George Graham – Arsenal’s (Increasingly) Forgotten Genius

Like other ‘80s phenomena including the video recorder and the ZX81, George Graham is now almost viewed almost with a degree of scorn by a modern generation of Arsenal fans. But just as we shouldn’t forget the impact the video market and Clive Sinclair’s opening stab at bringing computers into our homes have had on our lives, the same applies to George’s managerial tenure at Highbury.

The facts are that, like Chapman in the 30s and Wenger in the late 90s, the canny Scot revolutionised our club, and gave us a psychological edge that our opponents seemed to lack. The man was unquestionably a (flawed) genius. It’s just that people seem to have forgotten about George, and overlooked what he did for us. Perhaps it’s because his title-winning achievements in 89 and 91 were before the advent of the Premier League. Maybe it’s because the team that pipped Liverpool in the ’87 Littlewoods Cup Final and to the League title in ’89 weren’t able to compete in Europe due to the Heysel ban. George’s Arsenal were successful at a time when football wasn’t “cool,” was still blighted by hooliganism and tragedy, and played out in front of terraces, not luxury modern stands.  Certainly his teams were yeoman-like and “unattractive” compared to the style we’ve become accustomed to under Arsene.

But what can’t be overlooked is that even when his teams began to fade from the scene in terms of winning the league, they knew exactly how to fight and defeat supposedly superior opponents in crunch matches, never better illustrated than when the Gunners beat a Parma team containing the likes of Asprilla and Zola in the 1994 Cup Winners Cup Final. Having just watched a largely dour Chelsea team win the Champions League, it shows precisely what is possible if your team is well drilled defensively, and has a “never say die” spirit coursing through its veins; qualities George’s team possessed in abundance.

Before George arrived, the club was flapping around and achieving precious little. Best known for being the victims of giant killings in the mid ‘80s (York and Walsall), and for home crowds regularly crashing below the 20,000 mark at Highbury, Arsenal circa 1986 was in a fairly shoddy state. The only light at the end of the tunnel was that a crop of youngsters, including Adams, Rocastle and Quinn were emerging from the youth team and had been given their first team chance under Don Howe, but there was no certainty that they would become make it at Highbury.

When George swept into town in June 1986, he sent a bolt of electricity through the entire club. “No one’s being doing the business at this club for years,” he claimed at the end of his first week in charge. He then explained: “In society, standards are falling… at Arsenal I want ambitious young men and a good attitude. With the right kind of attitude throughout the club we can be successful.”

His first action as boss? Shipping out the dead wood. Tony Woodcock and Paul Mariner, two of the club’s highest earners, were dispatched with haste. Charlie Nicholas (whom George would later describe as a “fool to himself”) was told to sort himself out. His card was marked. Over the next two years, George demonstrated why, in this writer’s opinion, he was a genius. As a player, he was known as “the stroller” and “the peacock.” Known for having a singular lack of pace and an aversion to tackling, George the player was precisely the kind of footballer whom George the boss “wouldn’t have picked for my Arsenal team in a million years.”

“Run a nightclub? Yes. Run a football club? Absolutely not,” claimed Don Howe when once asked if George would ever turn his hand to football management. Graham’s transformation from “probably the most laid back footballer at the club” (Frank McLintock’s words) into a ruthless, autocratic team builder was stunning to behold and took a fair degree of mental agility.

For a total outlay of around £1.4 million, he signed Steve Bould and Lee Dixon from Stoke, and Nigel Winterburn from Wimbledon, to slot in alongside seasoned campaigner David O’Leary and his new skipper Tony Adams. George built his team from the back. The story about using a piece of rope to drill the back four into deploying the offside trap may be apocryphal (Perry Groves claims it’s true, but Paul Davis says it isn’t) but George took the view: “If we don’t concede a goal, we won’t lose the game.” Davis says: “It sounds so simple, but imagine how spot on you have to be in your judgement of a player to know that he would be able to make the step up from playing for Stoke or Wimbledon, and then judging that he could flourish as part of a tight formation. George told me that he watched dozens of defenders in his early years at Arsenal, but he knew that Dixon, Winterburn and Bould were ‘the ones.’”

