EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Arsenal hero George Graham

Jonny Abrams14 January 2011 - 09:37



May 26th, 1989: Liverpool’s Steve McMahon raises a solitary finger in front of the Kop to signal how many minutes his side must hold out to claim yet another illustrious trophy, before Michael Thomas bursts through the Merseysiders’ defence to win the old First Division title for Arsenal in arguably the most dramatic fashion ever witnessed on these shores.

Kenny Dalglish, the defeated manager that day, has of course flung his hat back into the heavily spot-lit ring of top flight management by accepting the recently vacated Anfield post some twenty years after stepping down in the first place, and over ten years since his last job at Celtic. Nae such bother for his triumphant counterpart and fellow Glaswegian George Graham, whose beloved Gunners have been in Arsene Wenger’s safe hands while a succession of Liverpool bosses have come and gone.

In between spells at Aston Villa, Chelsea, Manchester United and Portsmouth, Graham scored 77 goals in 308 appearances for Arsenal between 1966 and 1972, earning himself the nickname ‘The Stroller’ for the composed and laid back manner in which he pulled the strings in Bertie Mee’s double-winning midfield – a demeanour which gave scant indication of the disciplinarian approach with which he would go on as a manager to redouble his already lofty standing in Highbury history.

As a manager, Graham’s impacts on clubs tended towards the immediate and his reigns invariably laid foundations for the future success of other managers. In his first job, he took over a Millwall side lying bottom of the old Third Division, guided them to safety and then proceeded to build a team which won promotion to the Second Division within three years and were then promoted to the First Division under John Docherty, another Glaswegian, within another two.

Laying the foundations

At Arsenal, he won the League Cup in his first season – again defeating Liverpool in the final, with two goals from Glaswegian forward Charlie Nicholas. After nine years, two league titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, Graham bequeathed a back five to Arsene Wenger that would anchor the Frenchman’s double-winning team of 1998.

He was appointed as manager of Leeds United in September 1996, guided a struggling side to mid-table comfort in his first season, led them to 5th place in his second season and then departed for Tottenham Hotspur, having already implanted at Elland Road the basis of a squad that would go on to reach the semi-finals of the Champions League under David O’Leary a few seasons later.

Graham led Spurs to the League Cup within five months of taking over at White Hart Lane but it transpired to be his last managerial post. Onwards from 2001 – just one year after a certain Mr Dalglish called it a day at Celtic – he decided to focus on his career as a pundit on Sky Sports’ live football coverage. He was still being linked with jobs left, right and centre for years afterwards but his relaxed demeanour – despite recently undergoing knee surgery, the latest of three operations – suggests that he is enjoying the quiet life, playing golf, gardening and spending time with his family.

Cup conquests

Sport.co.uk had the privilege of catching up with Mr Graham on the evening before Arsenal travelled to Ipswich Town for the semi-final first leg of the League Cup, a competition which in 1987 lit the blue touch paper for a nine-year haul of red-ribboned trophies.

“That was my first season as manager of Arsenal,” recalls Graham.  “We had an excellent season, did very well in the league. I think we actually topped the league for quite a few months but we finished up 4th, which was a very good start, and won the League Cup, beating Liverpool at Wembley.

“That was quite a feat because that was an outstanding Liverpool side. It’s nice to see Arsenal actually taking this competition seriously. Up to a point, I don’t think they have over the last number of years because the youngsters have been given an opportunity.

“Because of the lack of trophies over the last few years, I think it’s about time they started getting a bit of silverware in the trophy cabinet so I think this season, especially the last few rounds, I think they’ve been taking it very seriously and I’d be surprised if they don’t win it this year.”

Exalted company

As absurd a notion as ousting Arsene Wenger may seem, sections of the Emirates faithful have grown infuriated by their club’s five-year run without a trophy. Graham, though, does not feel that failure to end that sequence this season would pile pressure on the Frenchman’s position. “I don’t think so. Even if they don’t win anything this year, I think he’s very well respected by the board of directors.

