By Les Crang
21st February, 1995: Arsenal are playing Nottingham Forest at Highbury. Fans are about to see our new signing Chris Kiwomya score the only goal in a 1-0 victory. The Arsenal fans sing ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ but t all seems a bit hollow. Arsenal are not only in a relegation battle but Arsenal manager George Graham has been dismissed after it was discovered he had accepted an illegal £425,000 payment from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge following Arsenal’s 1992 acquisition of John Jensen and Pål Lydersen, two of Hauge’s clients.
Graham’s tragic fall from grace couldn’t have been penned better by the Bard himself. Graham was a pivotal figure in the rise of Arsenal in the 70’s as a player, then he mounted a triumphant return as the manager who engineered Arsenal’s most improbable title win, and became Arsenal’s most successful manager in 40 years before his own damnable hubris caught up with him and he came crashing back to earth.
I originally wanted to look back on George Graham’s career at Arsenal and beyond as a Rogues Gallery piece, but then I thought I would go beyond that and ask the fans who had watched him as a player and as a manager. I wanted to talk to those who knew of his legacy first hand. So, I reached out to fans from all over and from any demographic, even those who hadn’t ever seen him play or been fans when he was manager. The list of participants and all of their comments (in full) can be found here.
George Graham joined Arsenal in 1966 from Chelsea. He had been a striker at Chelsea and would remain so at Arsenal for two seasons. Gary Lawrence, who remembers watching Graham in person, describe him this way:-
He was a really classy midfielder. A lovely player to watch. He had real style & panache with bundles of flair. Always seemed to have time on the ball. A great immaculate passer with a delicate touch. Played with his head up, very elegant & made the game look almost effortless.
Gary also pointed out some of George’s goals he scored in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. These being the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace:-
Plus the 5-1 win over the same team:-
Lord Hill Wood said there were similarities in his style of play to Danny Welbeck saying:-
The only trait of George’s I saw recently was Welbeck hanging in the air, last up to head home a belter of a header, just like George used to do. George was a heads up stylish player who was never ruffled.
Whilst Tony Fisher felt his languid style would be more like Mesut Ozil.
Although George had started as a striker at his previous clubs of Aston Villa and Chelsea, plus his first two seasons with the Gunners, Don Howe and manager Bertie Mee started to tinker with the Arsenal team, moving George around with a young striker called Ray Kennedy coming into the team and the ever efficient John Radford. Peter Nelson said of the tactic:-
It was noticeable. Was probably the most important decision Mee ever made. I wouldn’t say GG was a good defensive halfback but certainly knew how to support Radford. The rest is history. GG obviously excellent in reading the game and knowing when to support Radford.
Mee and Howe put Frank McLintock back from midfield and played him in the defence, whilst George moved into midfield. George was termed ‘the stroller’ due to his speed or lack thereof. Lord Hill Wood argues he was not called Stroller due to his movement on the pitch but ‘The reference was less to being a stroller and more to his love of booze, birds, and he couldn’t wait for training to finish quick enough.’
Moving Graham into midfield helped Arsenal capture the European fairs Cup in 1970, plus the League and Cup double of 1971. The first being our first trophy in 17 years. The sleeping giant had risen from its slumber.
Like many people who hate their own flaws, but only when they see them in others, his lackadaisical style would be something he would frown upon in his managerial career at Arsenal. Stylish players such as Charlie Nicholas and Anders Limpar were bombed out of Arsenal for not putting in enough effort under the manager who was once known as ‘Stroller’.
George Graham left Arsenal as a player in 1973. Going to Manchester United, then Portsmouth, before finishing his career at Crystal Palace, where he would coach alongside former Chelsea team-mate and friend, Terry Venables. He would later move on to manage Millwall from 1982-86 where he would bring through a team on a relative pittance and bring in youth players such as Teddy Sheringham and hardened professionals such as Keith Stevens. These were all players with something in common, they were committed, hungry and cheap.
Since George had left in 1973, Arsenal had won an F.A Cup in 1979:-
After that solo cup win, from 1980 to 1986 Arsenal seemed to have invented the term moribund. In that period under firstly Terry Neill and then Don Howe The Arsenal had entered what seemed permanent decline. Examples?
Losing at home in the Milk Cup to Walsall:-
And the last minute defeat to York in the F.A Cup:-
Gav/She wore sums up perfectly the pre George Graham days saying:-
As a kid at school we were often the laughing stock of other fans, even the west ham fans still bored on about 1980.
