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.

30 Comments on "George Graham – Arsenal’s (Increasingly) Forgotten Genius"

  1. i am 42 by the way. then there was also that time he took all that cash allegedly to buy the likes of sir john jensen and pal lydersen whilst selling rocky, refusing to play limpar and stocking the midfield with the likes of hillier, selley and eddie mcgoldrick. great days.

    • As I have beenfortunate to be privvy to a lot of the background goings on at Arsenal Football Club from contacts that are completely reliable and who are still in a top positions at the club. I’ll make sure that you understand the real facts, some of which you can check simply by reviewing the newspapers of the time, some things unfortunately I know and you dont. It seems as if you are have forgotton that at the time signing Jon Jensen was considered a brilliant move as after the Danes won the European Championship he was the hottest property around (the queue to sign him included United, Bayern Munich and Liverpool). George pulled off the transfer of the season in signing him because Jon had so much respect for George, with his history for winning trophies and for his plain speaking.  The midfield that George had to work with was that which was forced on him by the Board (and in particular Hill-Wood) due to so called ” lack of available funds” for purchases.  George badly wanted to sign additional players and it was ironic that he finally was given the go ahead to rebuild which he began at the start of the 1994/5 season when he signed Swedish International Stefan Schwarz . He replaced the troublesome Limpar who had time and again caused GG problems on and off the pitch, a habit that he carried onto Everton and only lasted 1 season with them after leaving Arsenal in 1994. Our greatly loved Rocky was sadly not the player he was up to & including 1992 and it was a sad day that George had to let him go to Leeds, it was sadder that he only lasted there a year as he did at Man City and when he went to Chelsea  he only played a few times for the team as he was plagued by injuries. George would never have let David go if he could have performed at the top of his game, but injuries ensured that he didn’t.

  2. Couldn’t agree more Jonboy,but then like you I am into my 40s!

    Great article, and will hopefully be read by younger gooners as proof that there was a whole lotta football before Sky Sports attempt at ignoring everything pre 1999 and trying to rewrite history with their lauding of Chavski and Man Citeh as big clubs (no they are not) and their obsession with whichever club has the most mone . You will know as well as me it was always Scousers, Man Ure and Us (us just behind them in terms of titles and obviously euro cup/champs league). As much as I dislike these two, at least they have created their own history and wealth etc.

    Younger gooners think it’s hard now but (you will remember) they want to try sitting through 3 semi finals against Man Ure (think it was 84) league cup 2 legs FA cup at villa park, and losing both with that lumbering oaf whiteside scoring against us in all games, for us at the time it was perhaps the equivalent now in terms of pain as losing two champions league finals (those cups being a tad more important then). Glad to hear of your fond memories of the 87 spuds semis (I was at the gus caeser home leg and at final ala perry and charlie), the scenes in the arsenal away end that night are second only to Anfield 89 and will always be etched in my memory!

    I agree about the bust for George. His time at Arsenal should never be overlooked, he is a true Legend and Arsenal through and through.



  3. selley was to be the next gazza. Hillier the midfield general for years to come! Limpar i did feel sorry for especially when mark flatts was picked ahead of him..

  4. RE: Noel Reynolds fair points, can’t really argue with that even though you must have written it with a wry smile. You have to admit though nobody could carry off a blazer like Georgie Graham, sartorial elegance or what!

  5. I’m 49. I know where you are coming from. The more of those GG stories that come out in the books that his old stars write from time to time, the more I admire him. He is and was a bit of a fossil. His contract negotiations would not have gone down too well in these days of “player power”. He was not a man to deal with agents !! ( Apart from collecting brown envelopes ) Still he came from a time when doing things the “Arsenal” way counted for something ( god i sound like my dad now ) The Arsenal always turned up to the ground home or away decked out in FA cup final suits. I was at a training ground day and Sammy Nelson was the Legend. He turned up looking like he was about to get on the coach to Wembley. Old habits die hard.  Fair play, GG was no mug, he knew how to look after himself in transfer deal, but the players he brought normally cut the mustard. He bought player to do a specific job, I don’t think the size of his “bonus” ever effected his transfer policy. He made the ultimate mistake !!!!  He got caught !!!!!  Thats why he will never get the statue !! 