“I think the job he has done at Arsenal makes him without question their most successful manager, even above people like [Herbert] Chapman.”

Graham neglects to mention himself, even though the evidence points to his legitimate inclusion in such a comment. His awe of Arsenal’s other great leaders is further evidenced by the copy of Graham Tossell’s Bertie Mee: Arsenal's Officer And Gentleman sitting on his desk and Wenger, he believes, is fully worthy of top dog status.

“The trophies he’s won, the brand of football they’ve played, being the instigator of a fantastic new training facility and also being one of the driving forces behind the new stadium as well. His name will be right up near the top in Arsenal’s history - or at the top - but the trophy cabinet has been a bit bare for the last few years so I think they’ve got to put that right this season.”

Best chance

Another of the Gunners’ routes to living up to that challenge will be tested by a third round replay trip to Leeds next Wednesday after Cesc Fabregas’ last-minute penalty on Saturday denied the Championship side another famous FA Cup victory to go with last season’s 1-0 triumph at Old Trafford.

“I read the morning paper prior to the game and it was quite amazing to see how many times we’ve met in the cups,” says Graham of his two former clubs, “even when I was a manager. In one of the rounds, I think we played them four times before we eventually got through. I think we won at Leeds in the final game, 2-1.

“I think the cup competitions are probably their [Arsenal’s] best chance, especially the League Cup. Leeds will probably have a go at them so they’ll come forward and that’s where Arsenal are probably at their most dangerous.

“Funnily enough this season, Arsenal are actually much better away from home. Their away record is fantastic but, at home, it’s been one of their poorest seasons for quite some years.”

Sport.co.uk asks Graham whether he can identify a reason for that. “I think people are getting used to the way Arsenal play now. Their combination passing and movement have been first class but there’s been a lack of finish to their wonderful approach play.

“Their passing and movement off the ball is fantastic but I think teams are coming now and packing their defences and, if they’ve got some fast players up front, they can always harm Arsenal as I don’t think they’re the best in the Premiership defensively.”

The right blend

Wenger recently confirmed that he is searching for a new centre-back to bring in this month but Graham, such a master of compiling defences, has a type rather than a specific individual in mind.

“There has been talk in the papers but you don’t know what to believe, really. I think they’ve been looking at the centre-back at Everton, Jagielka, and [Gary] Cahill at Bolton. Personally, I would like to see them get a six foot four, physical centre-half.

“I think they’ve got enough technique – the majority of their defenders are very technical players – but I’d just like to see a bit more physique, a bit more power there, and a bit more determination at the back to win balls.”

Someone like Fulham’s Brede Hangeland, posits Sport.co.uk. Or, as unpopular a signing as it would undoubtedly be, Stoke City’s Ryan Shawcross.

“Even somebody abroad. It’s amazing if your scouting network is good. If you look at when Alex Ferguson bought Vidic, everyone was saying, ‘Who’s Vidic?’ and look at the partnership he’s now got with Ferdinand.

“Over the years, he’s been their driving force; the big, strong, physical player, whereas you’ve got the sophisticated Ferdinand beside him, which is a lovely combination. I would like to see Arsenal with that combination at the Emirates.”

A rock and a hard place

Quite aside from assembling the legendary defensive pool of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, David O’Leary, Steve Bould, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn, it was Graham’s astute purchase of defensive man mountain Robert Molenaar that prompted the solidity upon which he based his mid-to-late-nineties reviving of Leeds’ fortunes. Why has Wenger not gone out and procured such a ‘rock’ type?

“Who knows?” shrugs Graham. “I just do not know. He’s a very private person, I think, and only he – if you could get him on his own, personally – would probably answer these questions, if he wanted to answer them.