With such a tight backline, and midfielders like Rocastle and Thomas shielding them, Arsenal rapidly became a force that won the league three years after Graham became manager. The best things in football, which appear the most simple, are often the most difficult to accomplish, and George’s defensive wall was solidified by sheer sweat and blood on the training ground. Arsene Wenger, quite rightly is regarded as a genius by many Arsenal fans for the way in which he transformed the Gunners into flowing Double winners by the end of the decade. But he wouldn’t have accomplished that sizeable feat without George’s defence, which didn’t completely disappear until Martin Keown’s retirement in 2004. In the 97 – 98 Double winning season, it was Tony Adams and Martin Keown, not Wenger, who sidled up to Vieira and Petit at the Christmas party and told them to start shielding them during matches. It was Bould, Keown and Adams who would regularly bawl at the likes of Overmars to get him to track back. Wenger used George’s generals to do the job for him. It’s no surprise that defensive howlers gradually became more and commonplace from 2002 onwards, as George’s old guard disappeared, one by one. Quite simply, they’ve never been effectively replaced, which goes to show the difficult job that George completed in the first place. It’s why I still shake my head when Arsene failed to bring Gary Cahill and Christopher Samba to the club, for (relative) peanuts. Because I know the value of a solid Arsenal backline. Build from the back Arsene, build from the back.

Maybe you have to be my age (42) or older to fully appreciate George. My finest nights supporting Arsenal were under Graham. I was at the Paxton Road end of White Hart Lane when Allinson and Rocastle scored against Spurs to take us to Wembley in ’87, and was in Copenhagen when Alan Smith’s goal won us the Cup Winners Cup. George gave us the pride back in Arsenal, and reawakened our club. That was quite something for a 17 year old who’d grown up (the ’79 Cup Final aside) with the world at large usually viewing Arsenal as a bunch of talented lightweights. George gave us clout. He made us heavyweights. Of course, George’s time at Arsenal ended in acrimony, he later managed Tottenham, and proved himself incapable of man managing mercurial foreign talents (Limpar, Ginola, Yeboah). He was effectively dead in the water when the financial shenanigans became public in 1994. Eight years to turn the club around. Many would argue that Arsene did his best work in his first eight years at the club too. George was flawed. Arsene is flawed.

There are other similarities between Arsene and George. The reserves and youths all played in the same dogged, harrying “in house style” under George, so effectively there was no Plan B. It was Graham’s way or the highway. Allegations both within and outside the club suggested that George simply had too much power and wasn’t effectively “line managed” at the end. Sound familiar? Alan Smith said of George: “By the end of his time at Arsenal, he didn’t have anything to say to us that we hadn’t heard already.” Wenger’s critics level the same accusations at him. And finally, by the end of George’s tenure, the team was ridiculously over reliant on one goal scorer. For Ian Wright under George, read RVP under Arsene. That’s not to say that Arsenal are poised to fall into the same shambles they were in in 1995, and Arsene is highly unlikely to go, but hopefully, you get my point.

For all that, I still see GG as a genius who changed Arsenal, and Arsene simply built on his fine work. I don’t see too much of George anymore on Sky, and presumably he’s falling into a comfortable semi retirement. So I was delighted to see him at the Emirates to celebrate the club’s 150th birthday at the Everton game. I was disappointed that no one, for old times sake, sang: “Georgie Graham and his red and white army.” I did, for a while anyway, until the strange glances thrown in my direction by those sat around me in the “North Bank” put me off. Nonetheless, I’m firmly convinced that like Chapman, Wenger, Henry and Adams, George merits his own bronze statue or bust in or around the Emirates. And no mocking comments about “Boring Arsenal” or “Lucky Arsenal” will convince me otherwise.