Arsenal supporters of all ages and from all over the world are keenly awaiting the general release of ’89 The Film’. The new movie, inspired by the unique climax to the 1988/89 Division One season, that saw The Gunners, having seemingly thrown the title away, travel to Anfield for the last match of the season having to win by an improbable two clear goals. A feat the whole footballing world, perhaps barring one man, thought impossible as Liverpool at that time were not only the finest team in England but had also recently conquered Europe for a fourth time.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Premiere on Wednesday and I know much has already been written across the media and Arsenal blogs. I am late to the party, largely because I went to the after show party, so I hope to whet your appetite for the movie by sharing the story behind it. Not the story of the match, which we all know so well, and we all love a happy ending, but the story behind the vision for this film, as told by two of the main protagonists. Along with a few other writers I was fortunate to spend some time ahead of the Premiere with the two driving forces behind this wonderful and long overdue project – Producer and Executive Producer, Amy Lawrence and Lee Dixon.
When asked how the project came about Amy described the sequence of events as ‘a fabulously serendipitous game of dominoes’. It began with a conversation with an old friend Adam Velasco telling her he had just watched the ‘Class of 92’ documentary (It was shit! interjects Lee); Adam wanted to ask Amy why no one had ever made a film about the finale of the 89 season? Lawrence felt as if Adam had not even needed to finish the sentence before she was hooked on the idea and this was a sensation that was to become all too familiar. Lawrence spoke to a film director and another well-known 80s Gooner, David “Davy” Stewart, who was also ‘in’ before she had finished her sentence, as were Universal when Davy began to pitch the idea to them. Suddenly in almost no time, most unusual in the world of movie making, the project was commissioned and the hard work and planning began.
As soon as Lawrence got the green light the first call she made was to Lee Dixon because ‘I knew he had so much to offer and I knew that he would not be someone who would just want to take part but would want to be heavily involved’. At the first meeting – as soon as Dixon asked ‘so what do you want me to do? It was obvious he was keen to do more than just give an interview and the team went into a quick collective huddle and decided to invite him to be a Producer. As Amy is relaying this Dixon interjects with a quip ‘…and I said I am not signing up unless I am Exec Producer’.
Dixon was the final piece of the team jigsaw; now they had to figure out how to tell the story, already knowing it had a happy ending! So who were the team that delivered such a fitting tribute to a fabulous piece of sporting history? Lawrence paid tribute to a particular quartet – the Director, Davy Stewart; Lee, who was crucial in getting the lads on board, working tirelessly, and offering so much insight and passion; Amy Lawrence herself, trying to be the glue that tries to help out in every department; and lastly Sam Billinge, the film’s amazing Editor who had all the bits and pieces we gathered from filming, from interviews, from archive and created the whole, not just the story but the atmosphere of the piece. The desire all along was to make not just a documentary but to make a film, to make a movie, something with some cinematic impact.
Any football fan familiar with Amy Lawrence’s work for the Guardian and of course her Arsenal books, will know why she is one of the few female sports writers to have genuinely made it to the top of her profession. What we may not have known until know is that the desire and conviction to make it in a male-dominated world may well have been born on the 26th May 1989. She describes that night as the best experience of her life in footbal,l and one she does not expect to be repeated. But it was more than that.
‘I don’t want to sound all bonkers and over the top but I felt at the time, and still do, that that night changed my life, being there. I just felt there was a life lesson. I was 17 years old and everyone had said something was impossible and it wasn’t. I have carried that idea with me ever since’.
Amy went on to add, with Dixon in full agreement, that that evening at Anfield was an even more powerful story to tell, coming only 41 days after the tragic events at Hillsborough that scarred Liverpool FC, the city of Liverpool, its people and Football in general. As Lawrence reaffirmed, ‘the best thing and the worst thing I have experienced in football – colliding and inextricably connected.’
It was critical to the team therefore, that the film should portray the emotion and the enormity of that time in the film. So, whilst it was an Arsenal story, it also had to sensitively impart how all those involved felt at that time. Whether you were a player or even just a fan, the emotional impact of the tragedy needed to be addressed.
Lee felt that the achievement in winning the league and in the way it transpired in May 1989 changed his life in every way, but the season did not begin with lofty ambition. For Arsenal’s new right back – who had been limited to only 6 games the previous season as he was cup-tied after his signing from Stoke – Lee’s first full season was all about getting to know The Arsenal and making the Number 2 shirt he had been given in August his own. Early in the season Dixon was still pinching himself and expecting a tap on the shoulder and a voice to say ‘you gave it a try lad, but off you go back to Stoke now’. His drive was purely to be the best he could be and see where it took him. He spoke of proving doubters wrong and that he deserved to be at a big club.
“Learning about the Arsenal, and what playing for them meant, was a big part of my education that season and hopefully in the future I would be able to pass it on if I could stay long enough. I bought into the Marble Halls, the Herbert Chapman legacy, the lads talking about ‘The Arsenal’, the blazer, everything. That’s me, I want to be here long enough. I would look at Pat Rice and think I want to be him, ‘cos he played my position and has been here years”.
I think we can all agree that he more than earned the right to pass on what it meant to play for ‘The Arsenal’. Only three men have pulled on the shirt more times than Dixon and two of them of course are stars of the film. It is hard to think of anyone better that Amy Lawrence could have asked to assist her in producing ‘89’.