  6. Good article.  I’m the same age as you and remember those days fondly.  In the mid eighties – under Done how and Terry Neil before him – we really were’nt great.  Georgie boy changed all that, made me proud to be an Arsenal fan.  That semi final at the Lane was a fantastic night, only ever beaten by Anfield in 89, it was the beginning of us becoming a force in football  again, gave us some pride.  We were called boring because we could hold on to a lead and not let teams overrun us.  What was wrong with that?  Somebody needs to show Arsen Wenger a DVD of that night up at Anfield, perhaps then he might finally be able to see that you need more then tippy tappy football and all your players charging forward together like headless chickens in order to win a football match.  George Graham was great manager but even without the Jon Jenson tranfer debacle his time at Arsenal was up after we  won the cup in Copenhagen.  He’d become stuck in his ways and unable to change his tactics when they needed changing.  In short his time at Arsenal had run its course.  I’m afraid history is now repeating itself and I honestly cannot see us progressing (that’s actually winning something) under Arsen Wenger any longer.  I really hope I’m wrong. 

    • I am not born during GG tenure, yet I believe your last stmt rings true to me, I have been advocating from the end of this season we need a change of Manager to win again, manager with character to sell the deadwood n who is tactically good enough. Bye Bye Arsene

  7. GG is a true legend at the club as a player and as a manager. Maybe his reign finished badly but he gave us so much in the time he was there, including the foundations of Wenger’s first great teams.

  8. It’s the forties boys, I’m 49 and so agree with the article. I think that’s why we find the wet paper bag attitude so frustrating. I want to see warriors, first off win the battle to play the pretty stuff. Not seen since PV against RK. I was at Anfield and whl both were amazing. Yes we could win ugly but you need to. People forget we also played attractive in the early days of GG scoring three away from home was not unusual. AW has been fantastic but you wonder if he has run out of ideas, like Smudger said about GG. Interesting if you take away AW silverware won with GG’s defence. Record don’t look so good without GG Arsene might have only lasted 3 years. GG bought us back and started our recent era (25 years of being in the mix). To me GG is the MAN.

  9. Someone should send this link to Georgie, so he can see the esteem the red and white army have for him. Is there one negative view here?

  10. i have no respect for a man who took bungs to sign shit for the club. he can rot in hell

    • George has paid for his mistakes, i have no doubt he regrets it. however, he will be fondly remembered for the great memories he left us with. i am 54 now and will always cherish the famous nights at anfield 89, white hart lane 70/71, against parma, if you are true gooner you will move on and show some gratitude for an arsenal legend. Do you remember these nights ( IF YOU ARE ONE OF US YOU WILL )  Arsenal fans should lobby for a bust of George, it would be fitting. Thanks for the memories George.

  11. George was a true AFC legend no doubt, but this revisionism is just an excuse to throw brick bats at the current set up. i was there through the highs of 89 to the lows of Graham’s last seasons and the utter drab football served up.

    Sure we won a cup or two, but so did ‘king’ Kenny.

    Times have changed, not necessarily for the best i have to add. Sky have killed football and so have all these sugar daddies and greedy footballers.

    Now, please excuse me, i have a bottle of vodka and razor blades to purchase and a hot bath to slip into..

    • Won a cup or 2???  do you mean the manager who won us the last European Trophy (the Cup Winners Cup which was 2nd in ranking to the European Cup!!!   2 League Cups at when the competition actually meant almost as much as winning the FA Cup and in fact he is the only Arsenal manager to win us that trophy!!  2  Championship Titles, the  FA Cup when Arsenal set the record as being the first club to win both major Cup Cmpetitions in the same season (Cup Double).  He would have led us out to another Cup Winners Cup Win had he not been removed from his position as manager in a controversial way in being accused of taking a bung, something he still denies to this day) some say he was set up in order for him to lose his position at Arsenal (Hill-Wood has been muted as wanting him out so badly that he used his contacts to ensure he was history! 

  12. George is a legend and I reckon he could have brought the European Cup to Arsenal had they been allowed to compete at the time. Wenger is a joke in Europe, 16 years and 1 final, and only because Keown was coaching the defence.

  13. I am old enough to remember George as a player. He was the creative force in the 71 Double team and was also capable of scoring spectacular goals. Look on Youtube for his goal against Liverpool at Highbury, when he came off the bench to transform the game with about 15 minutes left. (Scored 1 and made 1, we won 2-0).

    He was classy to watch, as in the 71 Cup Final, when he “strolled” to the Man of the Match award.

  14. George  Graham,pound for pound Arsenals best manager in my lifetime.

  15. Big Al, Koh Samui, Thailand | 22/05/2012 at 07:36 |

    I think I might win a prize (?) – I’m 58.
    This is a most enjoyable post. And good follow-up posts to.
    I actually saw him make his debut against Spurs in 1967 – he scored in a
    4-0 win. I hardly missed a game in 1970-71 (aged 17), and was at the last
    game at Spurs (title-clincher) and Wembley five days later
    What we must understand about GG is that he played in Bertie Mee’s double-winning season with an excellent defence behind him: Wilson, Rice, McLintock, Simpson, McNab, (Roberts, Nelson), and Peter Storey (defensive midfield), so the need to defend was instilled upon him at his peak. Can’t add much else that hasn’t already been said about the man. 