“He’s got his philosophy of his way of playing but I always think in English football that it’s nice to have a combination of different types of players, so then they can all gel together. If it’s going to be a technical game then, yeah, we’ve got the technique to handle it; if it’s going to be a physical game, like quite a few games now in England are, especially away from home , then yeah, we’ve got the physical presence and the players to handle that.

“I just find the physical presence – maybe the mental toughness as well – is a little bit lacking compared to previous Arsenal teams.”

Pulling the stops

Despite Lukasz Fabianski’s recent improvement, the goalkeeping position has proved a problematic one for a few years now at the Emirates. “When I joined the club [as manager], I always had great belief in John Lukic, who was a big favourite with the Arsenal crowd. When John decided to leave, fortunately I picked up David Seaman and David was one of my best signings in twelve years at the club.

“I think Jens Lehmann did a good job up to a point but I still don’t think they’ve come up with someone of the quality of David Seaman.”

As a man who discarded gifted Swedish winger Anders Limpar for his aversion to full-bloodedness, would Graham send Andrey Arshavin similarly packing if he were in charge now? “Good question,” he chuckles. “In football, yeah, sometimes you get these multitalented individuals where that’s all they want to do: when the team’s got the ball, I’ll play but, when we haven’t got the ball, I’ll go and have a rest.

“When you see the great Barcelona players – Iniesta, Xavi and obviously the world player of the year – they actually do both. They’re wonderful in possession but they also work hard when they’re without possession. That’s the only thing I would say that I wanted from all my players: to have that philosophy of hard work when we haven’t got it and perform when we have got it.

“When you have players like that, if they’re not willing to work without the ball as well then you do get inconsistency which can spark off and filter throughout the whole team. I had a similar problem with David Ginola at Tottenham.

“They [such players] used to win us games, there’s no question about it. Sometimes their individual brilliance would win a game that we probably wouldn’t have won but sometimes, if they’re not turning it on, you’ve got to leave them out or substitute them.”

Hunger strikes

Is that kind of hunger transmittable by coaching or does it have to be innate? Graham pauses briefly in contemplation. “Yeah, I would think you’d need to have that attitude already. When you see Messi play, you just know he’s got that wonderful hunger, not only with the ball but without the ball. The way they [Barcelona] press teams high up the pitch has got to be a collective thing.

“Funnily enough, it even surprised me when I saw Thierry Henry, how hard he worked off the ball. You didn’t see that so much at Arsenal because, you know, he was winning games on his own so it really surprised me when I saw Henry press the ball with the rest of the Barcelona team when he was there.”

What of Liverpool and England right-back Glen Johnson’s recently Tweeted response to criticism from former Graham charge Paul Merson, in which he labelled the once mercurial midfielder as ‘average at the best of times’ amidst other unsavoury digs?

“It’s all tittle tattle, isn’t it?” says Graham philosophically. “I think Paul Merson was really saying, you know, to be at a club whose goal is to win trophies on a regular basis, he probably thought he’s not up to that standard. Paul Merson probably thought that he’d make a better wing back because his strength is going forward rather than defending. He’s got an opinion and he’s quite entitled to it.”

On hand to help

Defensive foot soldiers O’Leary and Adams are now plying their respective managerial trades as far afield as, respectively, Dubai and Azerbaijan. Do they still seek the advice of their erstwhile commander? “I’ve not really spoken to David since he’s gone there. I think he’s phoned me up a couple of times but I’ve been abroad.

“I’ve seen Tony once, at a function when he was at Portsmouth, I think. So no, not really but, if they call me, I’d be only too willing to help.” Did any particular members of that famous defensive unit strike at the time as being managers-in-the-making? “Yeah, I think so. I think Tony is very similar to Frank McLintock: a wonderful character, one of the best, a great appetite for learning the game. Frank McLintock is a big friend of mine and he still loves talking about it, still loves to learn different things about football.