With Don Howe leaving in 1986, Arsenal looked for a new manager. Rumours circulated that it might be Terry Venables or even Bobby Robson. Fortunately, George was the first one interviewed of four and with the board duly impressed, they offered him the job there and then.
I personally was not that happy, but I soon changed my mind in the season of 1986-7. As Jason Davies so eloquently put his arrival and change to the team thus:-
A lot of fans have said that the semi-final against Spurs in the Milk Cup was a surreal feeling. Garry Lawrence said :-
The first season of GG’s reign reached a glorious conclusion with a brilliant run in the Littlewoods Cup with an epic 3 game s/f with arch rivals Spurs & then winning the Final against Liverpool. I went to all four of those games. To beat Spurs at their own ground after never being in front till Rocky scored the late winner was one of the best nights of my life. The atmosphere was electric & we were walking on air down Tottenham High Road!
Dave Seager remembrance seems more personal when he said of the final with Liverpool :-
The final versus Liverpool was my first final with my team and will always be special. It was also the weekend I got together with my wife so the first weekend in April is a double anniversary in my house.
Its hard to fathom, but we had been terrible for so long, winning that Cup was the biggest relief for us fans. We weren’t bottlers anymore. We were winners. Thanks to George and the team he was building. Young players. Hungry players. Eva McLaughlin said poignantly ‘Graham gave a chance to youngsters such as Rocastle, and brought in new players such as Bould and Dixon.’ But Dave Seager also pointed out that George was fortunate in these youngsters saying:-
GG reaped the benefits of the Howe regime bringing through some exceptional youngsters. Adams, Rocastle, Hayes and Quinn who became regulars immediately for Graham has all played 10 plus games in 85/86.
The following season we would be at Wembley a second time. In the Milk Cup against Luton Town. Lord Hill Wood described them as ‘a plastic pitch, and their chairman was a tory mp who loved Thatcher.’
That we lost was lost 3-2 to them still smarts today.
Darren Berry, who attended the final said ‘As for the game itself, I still don’t know how we managed to lose it.’ Whilst the experienced head of Peter Nelson said of the defeat ‘The Nigel Winterburn penalty miss was crucial. That would’ve put us out of sight of Luton! Watched the whole game recorded later that evening. Could only happen to us!’
Disappointment one season though would soon turn to joy the following season with our first title in 18 years. The final game over Liverpool at Anfield being the highlight:-
Danny The GFP said of the game:-
That game was a defining moment for arsenal, football & GG, to go there and do what we did that day was asking the impossible and even now when you tell people about it it sounds like a unrealistic film script, I remember that night sat on my bed watching it on ITV like it was last week.
Most of those I interviewed described this as maybe the highest point of George Graham’s career. Tony Fisher sums it up saying ‘Surely there can’t be any better GG moments than the Liverpool game. It was after all the perfect GG tactical victory, just doing what was necessary’
Eva, who was not born then underlines the uniqueness when she told me ‘Anfield 89 is still a bit unbelievable, and it’s been over 25 years.’
Two years later, it just got better. To me, the team of 1990/1 must sit alongside the Invincibles: one defeat, having our captain Tony Adams jailed for 3 months, deducted two points by the League for the Battle of Old Trafford:-
As a fan, this was nearly on par to Anfield 1989. We were utterly detested. It was great. Fans like Darren Berry sums it up saying :-
For me personally, that attitude was the most significant thing that George brought overall.
The winning is all the more sweet when you feel that the whole world’s against you, and the title win in 1990-91 epitomised that.
The “us against them” feeling was shared between the players and the fans, and you could really feel it.
From 1991 onwards though, things seemed to decline to a degree. Dave Seager points out that:-
The biggest mistake was changing his whole ethos after the mauling by Benfica. The attacking flair disappeared and it was then all about nicking a 1 nil…..He broke the Liverpool stranglehold and then handed it to Man United on a plate.
