steve Bould – who’s done a great job with the kids. He should be working with the first team defence.
‘Look at Gibbs. I like Gibbs but he’s still a young kid and I don’t think he’s a left back. He’s a left winger that Wenger has transformed to a left back as he did with Ashley Cole but Cole had great defenders around him – Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Keown, they taught him how to defend.
‘With Gibbs I don’t see it happening as he’s making stupid mistakes. He’s running after the forward has bolted. If you had Bouldy there you wouldn’t get ball watching. We all know they can play, but they don’t think together, they think individually and that’s the problem.
‘And that’s where Bouldy can work the back four hard so it then comes natural.’
‘Because of the defence I can’t see Arsenal finishing in the top four this season. They’ll always score goals but if you leave the back door open, it’s goodnight. Unless they sort that defence out they’re. not gonna win anything.
‘You can have all the money in the world but you need to buy the right players – find the gems. And Wenger has done that a fair few times. Essentially he needs to sort that defence out.’
With Thomas desperate for his old mate Bouldy to be given the opportunity to coach the defence, would he himself want to pass on his know-how and take up coaching?
‘I wanted to coach and you never know,’ he says. ‘I’m still young enough to do it but we’ll have to wait and see. As long as Arsenal do well and start winning things again, that’ll be the nicest thing!’