“Nowadays it’s very difficult because, when I was young, we had to do something after our careers finished, so the majority of people were trying to get into coaching and management. Nowadays, the top players at top clubs can retire when they finish. They probably think it’s just a bit too hard to get into coaching and management – not everybody, just some of them – and they’re thinking, ‘I’d rather sit in front of a television camera and be a pundit.’ It’s a lot easier.

“Going into coaching and management is tough and I admire players like Roy Keane, Paul Ince and Bryan Robson because they were all great players and didn’t have to go into football management. It’s tough but they love the game and they put their reputation on the line.”

Sport.co.uk draws attention to the fact that he just reeled off the names of three former Manchester United players and adds the names Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes just for good measure. Has he been surprised by the general absence of similar trajectories in the careers of those he nurtured at Arsenal? “Yeah, it does surprise me a bit. I don’t know the answer to that one – I’d only be guessing. I think one or two of them could.

“Stevie Bould’s coaching the youngsters just now at Arsenal and apparently he’s doing a very good job and is enjoying it. Maybe that’s what Steve wants to do, rather than too much pressure at the top. But who knows, he might go on.”

Love for the game

Graham also professes surprise at the re-emergence of Dalglish, very much a contemporary, on the managerial scene. “Yeah, I was quite surprised, not this time but a few months ago when he put himself up before Roy Hodgson got the job. But it’s great; he’s one of the best players I ever played with.

“We made our debuts for Scotland against Portugal together. Nice guy, great player. The word ‘great’ is bandied about too much nowadays but Kenny was a great player and an excellent manager; I think he’s won three championships [as a manager], two with Liverpool and one with Blackburn, as well as an endless amount of trophies. It’ll be interesting to see whether he can come back after a layoff of quite a few years.

“He’s still got hunger and never misses matches up at Anfield, so he knows what’s going on at the club. I hope he puts it right and there’s no reason why he can’t because he’s got experience and a great love for the game.”

Given that stress was a cited factor when Dalglish last bowed out of the Liverpool job, does Graham harbour any fears of a reprise? “Well, you’ve got to remember that he was under a lot of stress because of the Hillsborough disaster, so maybe anybody else under the same pressure would have done the same.” It is true to say that Dalglish took on a lot back then, investing much of his time into offering support for the grieving families. “Yes, he did,” affirms Graham.

Talk then turns to the current fortunes of a smattering of former clubs. Does he feel that Simon Grayson deserves more credit for the job he’s done at promotion-seeking Leeds? “To be honest, I haven’t seen them but I keep on looking at them and I think up to now he’s done a good job.

“Sometimes you get an off season after a great run of, say, two or three years; then you’ve got to look at your team again and say, ‘Were we good enough to take the big step up to the Premiership?’ I don’t know [if they will be] so I can’t really say but he’s done a very good job at Leeds.”

Going forwards

He is effusive in his praise for Harry Redknapp’s high-flying Tottenham Hotspur. “I’ve always thought I’m a perfectionist – and that might not be the truth! – but you always look and see if there are any weaknesses,” he replies when asked if he could detect any on Spurs’ person. “They’ve got one or two but I will say this much: they, for me, have been the most exciting team in the Premiership this season.

“They play with great pace down both flanks, fantastic creative players in midfield and even the full-backs’ strength is going forward rather than defending. It just seems as if everybody’s going forward in their team and it’s coming off just now so they’re really exciting to watch.

“And Harry Redknapp; what a job he’s done, taking them from bottom of the league when he took over to where they are now in under two years, or something like that. I know Harry and he’ll still be looking for something else. He’ll still be looking for one or two players who are better than what they’ve got and I think that’s the key, now they’re in this top four, exciting to watch and everybody round the country is talking about them. Knowing Harry, he’ll still be trying to get one or two players that will make them even better.”

Does Graham feel his friend would jump ship once within sight of the England job? “I think he said it himself, that it would be hard to turn down if he was approached but I’m sure he wants to stay with Tottenham for at least a couple more seasons.

“Maybe he’s going to go out and buy someone in the transfer window for £50m, I don’t know, but it would be exciting if they really splashed out on somebody seriously world class.”