  16. No arguements here,i  had the pleasure of George taking me aside in the old indoor training pitch at the clockendvwhen i was a raw 16 year old in 1969 and giving me a few pointers, he later saw me walking to the tube and gave me a lift to near my home as it was near where he lived, something he repeated on a few occasions I have always held him in high regard since..

    George was a fantastic person as well as being – in my opinion – the greatest Arsenal manager, especially as he had to constantly fight the Hill-Wood led Board for purchasing new players, As has been said before his side of 1989 -1992 was free scoring and exciting but it could battle for results when it had to!  From 1993, to 1996 we had a team that would win by battling and grinding out results but needed regeneration badly, but George had just begun that when sadly the “bung” allegation arose, was it true? Who knows the true story or was George a bit naive in his understanding how you could be set up???  What is a true fact is that it was half of George’s side that brought home the double in 1998 & 2002 and he should be remembered for what glory he brought to the club with the honour of a statue which he so richly deserves, but while Hill-Wood is there don’t hold your breath! 

  17. Spot on! This article echoes EVERYTHING I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll care to listen for a good while.. if only this would be read and acknowledged by someone who could act on it..

    This right here is the truth.


  18. Guest no Trophy | 22/05/2012 at 09:14 |

    Arsene Wenger didn’t know where to build the team from when he lost it about 10 years ago… so he kept Almunia and Diaby and many more. While selling the best one by one.

    • 2002 We had the foundations of the invisibles you tit.  And moved into a new stadium.  Have you ever moved away from your computer. GG deserves a lot of credit great manager but so does AA…an even greater manager

  19. GG is and was an absolute legend……………met him a few times and always a gent.  He attracted a huge fan base to Highbury during his time there, and I for one am a Gooner because of the teams he produced………………if I have one negative thing to say, it’d be that he tarnished his reputation by going to the Sc*m………….more than the bung allegations………….can you imagine Wenger going to the Lane, or Fergie to City?????

  20. John_in_Norfolk | 23/05/2012 at 10:29 |

    This is a good article and George was a great manager, but let’s not forget an even more influential Arsenal manager, and I don’t mean Herbert Chapman, at sixty eight even I’m not old enough to remember him, no I’m talking about Bertie Mee.  Double winner and Fairs Cup winner, not bad for a man who went from club Physio to manager  over night, literally, after Billy Wright was sacked.


    • Big Al, Koh Samui, Thailand | 23/05/2012 at 12:12 |

      A little story for you John (et al)
      In 1966 I got the team’s autographs on a train going to Villa and sat with Frank McLintock and John Sammels for a couple of minutes while they signed and spoke to me. Don Howe invited in to a carriage also for his and others’ autographs. How nice were those fellas! Then Bertie walked through a door and I asked him if he would sign. Answer: “You don’t need my autograph son, I’m nobody special”. What a thrill for a kid just turned 13 years old.
      The following home game vs Leicester (final game of the season) I was sitting with my dad in the East Stand upper, and Bertie walked up the steps; he actually recognised me and spoke a few words. Funny thing was his “nobody special” comment on the train the previous week, for just a couple of weeks later he was installed as Manager.
      “Influential” you quite rightly say – he certainly influenced George Graham who played for Bertie for some years. I’ve noted many similarities between the two, managerially speaking, especially as regarding building a team firstly from (a strong) defense. Bertie’s double-winning defensive unit of Wilson, Rice, McLintock, Simpson, McNab (plus Storey, defensive midfield) was pretty damn good. George’s even better. Very fond memories. By the way I’m fifty-eight.

      • John_in_Norfolk | 23/05/2012 at 16:43 |

        When you can talk about memories like that it puts into perspective the modern “must have now” attitude of the present generation, not just of football supporters but society in general.

  21. Glad the article is provoking varied responses gang – and that most of you seem to have enjoyed it. Thanks!! I’ll be interested to see over the summer whether Arsene breaks with tradition and invests at the back. I suspect that having spent the money last summer on Mertesacker he won’t then bin him off so quickly. Something needs to change at the back and fast – maybe Arsene will by a midfielder who can screen the back four more effectively in the Vieira / Petit mould?? The players are out there…..

  22. GG any day of the week.

    Although AW brought some great talent to the club,GG’s tactical nous is way ahead of Wenger’s.

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