By Les Crang
I’m not sure what it is about Anders Limpar, but when ever I think of him, I just break out into a smile. Arsenal have had some great wingers: Geordie Armstrong in the 60’s and 70’s; Graham Rix in the 70’s and 80’s; Brian Marwood, all too fleetingly; Marc Overmars in the late 90’s; and the delights of Robert Pires in the noughties; but Anders Limpar, the infuriating genius, has to be my all time favourite. Pires and Overmars were most likely better, but Limpar? Wow. What a player.
In 1990 after a World Cup, in which all but one Arsenal player had played in World Cup Italia 1990. This being David O’Leary for the Republic of Ireland and having a memorable tournament:-
But Anders Limpar? From the Sweden squad that had lost all it’s games in its groups to Brazil, Costa Rica (he didn’t play the final game) and even Scotland?
When we signed him from Cremonese of Italy in the summer of 1990, I remember being unimpressed. Cremonese (and only for one season mind)? Hardly Juventus and anyway I’d seen Brian Marwood back in the season of 1988-9 season win us the league. Ok, the following season his skill had dwindled, but Anders Limpar? At over £1,000,000 too.
Funny how wrong I was. George Graham had unmasked a real gem in the side. It didn’t take long to see we’d signed a fantastic winger. Small, tricky and fast. He could also score. Better still, he was not a man to shrink from a bully like George Graham either.
His first season was almost perfect. As a fan, of some years suffering (1980-6 were woeful), May 26th 1989 sits at the pinnacle, but favourite team? Its unquestionably the 1990-1 season. Love what Wenger has done, but maybe it was being still young, but that is my favourite team. A real squad. We had the experience of David Seaman and Tony Adams at the back, but we had perhaps that season’s finest centre half that season in Steve Bould (criminally overlooked by England for Gary Pallister). We had the youth coming through of a combative midfielder of David Hillier and Rottweiler aka Kevin Campbell scoring important goals up front. We had another silky player (uncapped) running the midfield in Paul Davis. We had Alan Smith burying everything that came his way. Add to that a fight at Old Trafford, being deducted points by the FA, and lost our captain to a drink driving offence? Singing ‘no one likes us and we don’t care’ never seemed so apt.
But Anders Limpar and his first season started as if on fire. Although Limpar would not score his first goal until his fifth league game, in a 4-1 victory over Chelsea at Highbury. He would then score in the 2-0 win at Forest and get both goals in a 2-2 draw at Leeds United. He would then set a goal for Paul Davis in a 2-0 win over Norwich. Then, a trip to Old Trafford. The highlight of the season, with possibly his most remembered goal and certainly the most remembered game.
As a backdrop to this, bad feelings between the cockney reds had increased to hatred throughout the 1980’s and this animosity perhaps from the transfer of Frank Stapleton to United in 1981. Certainly the two semi-final defeats to United in 1983. By the summer of 1986, two incredibly Scottish managers in Alex Ferguson at United and George Graham had taken over Arsenal, would bring more animosity (though off the pitch, both were very good friends, with the famous story that when Alex went for a pay rise at United, George informed him how much he was being paid at Arsenal). In 1987 Norman Whiteside had been the bane of Arsenal, getting David Rocastle sent off after constantly kicking him, leaving The Guardian to recently say of the game:-
Big Norman Whiteside kicked everybody up and down the pitch for 90 minutes and didn’t even get booked!” chuckled Fergie years later. David O’Leary said Whiteside was “like a wild nutter throughout the match”.
In 1988, in a F.A Cup game, hostility came to the forefront when Whiteside earnt a last minute penalty at Highbury, with Arsenal were leading 2-1. When Brian McClair blazed over, Nigel Winterburn gave McClair some idea what he thought of him and United.
Even in the season in which we’d won the league in 1988-9, animosity had been further fuelled by the press, when George Graham had made Steve Bould his sweeper and Arsenal had come away with a 1-1 draw from Old Trafford in which skipper Tony Adams would score at both ends:-
Afterwards The Daily Mirror* started calling Adams ee-yore (after the donkey from Winnie the Pooh). Hardly something to help provide good feelings between the clubs.
Manchester United were on the rise, having won the F.A cup the previous season and been looking to improve in the league. Unfortunately, Arsenal would turn up all guns (and fists) blazing.
The goal Limpar scored was hardly a thing of beauty, but pure opportunism. A short corner from David Rocastle to Limpar, who from an acute angle from just outside the box. Noting that the short goalkeeper Les Sealey was in the middle of the goal, he curled the ball into the unprotected near post. Putting us 1-0 up at Old Trafford ? What could be better than that? Plenty.
After the goal, things had got very niggly, and when Brian McClair had started kicking both ball and Nigel Winterburn whilst prone on the floor, who was there first to smack McClair on the chin? Anders Limpar as a 21 man brawl kicked off. With some players you just feel like the video below:-
The F.A obviously docked us 2 points (United just one even though they started it). We were warned about our ‘future behaviour’ whilst some of the press felt we should have been dealt with more seriously (anti-Arsenal press? well I never).
Anyhow, they might of docked us the points but in no way could they knock this team, especially with Anders Limpar. In that season, we would overall destroy the lead of Liverpool (and destroy their hegemony of the league titles) Limpar would come up with some great displays and his dazzling wing play. Example one, his man of the match display against Liverpool (who dropped Peter Beardsley and packed the midfield with defenders) at Highbury in which he got the penalty for our second:-
Funnily enough the game would underline a problem what much of the league felt about Limpar. That he went down too easy in the box. What did we care?
