Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday June 29 2008
The next Arsenal trailblazer is noted for his immaculate collection of blazers. Frank McLintock once remarked about him, 'he used to be a bit of a poseur, now he eats poseurs for breakfast.' An immaculately turned out Scot, born in Lanarkshire in 1944, his playing style was as infamously casual as his evening attire, earning him the nickname 'Stroller.' But in his second incarnation at the club, he was often referred to as 'Gedafi' by colleagues. Of course, nobody ever made him aware of this modiker to his face.
George Graham joined Arsenal as a player in July 1966. (How very Arsenal, England have just won the World Cup, so Arsenal sign a Scotsman). Ironically, Graham enjoyed a tumultuous relationship with then Chelsea manager Tmmy Docherty. The last straw came when Graham and two of his team mates broke a club curfew and were fined and disciplined by the club. Docherty sold Graham to Arsenal a few months later. The blueprint for Graham's own coaching style was being sewn into his subconscious. Graham was purchased as a replacement for Joe Baker and finished the club's top scorer in 1966-67and again in 1967-68. However, Bertie Mee felt Graham's lack of pace was not suited to Arsenal's counter attacking style of play. Graham was moved out to inside forward and John Radford moved upfront. Graham was a League Cup runner up in 1968 and again in 1969 in a humiliating Final defeat to Swindon. George would again suffer the ignomnity of a League Cup Fina defeat to lower league opposition some 19 years later. He was an integral part of the 1970 Fairs Cup winning side and the 1971 'Double' winning side. Graham claimed to have scored the equaliser in the 1971 F.A. Cup Final against Liverpool, until a behind the goal camera revealed Graham hadn't touched the ball on its way into the net. The goal was Eddie Kelly's. Graham maintained after that the ball definitely brushed his shin, despite all evidence to the contrary. It wouldn't be the last act of dishonesty in George's colourful Arsenal career. Following the signing of Alan Ball, Graham moved to Manchester United in December 1972.
Once his playing career had curtailed, coaching spells at Crystal Palace and QPR earned Graham a shot at management with Millwall. When he took them over in December 1982, Millwall lay bottom of the Third Division. Graham rescued them from relegation and then earned them promotion to the Second Division in 1983-84. He began to attract attention from the top clubs. At this point, the Gunners were well and truly in the doldrums, at the end of Don Howe's tenure in 1985-86, the board decided a change was required and on May 14th, 1986, they hired George Graham. As a feted member of the Double side, the board felt the presence of a winner and somebody who could reinvigorate the club's winning tradition was needed. He immediately set about ditching the playboy culture, insisting that players wear club ties and blazers on all away trips. He triuphantly acclaimed upon his cornonation, 'standards in society are falling. I want to make sure this is not one of Arsenal's problems.' The man nicknamed 'Stroller' who opened a tailoring business in his swinging 60s Chelsea hayday had gone all 1980s on us. As Thatcherism and Reaganomics were all the rage, George insisted on autocracy. It would make and break him.
The old boys drinking club was instantly banished. Tony Woodcock, Paul Mariner and Viv Anderson were sold. Kenny Samson and Charlie Nicholas were banished to the reserves and sold soon after. (Ironically, George would usher in a whole new drinking culture with his refusal to punish golden boys Adam and Merson for their many alcoholic indiscretions). Youth team prospect Martin Keown dared to ask for a £50 a week rise and was sold to Aston Villa for £100,000. (Graham bought him back for £2.2m seven years later). Stewart Robson was frozen out following a hernia operation. Graham looked to his youth team, the likes of Rocastle, Adams, Merson and Thomas were all promoted to the first team and Arsenal were top of the league by December 1986. The first time Arsenal had held court at the summit for ten years. Arsenal finished the season in 4th and the feel good factor was back at Highbury following a decade in the mire. This was multiplied as Arsenal won their first trophy in eight years, beating Liverpool in the 1987 Littlewoods Cup. Ian Rush gave Liverpool the lead (Liverpool never lost when Rush scored), but two goals from Charlie Nicholas sealed victory on a bakign hot Wembley afternoon.
During the 1987-88 season George would begin to build his most enduring legacy. Tony Adams was made club captain at 21, Lee Dixon and Steve Bould were bought from Stoke and Nigel Winterburn arrived from Wimbledon. Alan 'Smudger' Smith came in from Leicester to offset the departure of Champagne Charlie. With the back four now in place, with O'Leary's experience to guide them, Thomas and Richardson running the engine room, Rocastle providing the flair from out wide and Merson and Smith pulling the strings upfront, Arsenal were a formidable side once again. Though they suffered heartbreak at Wembley in April 1988. Arsenal led Luton Town 2-1 in the final 10 minutes of the Littlewoods Cup Final when Nigel Winterburn missed a penalty. Two late goals from Brian Stein saw the Gunners stumble to an embarrassing defeat. Young Gus Caesar took much of the blame.
