‘89’ recounts this remarkable story in an uplifting feature-length documentary, that poignantly deals with the incredible highs and tragic lows of 1989.
The film delicately deals with the elation and drama on the final day as this Arsenal side wrote themselves into folklore, in contrast with the events at Hillsborough, one of English football’s darkest days, that occurred in the same season.
‘89’ is a nostalgic, must-see hit for the Arsenal fans among us. However, it remains an inspiring, warm, and humorous look at an important year for English football that all football fans can, and should, experience.
‘89’s 2017 release couldn’t have been better timing, offering a fresh documentary experience, in comparison to the fly on the wall documentaries that are so common today.
Maybe, this reflects more on the state of football in the days of copy/paste social media posts and genuine access to players feeling so rare, but this doc is a nostalgic reminder of the chaos and personality in football before the Premier League, one of the reasons it should appeal to all fans, not just those hailing from North London.
The story, much like Leicester’s league triumph, is so captivating there is no need to create smaller narratives, like some of the popular All or Nothing series, where some arcs are essentially manufactured within the show to keep viewers engaged.
The underdog story is a tale older than time itself and leaves viewers thinking they truly can do absolutely anything. Add in the hilarious characters and anecdotes from this boisterous Arsenal side, and the drama of 1989, and you have one of the all-time sport’s stories.
The first part of the film reunites the Gunners’ heroes from that season who excitedly reminisce on that season. The squad was full to the brim of top characters such as ‘Mr. Arsenal’ Tony Adams, stopper John Lurkic and now pundit Paul Merson.
All of these personalities bring their own effortless energy and humour to each moment. Setting this discussion on a round table down the pub was a stroke of genius by the filmmakers, with the early chats feeling entirely genuine as we see how truly close this group of players were.
Steely-eyed manager George Graham is brilliantly contrasted with the group, in a more traditional individual interview where he provides us with insight into how he built the squad and how he wanted them to set up.
Now-writer-then-schoolgirl Amy Lawrence, comedian Alan Davies and author Nick Hornby are some of the famous fans brought in to give the experience of an Arsenal fan through the rollercoaster season.
Before the doc enters its final act with the focus purely on that famous Anfield night, and the players move to individual interviews, the filmmakers give us one more smack of nostalgia, with Paul Merson and Tony Adams visiting Highbury. The pair marvel at the wonderous marble halls while slyly digging its lifeless successor, the Emirates Stadium – a moment for the Arsenal fans.
The film poignantly pays tribute to the Hillsborough tragedy, exploring its impact on English football and the players at the time. The event is given an appropriate amount of screen time without distorting the focus of the film. In addition, the film was dedicated to those who so sadly lost their lives.
This was always going to be one of the bigger challenges with this story, balancing the telling of this event in an overall positive piece, and the filmmakers paid tribute in a respectful manner, without losing track of the overall story that they are telling.
The final third is dedicated purely to that night at Anfield. The game is brilliantly drawn out and described by those involved. The referee and TV host from the day are added as interviews at this stage giving their, and for the first time a non-Arsenal view of the 90 minutes. By the time we’re finally treated to the big moment, Michael Thomas’ strike the moment is well and truly earned, with the unbelievable tension of that night captured in the doc.
There is a lack of input from those outside of Arsenal, some insight from the ‘villains’ of the story Liverpool would have added an interesting angle. Particularly during the final game, the accounts of the Liverpool players – who were such heavy favourites for a number of reasons – would have been fascinating to hear.
In its final moments, another touching tribute is made to one of the Arsenal heroes, David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle, with his childhood friend and Arsenal favourite Ian Wright, breaking down as he discusses Rocky’s devastating death in 2001.
In essence, this documentary entertains as it tells an exciting, up-and-down, chaotic story. In doing so it highlights the problems with its trendier cousin the fly on the wall, which is attempting to make stories in a season of which no one knows the result. While it does appeal largely to Arsenal fans, this story needed to be told and deserves to be heard, and ‘89’ delivers in brilliant fashion.