We became a Cup team, winning the League Cup in 1993:-
Then the F.A Cup in 1993 :-
Then the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994 against all odds:-
But there were still some great days to be had at Arsenal. Most said the win at Anfield 1989 for adrenalin (I would to), but Darren Berry felt the final game of the title season in 1991 as we could tell the league where to shove their two points:-
Others the win over Parma, while a friend, Steve Williams came up from Wales to see Ian Wright score a hat-trick over Southampton, win the golden boot from Spurs Gary Lineker and win 5-1, and see Wrighty mooning the supporting hoards outside Gillespie Road:-
Ironically, one overlooked by many was The Arsenal 1-0 victory over Spurs in the 1993 F.A Cup semi-final (revenge for the defeat in the in 1991, in which George would have been the only manager to win the double as a player and manager).
George had also brought a new sense of pride to the team, often impeccably dressed and telling players such as David Rocastle ‘Remember who you are, what you are and who you represent.’ Gav/She Wore said ‘Georgie liked things done The Arsenal way, looking smart was one of them and in turn it got the results on the pitch…. As Perry Groves says people knew we were special when they saw us arrive.’ Whilst Dave Seager added ‘Yes he undoubtedly brought back the Arsenal way and had Burtenshaw, Rice and Armstrong with him as a team all of whom understood it.’
George had made miracle at The Arsenal: George had made us happy. George was King. George had given us 6 trophies in as many years. He signed some great players. In the interviews I had with other fans, I argued that Alan Smith and Anders Limpar, were perhaps his best signing. Most plumped for a loud, south Londoner called Ian Wright. Tony Fisher said of Wright:-
We wondered why we needed another striker [we had Kevin Campbell, Alan Smith, Paul Merson plus a young Andy Cole and Paul Dickov coming up] at the time as we were scoring plenty of goals. But it soon became clear that he could score out of nothing, had an unbelievable passion for the club, an incredible desire to be the best and a non stop work rate.
By the season of 1994-5, Arsenal had become rather played out and rumours had surfaced that George Graham had taken illegal payments from football agent Rune Hauge. I had felt we had gone downhill from maybe 1992. In the interviews many gave their reasons for the decline. Darren Berry said:-
This ties in with what I see as George’s biggest mistake, which was almost turning us into a “cup side.” He seemed to take that “one-nil to The Arsenal” thing a bit far, and transfer it into how we played in the league as well.
Whilst Lord Hill Wood gave another reason for his failings (something Eva shared) as :-
His biggest mistake was the way he treated players, Rocky, Davis, Limpar and more, i think he actually didn’t know how to be compassionate and retain his authority possibly something from his childhood not having a dad from a young age.
George Graham was sacked in February 1995. Many felt it was time to go. Gav/She Wore said ‘I was certainly ready for a change by 95 when he was sacked.’ Whilst Jason Davies described the football as ‘dogshite’.
George would be banned from football for a year before becoming manager of Leeds United and then he would become manager of Tottenham Hotspurs. All the people I asked said they could not boo George for becoming manager of Spurs. Peter Nelson said ‘No I felt no betrayal at all when he took over Spurs. He was hated more by the Spurs fans anyway!’
My final question was what was the George Graham legacy and why he is not on the Emirates wall around the stadium. Jason Schrader echoed a common sentiment of others saying:-
The legacy of 1-nil to the arsenal and solidity in defense he created as a culture among the players felt even up to the invincible’s.
Gary Lawrence felt the team spirit was the legacy GG left, recollecting::-
Fondest memory of George was a story Perry Groves told at an evening with him & Nigel Winterburn I attended just before Christmas. He said George told them when they returned to the Old Trafford dressing room after the infamous brawl “Well done Lads I’m really proud of you. That’s what I want to see everybody getting stuck in & standing by your mates just like you would out on the street” then smiling he added ”Mind you that’s not what I’ll be telling the FA & the media”
I personally always feel disappointed that George gets little recognition at the Emirates for his 6 trophies in 7 years. But this is usually through rose tinted glasses, which was summed up by Jason Davies when he said:-
I think the club are unsure of how to address his reign. He brought us magnificent times, wonderful success, moments of football history. Then threw it away for money, I won’t go into the rights & wrongs, but he brought shame upon the club & that cannot be erased and cannot be ignored.
Gav/ She Wore said of this ‘ Not just Georgie all of the 71 team deserve more recognition than they currently do.’
But I think Lord Hill Wood said it best for me, when he said:-
Yes the club should rehabilitate him and his achievements before it is too late, so GG could see it and feel welcome back, older fans havent forgotten him or what he did, I would love to see him on the pitch again with Charlie George and Frank so we could all thank him for those trophies, that night at Anfield, and hear Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn and Lukic sit with him and talk about it all.