But Graham would really make his impression in the following campaign. Arsenal led the table for most of the 1988-89 season, until a home defeat to Derby and a draw with Wimbledon left Arsenal trailing Liverpool by two points with one game remaining- away at Liverpool. The Gunners needed to win by two clear goals or else the title would stay in Merseyside. Graham made no special reparations in his pre match rituals, but did spring a surprise in selection, opting to deploy Steve Bould in a back five. Graham emphasised to his players the importance of keeping a clean sheet, adamant that 0-0 would be the ideal half time scoreline. The first part of his objective was achieved as the teams came in goalless at the interval. Graham instructed his players to nick an early second half goal, before tightening up again, being sure not to concede. They did just that as Alan Smith's glancing header on 52 minutes set the cat amongst the pigeons. Graham wanted a late second goal, so as not to allow Liverpool a chance to reply. Then in the 89th minute, there was a searching ball from Dixon finding Smith, who flicked on to Thomas. I think you all know what happened next. It was all part of George's masterplan.
Arsenal were unable to retain their title the next season, finishing 4th. So Graham bought in a Swedish winger called Limpar and much to the chargrin of the Highbury faithful, sold Lukic and replaced him with David Seaman. Following Italia 90, Arsenal's longest serving player David O'Leary asked for an extra week's rest before resuming pre season training. Spider would spend the next four months in the reserves. Kevin Richardson was sold after gently remindng George that he left Arsenal for Manchester United in 1972 for a more lucrative contract. Brian Marwood's links with the PFA saw him sold,as Graham did Thatcheresque battle with the unions following a mass brawl in a game against Norwich City. Graham's empire was a dictatorship. But there were few complaints when he led Arsenal to another league title in 1990-91. Graham earned his money by building an indestructible team spirit. The backline conceded 19 goals and the team were only defeated once in the entire campaign. The foundation of the title win lay in a 20 man brawl at Old Trafford in October 1990. Arsenal were deducted two points for their part in the brawl. Graham gave an infamous speech to his players about how the media loved the furore surrounding Arsenal because bad news never crept its way out of the Marble Halls. Ironically, Graham made sure ITVs cameras were present to capture his inspiring 'friends, Romans countrymen' sililoque.
Arsenal again followed their title campaign with a fourth placed finish. A gut wrenching F.A. Cup defeat against Fourth Division Wrexham provided the campaign's most painful memory. Following a 3-1 defeat to Benfica in the European Cup, George decided to change tack. Creative pivot Paul Davis was confined to the reserves for eighteen months for venturing too far forward in the game. Rocastle was sold to Leeds that summer and Graham decided to go uber defensive. The signing of Ian Wright in 1992 saw Merson moved to midfield as he became the Gunners' only creative player, Wright was relied on for the goals and the back five were the new focus of the side. Meanwhile, Davis and Rocastle were replaced with Hiller and Jensen. The cracks were beginning to appear. Arsenal finished 10th in the 1992-93 season, but their season was salvaged with wins in the F.A. and Coca Cola Cups, Sheffield Wednesday deposed in both finals. The 1993-94 season was slightly better, Arsenal finishing fourth and winning the Cup Winners Cup. However, discontent was beginning to brew. Arsenal drew 0-0 in four consecutive matches as the North Bank implored George to 'spend some f*****g money.' Fan favourite Limpar began to feel George's wrath. Graham openly admitted he distrusted star players. Limpar was candid about his pride in representing Sweden and George thought his loyalties were incorrectly laid. An argument he had with Stewart Robson some years earlier. Limpar was sold in March 1994 and replaced with Eddie McGoldrick. 1993-94 was the year the '1-0 to the Arsenal' chant was born. Torino and Paris Saint Germain were dispatched by said scoreline in the Cup Winners Cup. Parma, with their galaxy of atacking talent in the shape of Zola, Asprilla and Brolin were beaten in the Final by the scoreline, you guessed it, 1-0.
But the empire finally crumbled in 1994-95. Paul Merson would enter rehabilitation for addiction to gambling, alcohol and cocaine, the Gunners would flirt with relegation and only reach the heights of 12th after a late flourish. A scandal emerged in November 1994 that Graham had accepted a 'kickback' or a 'sweetener' depending on which paper you read in the deal to take John Jensen to Highbury to the tune of £425,000. The Arsenal board stuck by him. But Graham had lost the dressing room. The football had become dour and George's aura of invincibility had evaporated, the relentless drilling of the back four whilst uninspiring runners such as McGoldrick, Carter and Jensen toiled in vain had prevented the players from enjoying their football. Graham was sacked in February 1995, citing the bung scandal. However, the board's decision might just as well have been fuelled by the signings of Kiwomya, Hartson and Helder. The man who extholed uber conservative values, who chastised Ian Wright for his swearing, who sold players within minutes of contract negotiations, had now been seen to be lining his own pockets illicitly. Graham denied any wrongdoing despite all evidence to the contrary, but the megolomania with which he had restored the club's fortunes, had now bought his autocracy tumbling to the ground. Much like the Westland Affair had done for Thatcher. How very fitting that during a mid 90s period infamous for Tory sleaze, Arsenal's own primus inter pares crumbled into moral bankruptcy. King George's tenure, like all the great historic monarchies, was built with the same iron fist that eventually crushed it.LD.
Date:Sunday June 29 2008
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