89 is a film that goes beyond football, Arsenal, and the most exciting climax to a league season in history

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Arsenal players Kevin Richardson, Steve Bould, Paul Merson and Alan Smith celebrate at the end of the incredible 1988/89 season (Source: Getty)

In the sport commentators' book of clichés, a page is reserved for the phrase "you couldn't make it up". Oft-repeated by football's breathless narrators, it is almost always an absurd claim – as if the human imagination is incapable of conjuring up a 3-3 draw at Notts County.

However, the finale of the 1989 English league season provided one of the few occasions that could merit such hyperbole, with the Division One championship decided in the very last minute of the very last night of the campaign. A series of events had led to the top two sides, Liverpool and Arsenal, going head-to-head for the title on a Friday night at Anfield.

Even in that case, you undoubtedly could have "made it up". It's just that if you had presented the 89 story as a work of fiction it would have been instantly derided as contrived and unrealistic. This was pure Roy of the Rovers material, the stuff of innocent boyhood dreams. Yet, somehow, it actually happened.

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89 is a documentary centring on that historic match on Merseyside, but does not simply chart a fairytale ending for an ambitious young football team and its glory-starved fans. By far the most poignant moment comes when the season's tale reaches 15 April, the date on which 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at Hillsborough.

The film's focus is almost entirely from the perspective of Arsenal players, coaches and fans, and thus we are shown the tragedy through the eyes of a club that was not directly involved. The devastating impact on English football is therefore all the more evident as, nearly three decades later, Arsenal players Nigel Winterburn and Paul Merson come close to tears recounting how the news spread. Merson, still as honest and emotional as he was in his playing days, speaks candidly about the horror that spread through the game until, trailing off, he stops and stares past the camera. "I don't like talking about it".

Football resumed two weeks after the tragedy, and when the Arsenal players ran out onto the Anfield pitch on 26 May they carried bouquets of flowers to present to the home fans. The atmosphere in the ground is excellently conveyed in 89, the nervous excitement of such a huge, emotionally-charged occasion oscillating between the stands and the action on the field, a grieving but defiant Kop repeating its famous, moving, anthemic chorus.

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This documentary is, of course, targeted at Arsenal obsessives but should also appeal to nostalgists and sports fans who yearn for an arguably more romantic era. At times 89 is reminiscent of Shane Meadows' This Is England; cultural montages feature obligatory images of Margaret Thatcher, pin-striped men with brick phones, and acid house ravers. The soundtrack flicks inevitably from Roachford to Black Box.

Reminded of the horrors of Hillsborough, few fans can watch this film and argue that English football was entirely a more enjoyable experience back in the 1980s. Nonetheless, 89 is stark in its depiction of how unrecognisable the game has become. We are shown top flight players, many of whom grew up together on the same council estates, in the same youth teams, threatened earnestly by their stern Scottish manager with a £10 fine if they dare turn up late for training. We are shown players who, after winning the league title, rocked up at a bar on the way home to intermingle and celebrate with the fans, gambling away their official club ties and blazers over a game of pool.

89 is not just a celebration of one, exceptional football match, it is a snapshot of a time when, for better or worse, English football looked scarily different to how it does today.