That made me really sad the line ‘before its too late.’
If you watch the game against Crystal Palace this weekend raise a glass for George Graham. A legend of a player and manager who left 20 years ago.
Big thanks to the following for answering all my questions. Bio’s found below.
1. Dave Seager went to his first Arsenal game in 1976 and was a regular at Highbury and still attends games at the Emirates from the 1980’s. He writes on his own personal blog 1 nil down 2 one up, co-founder of the Arsenal blog Gunnerstown and has recently released the excellent biography on Geordie Armstrong on the Wing. He can be found on twitter here.
2. Peter Nelson has been a Arsenal fan since the early 1950’s, attending his first game at Highbury in 1953. He can be found on twitter here. His claim to fame is getting sweets whilst behind Harry Gregg goal when Arsenal played the Busby Babe’s a few days prior to the Munich Air Crash when Arsenal lost 5-4. Now lives in South Wales, Pete still comes a couple times a season to see Arsenal.
3. Gav or more commonly known as She Wore due to his blog account, twitter name, facebook account and also a man for marketing classic Arsenal merchandise. Gav has been going to Arsenal since the 1980’s. Gav’s dulcet tones can also be found as a guest on Arsenal podcasts such as Bergkamp Wonderland and A little bit Arsenal .Gav’s Pet hate was Nicklas Bendtner. Often found in The George on match days.
4. Darren Berry can be found on twitter here. Often found on twitter putting disinformation to see if anyone bites (they usually do). A Arsenal fan and regular at the stadium since the 1980’s, Darren also writes regularly for Gunnerstown blog. He can be regularly found on match days for a pre and post match pint at The Tollington Arms. He also recently started a new website called Matchday Pubs.
5. Gary Lawrence twitter account can be found here. Gary has been going to Arsenal since the late 1960’s. Biggest regret? Not going to the second leg of European Fairs Cup Final at Highbury in 1970. Been to every FA Cup final that Arsenal have been in since 1971. Always got a funny story to tell and a regular at the Emirates.
6. Eva McLaughlin can be found on twitter here. Despite only being 22, I’ve been going to games since 1995 (two decades!) thanks to my gramps. I have appeared on A Bergkamp Wonderland Podcast and Goonersphere several times. Also the founder of Arsenal Identity. Never get Holland, Dutch or The Netherlands confused in her presence.
7. Lord Hill Wood as he is known commonly on twitter. An Arsenal fan since the 1964, Steve has spent a few hours with George Graham in his time. He now lives and works in Warsaw, but still finds time for the occasional match and appeared as a guest on the Bergkamp Wonderland Podcasts. He also writes for the blog Arsenal Identity. Steve recently did a great piece on George Graham on Arsenal Identity recently. I would highly recommend it.
8. Jason Davies is a panelist on the Bergkamp Wonderland Podcast and found on twitter here. Jason has been an Arsenal fan since the 1980’s. Often heard to mumble ‘Welsh justice’ when watching poor referee performances against The Arsenal.
9. Danny is a host and co-owner on the Bergkamp Wonderland Podcast and found on twitter here. Danny had previous also been a member of the Steve Bald Collective podcast. He has been an Arsenal fan since the early 1980’s and addicted to cheesy wotsits.
10. Tony Fisher. Coming from Hackney it was either Arsenal or Tottenham so luckily I chose wisely & went to Highbury for the first time in 1952 as a 9 year old on my own having lost my Dad in the war.
I have followed the Arsenal over land & sea since then, still going to most away games as well.
I have had 2 season tickets since 1974 & my Highbury East Stand Uppers for 30 years & obviously all my children & grandchildren are staunch Gooners.
I have been at the majority of important games in my time including all the finals home & abroad. I think that the most memorable game for me was at WHL 1971, winning the league there for the 1st time was so very special.I am very much against today’s football which to me is now purely a money driven entertainment event rather than the simple game I grew up with.
11. Steve Williams can be found on twitter here. Steve is an old friend of mine who often invited me up to Highbury whilst I studied in Bath and he worked in Newport, Gwent in the early 1990’s (I regretfully said no as I was playing Rugby at the time). Still an Arsenal fan, but family commitments mean he is found watching Newport County at weekends. Fondly remembered for offering to hit guy in a pub in Bath whilst we watched the 1993 F.A Cup who said we were idiots.