There would also be the conclusion of our title winning season, in which Limpar would have a fallow period of goals (and less explosive displays than the earlier part of the season) when Limpar would get a hat-trick against Coventry City in a 6-1 win:-
Arsenal won the title and Limpar had been an unmitigated success. Ask any fan of the period and Limpar would be mentioned with esteem. George Graham had unearthed a creative gem. Steve Bould, a man of few words wrote of him:-
We had Anders to give us that little bit of magic. The first time we saw him in a game in the pre-season Makita tournament at Wembley in 1990. He scored against Aston Villa, he smashed this one into the top corner having beaten about 18 players and we thought ‘Jesus Christ! Who’s this kid?’
But cracks had already appeared in the first season between Limpar and George Graham. Alex Fynn in the brilliant Heroes and Villains wrote :-
In the weeks before the game against Manchester United [at Old Trafford], a number of these negative elements – a headstrong player, and the involvement of the press – combined to produce an eminently avoidable confrontation between George Graham and Anders Limpar over the latter’s desire to represent his country.
The arguments of Limpar’s availability for Sweden was the first of many crack that fractured the relationship between George and Anders.
Another one, was that Limpar was, like Robert Pires, a beautifully weighted winger going forward. But both did that. Went forward. Neither were tacklers and would track back. In a George Graham team you had to all track back. This might be seen in a game in which workers were needed that season. The F.A cup semi-final against Spurs. Having lost David Hillier (a proper defensive midfielder) to injury and chosen Michael Thomas (an attacking midfielder) to cover Paul Gascoigne, Arsenal needed to work as a team. Unfortunately, Arsenal had perhaps their worst display of the season in a 3-1 defeat, in which we lost that double feeling:-
Limpar was woeful. He was so poor, he was subbed for Perry Groves.
If the season of 1990-1 was the high point of Limpar’s career, the game against Benfica at Highbury would underline that George was losing his trust in Anders Limpar. In an interview with Jon Spurling, Limpar said of events after the game :-
He said we’d played too fast and loose…and he made no bones about telling me how poor i’d been. I wasn’t at my best, but that went for several in the team. Something changed inside him after that defeat. The emphasis was on an even more resolute defence, a tight midfield and one main outlet up front – Ian Wright [he was signed in September 1991]. That approach might work on big nights in Europe and one off cup games – but it wasn’t going to win Arsenal the league under Graham.
Never a truer word spoken. As Arsenal fell away from the league early in the season, lost to West Ham in the league cup and Wrexham in the F.A Cup, by January our season seemed dead and buried. In mid table, Arsenal needed third spot to get into the UEFA cup. It seemed improbable, especially as Sheffield Wednesday seemed so far ahead there was no way we could catch them. Surely?
Arsenal, then went on a scintillating run, with a team that would consist of Smith, Wright, Merson, Campbell and Limpar. Games of note. Lets start with the 7-1 win over Wednesday at Highbury (our last 6 scored in the last 15 minutes):-
Or the 4-0 win over Liverpool at Highbury with Limpar’s 45 yard lob:-
Or the last game of the season and the closing and demolition later of the North bank, when Ian Wright scored a hat trick in a 5-1 win over Southampton:-
In the end Arsenal would come fourth, missing out on Europe by 3 points. But those last four months on the season showed what we could do as an attacking team. Unfortunately, we would start the new season with a 4-2 defeat at home to Norwich. George reverted to type, and started to play for a 1-0 win.
The next two seasons would slowly see Anders sidelined by George Graham. Without doubt, I am a huge fan of George Graham and I feel he lacks the recognition he deserves by the club. But his treatment of Paul Davis and Anders (and to a lesser extent Kevin Richardson) was criminal. His arguing, badgering and furious temper was infamous. In his biography The Glory and the Grief he called Limpar an ‘enigma’ But Limpar and Davis were quality players that he treated with disdain. When George started replacing Limpar with Eddie McGoldrick and Jimmy Carter, I kind of lost interest in Arsenal for a while. It was replacing a Rolls Royce for a tricycle. Ander’s didn’t deserve that. Even in his last two games, Anders showed what he could do when we defeated Ipswich 5-1 and a 4-0 over Southampton ( both away), with Ian Wright get a hat trick in both. By then though, George wanted rid of Limpar. Of his departure Limpar said on Swedish television:-
He sold me in April with my contract running out in May,” Limpar said. “No talk of extending the contract, just ‘bye bye’. I said: ‘I would like to carry on playing for Arsenal and sign a new deal’, to which he replied: ‘No you are not.”
“So I said: ‘But I’ve won so many titles in four years for you, is that not enough?’ So we went into his office and I had my agent with me and Graham is talking and says: ‘I have a really good offer from Manchester City so you are going there.’
“So I realised that I was leaving the club, extended my hand to shake his hand and said: ‘Well, thanks for four years then.’ And then he just swivelled round on his chair and stared into the wall. So after four years he did not even shake my hand. We started driving towards Manchester but then we had a phone call from Everton, spoke to them and joined Everton in the end.”
Limpar departed for a criminal low price of £1,600,000 to Everton, where in 1994-5 he would win the F.A Cup. Ironically, George seemed to be doing what Bertie Mee had done with his star players of the squad by distancing and selling them cheaply. Bertie did it with Charlie George, George did the same 20 years later with Limpar.
Although in a recent interview with Bergkamp Wonderland podcast Anders said he had spoken to George, the subject of their rancour was never discussed. Limpar still felt upset at his departure from the club. Although to many, Fredrik Ljungberg is our most revered Swede at the club, for me there can be only one. Our super Swede Anders Limpar.
*As ever, big thanks to The Arsenal historian Andy Kelly for the image (and informing me it was The Mirror not The Sun).