Football: Thrill of the final countdown: Norman Fox recalls the drama of seasons that have saved their best until last

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The Independent Online
IF YOU'VE heard it once, you've heard it most Saturdays. The championship is not a sprint but a marathon. This is certainly true, but many marathons are won in the final few yards. The League title has been won by two points or fewer eight times in the past 25 years. It has even been won with virtually the last kick of the season.

It would be difficult to equal the drama of 1989 when Liverpool and Arsenal met in the most climactic of League games. Liverpool had already won the FA Cup in the tearful wake of the Hillsborough disaster, but to achieve the Double they had to make sure Arsenal failed to beat them by two goals at Anfield. 'They knew they could lose 1-0 and that would be enough, so they weren't as positive as us,' George Graham, the Arsenal manager, recalls. After Alan Smith had flicked the faintest of headers past Bruce Grobbelaar from Nigel Winterburn's free-kick, Liverpool, with 24 unbeaten games behind them, were still confident. But in the final minute, Kevin Richardson's pass hit Steve Nicol and rebounded to Michael Thomas, who slipped the ball past Grobbelaar. Every mouth on the Kop was open, but there was not a sound.

Although Liverpool dominated the championship for so long, battling on the European and domestic fronts stretched even their resources. In the 1985-86 season, which was Kenny Dalglish's first in charge and immediately followed the Heysel disaster, Manchester United took an early 10-point lead. Just as in this campaign, they were so far ahead that all bets were off. But they faded and Everton seemed to have claimed the title when they took a six-point lead. Liverpool needed to win all their remaining seven matches after Easter - five of which were away - to frustrate their local rivals. They did so, Dalglish himself, still playing at this point, achieved the necessary victory by scoring the winner in the final match at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool went on to beat Everton in the FA Cup final and achieve the Double with a side generally believed to be much inferior to their European Cup-winning sides.

In the miscellany of hard- fought championships, the margins of victory take second place to memories of long battles between outstanding teams. The ruthless, magnificent and unfortunate Leeds United of Don Revie against Bill Shankly's relentless Liverpool and Brian Clough's talented but less clinical Derby County. Clough's last season with Derby in 1971-72 saw him take the title by a single point from Leeds. Derby's programme was over and Clough was 'resting' in the Scilly Isles when he heard that they were the champions after Leeds, needing one point for the Double, lost 2-1 at Wolves and Liverpool could only draw with Arsenal.

Leeds had been involved in another extraordinarily close race the year before when Arsenal, going for the Double, finished their fixtures against Spurs - then the only club to have achieved the Double in modern times - at White Hart Lane. Arsenal had already reached the FA Cup final, which they were to win, while Leeds had 64 points, Arsenal 63 and they were hardly separable by goal average. If they did not win, Arsenal could only take the title with a goalless draw, which would put them 0.013 of a goal ahead of Leeds. A score draw was useless.

Frank McLintock remembers that the Arsenal coach travelled at a walking pace and the team were almost late for the match, which 51,192 saw with an estimated

50,000 locked out. Again there were rumours of bribery and that Spurs would let Arsenal win. Bill Nicholson, the manager at the

time, remembered: 'We knew someone would sooner or later achieve the Double, as we had done, but the last club we wanted to do it were Arsenal.'

Revie and his players took their minds off it by playing in a testimonial at Hull. Arsenal, inspired by Charlie George, played superbly but so did Pat Jennings in the Spurs goal. With two minutes left and after another fine save by Jennings, George Armstrong

centred and Ray Kennedy headed in. Tottenham stormed back and Kennedy, desperate that Arsenal should avoid the score-draw which would lose them the championship, admitted later that he wondered whether it might not have been better had he missed.

(Photograph omitted)