By Christmas, Arsenal were top of the league and perhaps Dixon and his peers were allowing themselves to dream of success; but even with the way it transpired he still finds it impossible to think about that season without dwelling on Hillsborough. It had a massive personal effect on Dixon although the whole process he and his team mates went through at the time was painfully pushed to one side because as a player you were paid to do your job of work. However he spoke beautifully about the release he felt when handing over his bouquet of flowers to a lady in the front row of The Kop.
“The more I think about it and I mention it in the film, the actually passing over of the flowers to a woman in the front row was a pivotal moment. I gave them to her and said here you are sweetheart and she thanked me and it was a release. Almost as if her acknowledging the gesture gave me permission to go and play”.
Beforehand he described how walking out at Anfield he had felt quite relaxed and subdued and not as fired up as he perhaps should have been. It was as if being fired up would have been disrespectful given the circumstances. But the gesture of the flowers and the acceptance from the recipient had seemed to lift the burden and he was able to run back to his position feeling so pumped up. “Moments like that change your life- as Amy said – and Hillsborough was a massive part of that”.
Hillsborough had to be integral to the story-telling in the build up to the final match, but the filmmakers’ dilemma was how to cover it seamlessly and sensitively, without adversely affecting what is essentially an uplifting story for Arsenal. However Davy was not concerned, and his faith was justified, largely due to Sam Billenge’s wonderful editing (according to our producing double act). Amy was so proud of how eloquently the players including Dixon spoke about the tragedy.
“From my perspective the way the film handles the awful events and its impact in what is essentially an uplifting sports film is something I am immensely proud of and it makes the final result all the more powerful for tackling it”.
I asked if any consideration had been given to having any input from the Liverpool standpoint and Amy confirmed the team had given this serious thought and it was the single biggest decision they made and ultimately decided against it. There were many reasons for this but primarily they could not risk ‘89’ becoming a ‘Hillsborough film’. They do not feel equipped to cover this from the opposing viewpoint and, after all, there has already been some fantastic work done by those much better qualified.
“If we had included the Liverpool fans or players perspective of that final day of the season it would have been impossible to do so without giving due attention to their experience of Hillsborough and that would have changed the whole dynamic of the film away from the one we were excited to make.”
She added that she hoped that the film would also appeal to non-Arsenal fans as they endeavoured to develop a universal story of ‘David v Goliath’. Without being churlish she explained if the audience heard too much from Goliath you risk them losing their sympathy for David!
“The story is told from within the Arsenal bunker, so you are getting that ‘inner sanctum feel’ of that is what the lads, George Graham and Arsenal people were feeling, thinking and doing, leading up to and during this momentous match”.
Dixon, too, was obviously extremely proud of the emotional journey on which they take the viewer, and he admits to openly crying in three areas of the piece, each time he watches it. He feels our reaction may be the same:
“Obviously (with) the emotion of the happy ending, you would have to made of wood if you aren’t emotional for that, the way Hillsborough is integrated, and of course the’ Rocastle’ bit”.
So how does 89 address the fact that one of the film’s stars, Rocky, is no longer with us? The decision was taken by Dixon to ask Ian Wright to be involved and lend his voice for his friend. Obviously all the lads would have spoken well about their special team mate, but Lee wanted some input from one of David’s best friends.
“The fact that Wrighty is so passionate about Arsenal and so passionate about Rocky was a perfect combination and that he would give something to the film and the story that no one else could give. We were all mates of Rocky’s but Ian grew up with him and to hear him talk about how he watched the game and how proud he was of his friend and what he achieved and how he looked up to him was a superb decision”.
To hear how Rocky’s amazing feats that season and that night inspired Ian are delivered in his usual honest, heart on sleeve way. It really is a wonderful piece of the film and Amy describes it as ‘a beautiful moment and a perfect and necessary moment’.
Lawrence recalls going to interview Rocky when he was on loan at Norwich in 1997, and in a four-hour chat about three-and-a-half were spent talking about Anfield 89. His family were involved all the way through the film because they wanted to ensure they were happy and that David was very much in the film in spirit. Dixon consequently is delighted he convinced Ian Wright to take part, as he was initially reluctant because he was not part of the team or involved in the match.
‘What would people think?’ Wrighty asked, to which Lee’s response was “I don’t give a toss what people think or that you weren’t involved in the game, you are in it because you give it something no one else can give”.
When I conducted this interview Wright and the Rocastle family had not seen the film choosing to wait for the Premiere. I spoke with Ian, Janet and Ryan Rocastle afterwards and they all loved it, as did I.
I hope this insight from the two people most responsible for bringing this wonderful film to our screens, large or small, has given you a flavour of the thinking and process behind the scenes. It truly is a remarkable, well-conceived and executed piece of football art that delivers on all levels.
As I watched the chemistry and camaraderie between so many of the players from that 1988/89 team – both on-screen and together on Wednesday night – it brought to mind an episode I described in my ‘Geordie Armstrong’ book. Geordie, like Rocky, left us too soon and at his funeral Tony Adams admired the togetherness of the 1971 team, as he watched them pay their last respects to their friend in 2000. He observed that his team then would never have what those lads from 1971 had, with his own team consisting of stars from across the globe. Having watched him with so many of his team this week I think he must have forgotten what his first title-winning side had in that memorable season and on that crazy night.
With thanks to Amy, Lee and all the team at Organic Media.
89 is in cinemas from 11th November and on DVD and Digital Download from 20th November.
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.