Lee Dixon is struggling to contain himself over a plate of avocado on toast and poached eggs in a swanky central London cafe. Even now, 28 years on from the extraordinary highlight of a notable sporting career, the former Arsenal and England full-back’s emotion is palpable.
“The first thing I see is Nigel Winterburn putting his hands up, because he’s made a run down the left and he sees it’s in,” Dixon recalls. “He starts running behind the goal with his hands up, so I know it’s in. And at that point, the flood of emotions was overpowering to the point that I just burst out crying on the pitch.”
Dixon is reliving Michael Thomas’s iconic injury-time goal for Arsenal at Anfield on 26 May 1989, which wrestled the league title from the clutches of a Liverpool team who had acquired an air of invincibility over more than a decade of dominating English football.
That fraught night, imbued with further poignancy by the tragedy of Hillsborough just weeks earlier, is the subject of a new documentary film, 89, which premiered in north London on Wednesday night and Dixon needed little encouragement in helping to produce.
“The goal obviously stands out as the pinnacle of the whole event, the whole season, my whole footballing life really,” he says. “It didn’t get any better than that. We had amazing times of winning doubles and all sorts of events but you can’t really better that.
“Nothing has ever happened like that since. It certainly didn’t happen before. People talk about the Aguero moment [Manchester City winning the Premier League in dramatic fashion in 2012]. Please, do me a favour. It’s not even on the same planet, albeit that it was a great moment.”
Working on 89 gave Dixon, a boyhood City fan, a new outlet for his obvious affection for that match, which had previously manifested in repeat viewings of Fever Pitch, the film of Nick Hornby’s novel set against the backdrop of Arsenal’s 1989 triumph.
“When Dave [Stewart, director] said ‘we’re going to do this doc on 89’, I said ‘has nobody done one?’. Because it literally is the best script ever,” says Dixon, now a broadcaster with ITV and American network NBC.
“Up until that point, I wouldn’t say I watched it every week or every month, but there’s times when I feel a bit nostalgic and I pull out Fever Pitch. Because I love that film anyway, regardless of the fact that it’s about what we did. It’s a really, really great film.
“Nick Hornby captured that event and that season brilliantly well in the film. I used to watch it every now and then. The fact that I now have the opportunity to put something down historically onto a DVD as a documentary is the best thrill ever.”
Dixon believes that the passing of time, a consequent marginalising of English football’s pre-Premier League era history and a nostalgia among Arsenal fans disaffected by the club’s current decline have rendered the tale of 89 ripe for retelling.
The film, a blend of unseen footage, archive material and interviews with central figures, is backed by Universal – an endorsement of the story’s appeal beyond the boundaries of N5 as well as an indication of high production values that put 89 closer to sport-crime crossover masterpiece OJ: Made In America or Netflix’s compelling college gridiron series Last Chance U than an Arsenal in-house DVD.
“It’s one of the most exhilarating things I’ve been involved in outside of playing,” says Dixon, now 53. “To recreate something that you were a part of and get it similar to what you were feeling then. Because I cried three times.”
Dixon says his triggers were Hillsborough, whose impact he speaks about with sincerity and at length during this interview, late midfielder David Rocastle, a crucial cog in George Graham’s finely-tuned Arsenal machine before his death aged just 33, and the game’s spectacular climax.
“If you don’t cry at the ending, you’re made of wood. I’m telling you,” he says. “If you don’t watch this doc and feel something in there then there’s something missing in you.”
89 is on show at cinemas via ourscreen and released on DVD and Blu-ray on 20 November.