Tough times

Meanwhile, he cannot fathom Aston Villa’s depressing campaign but insists that they should stand by embattled manager Gerard Houllier. “It’s been a really topsy turvy season. They finished in the top six last season and, as far as I’m aware, Martin [O’Neill] probably thought, ‘We need an injection of capital to buy two or three better players.’ Otherwise, you’re standing still and, if you stand still in football, you slip very quickly.

“I don’t know what the story was with Martin but I think he resigned, so obviously that didn’t look good. He must have felt, ‘We’re standing still,’ and that’s not good enough for him. Obviously they’ve got an experienced manager [Houllier], who again has been out of Premiership football for a few years but who had a very good time at Liverpool.

“He looks very good on the game when I listen to him speak on television. I don’t really know him at all but I’ve been very impressed when I’ve seen him on television talking about football. He’s had a tough time but I think they’ve got to stay with him. I really believe that.”

Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea are also experiencing a worrying spell and Graham fears the worst. “Something’s not quite right behind the scenes,” he proffers. “How can they have won the double last year, got off to a flyer this season and all of a sudden start losing games? I’ve seen them live on television a few times and I see things there that spell trouble, for me. There are certain signs I see from the team and individuals that it’s not right.”

Such as? “I don’t want to get into it, really. I just think that the body language of probably quite a few of their players is not quite right, for me.” Many have pointed to the apparent correlation between Chelsea’s dip in form and the removal of Ancelotti’s assistant Ray Wilkins. “Well, what that told me there is that the manager’s not making the major decisions. No-one tells Alex Ferguson that his number two has got to go, so that’s not right to me.

“That decision alone says that Ancelotti was losing authority. There’s something not quite right at Chelsea and only they know [what it is]. They really need to get back on track but there’s no reason why they can’t. They’ve got the players.”

Working class heroes

Perhaps a spot of Scottish conditioning could ease their travails. Dalglish’s replacing of Hodgson shifted the power balance in favour of the Scots, who are now represented in the English Premier League by six managers as opposed to England’s meagre contribution of five. Why, Sport.co.uk asks of Graham, are you so much better than us?

“People keep asking me that,” laughs Graham, “and I genuinely don’t know the reason. We all say we come from working class backgrounds, tough areas, which makes us hungry; but believe me, there are tough areas in England too, like in the North East where they were all famous for coming out of the coalmine and going straight into being a footballer or manager.

“The North West is a tough area as well so, no, there’s no reason for it; and yet there are even more young Scottish managers just making their name now, like Owen Coyle and Paul Lambert. Every time I turn on the television and hear a manager from the lower divisions, they’ve usually got a Scottish accent. I don’t know the reason for that but let’s hope it continues. I like the philosophy of Scottish managers, they’ve always got this will to win and this work ethic, which I believe in.”

On the subject of Scottish managers, does he believe that Everton manager and fellow Glaswegian David Moyes has the necessary credentials to eventually replace fellow Glaswegian Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford? “I feel for David Moyes because I think he’s maybe hit a brick wall just now. They play nice football but they don’t have a big transfer kitty, even though he keeps on turning out good teams.

“They have a bad start to the season and then they slowly work their way back up there again. They got in the top four once. I feel for David and I wish somebody would buy Everton and inject a lot of money into them. They’ve got a readymade manager there who I think could be top class if he had the finance going for him that a few others have got.”

Finally, Sport.co.uk informs Graham that they shall be interviewing Ossie Ardiles the following morning and does he have a message for the legendary former Spurs and Argentina midfielder? “Yeah, I played golf with him two or three times this summer. He loves his golf and so do I. So, Ossie: I hope you’re playing your proper handicap of six or seven instead of eighteen or twenty.

“Tell him he’s a bandit!”

Click here to see Ossie’s response.

Click here to read Sport.co.uk’s interview with George Graham from October 2009.

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