x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Small step, giant leap

Ninety minutes can make or break a season. Alam Khan looks back on Liverpool's agony on May 26, 1989.

Liverpool's John Aldridge slumps on the pitch in despair after Michael Thomas scores the late title clincher for Arsenal at Anfield on May 26, 1989.
Liverpool's John Aldridge slumps on the pitch in despair after Michael Thomas scores the late title clincher for Arsenal at Anfield on May 26, 1989.

As Carlo Ancelotti, the Chelsea manager, adopts a cautionary approach for today's Premier League finale, it is understandable. Victory against Wigan at Stamford Bridge and the title will be theirs. But that is far from straightforward as the Italian knows only too well from a painful experience. Ten years ago, Ancelotti's Juventus faced the same situation in their game at Perugia on order to become Serie A champions.

Heavy rain delayed the second half by more than an hour and Alessandro Calori, Perugia's journeyman central defender, gained a place in Italian footballing folklore when he beat Edwin van der Sar for the winning goal. Lazio beat Reggina 3-0 to overturn a two-point deficit and pinch the trophy. "This strange afternoon will remain in my mind for a long time," said Ancelotti at the time. So too will May 26, 1989, for Ronnie Whelan. It was the date for what is widely considered the most dramatic finish to a league season in England.

Despite the pain and suffering following the Hillsborough tragedy, which killed 95 Liverpool fans, the players regrouped to win the FA Cup. Arsenal provided the final hurdle to a famous double triumph. All Liverpool had to do was avoid defeat by two goals. Alan Smith and then Michael Thomas, in the final minute of injury time, stunned Anfield as the Gunners achieved a 2-0 win. "It hurt, but it's part of football," said Whelan, who was the Liverpool captain. "You think back and say we shouldn't have lost, but it can happen.

"It's why people go and watch football, and why we enjoy it. It's for these dramatic and unexpected events. "There was massive pressure in that game against Arsenal; probably the biggest we experienced given what had happened at Hillsborough and we had won the FA Cup already. "In front of our own fans, it was a massive occasion and we wanted to win the Double for them. "We were of the mindset that it was just another game and we were going to go out there and win. We didn't approach it any differently or just think about not conceding two goals. Arsenal could approach it any way. They could go gung-ho or be patient and try to sneak a goal and make us nervous and that's what happened. Instead of playing our own game we probably did sit back too much. There was a lot more nervousness in everyone.

"The expectation was that we would win the league - everyone fancied us. But the run-in for a title always has an edge and you need to be mentally strong to cope. You can't afford to drop points and for the final game, there's no second chance." Whelan said nerves could be the biggest obstacle for Chelsea, who hold a one-point lead over Manchester United. "Everyone expects Chelsea to win four or five-nil against Wigan, but it may not happen," said the Irishman, who has just completed a 121 kilometre walk from Galway to Dublin to raise funds for Myasthenia Gravis (MG), an auto-immune disease which has afflicted his daughter Elizabeth.

"Nobody is guaranteed a win and there's probably going to be a bit of a nervousness out there, especially early on. The Wigan players will be out to make a name for themselves. "But if you look at the quality of Chelsea's squad and the amount of experience, people like John Terry and Frank Lampard, then they should find it fairly comfortable and win." Yet in situations like this, the final day is rarely a comfortable experience.

Louis van Gaal, preparing for a Champions League final with Bayern Munich, suffered like Ancelotti in his native Holland when AZ Alkmaar missed out in 2007. As they unexpectedly lost to lowly Excelsior Rotterdam, PSV Eindhoven overtook them, and also pipped Ajax for the championship by a single goal. Philip Cocu claimed the decisive strike for PSV in the 5-1 win against Vitesse. It was his parting gift before he left to join Al Jazira in the UAE and said: "We couldn't believe it and it was the perfect way for me to finish."

Whelan added: "There's always a bit of hope for the chasing team, like Manchester United, when you look at our game with Arsenal and others. No one can ever predict the outcome, but if Chelsea win, no one can say they will not have deserved it." akhan@thenational.ae