Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Madness of King George

Polemics have become very popular in football discourse in recent years. We have a constant need to compare, contrast and measure every achievement against all that preceded it. Immediately after any kind of seismic sporting event, we are encouraged to place it in the pantheon of history, which itself has been reduced to a kind of ranking system, rather than a chronological timeline.

The need to compare has infiltrated the way in which people converse about football. Debates are viewed through a prism of polarity, to consider the merits of one player or personality is to set them against a direct rival. Are you team Ramsey or team Cazorla? Team Szczesny or Team Ospina? We have moved away from the idea that different players can bring different qualities which can be valuable in alternative scenarios.

‘Arsenal twitter’s ceaseless appetite for corollary argument often sees the merits of Arsene Wenger and George Graham cast in opposition to one another. In reality, even if it were not entirely subjective (and therefore unresolvable) and even if it remotely mattered, it’s a fruitless debate. The contexts in which the two men operated are diametrically opposed- both in the immediate Arsenal landscape and the bigger picture of football itself.

In the short term, I think the length of Wenger’s tenure creates an issue of perspective for his legacy. In a 20 year period, any industry will change beyond recognition, especially an industry with football’s potential for exponential growth. The corporate revolution that has taken place between 1996 and 2016 has seen the sport’s most rapid evolution since it made the transition from amateurism to professionalism in the late 1800s.

I think a droplet of the dissatisfaction with Arsene Wenger stems from a distaste for football’s transformation from sporting enterprise to enterprising sport. Wenger’s tenure spans the sport’s metamorphosis into uber capitalism and for many Arsenal fans, he subconsciously embodies it. Football was very different prior to 1996, it was undoubtedly more accessible and many yearn for an Arsenal that predates the sport’s facelessness.

We have all grown older under Arsene Wenger and many thirst for a return to a simpler Arsenal, an Arsenal that we associate with our lost youth. I think this is why so many have invested themselves in casting George Graham as an opposing figure in the club’s recent history. He symbolises that more innocent time, even if the Taylor Report and the lamentable Arsenal Bond Scheme occurred on his watch.

Likewise, for many, praising George Graham’s impressive Arsenal tenure is seen as an affront to Arsene Wenger somehow. This is playground stuff really, most of us ought to have grown out of playing favourites by the time our teenage years arrived. As I said, the landscapes both managers worked in are indistinguishable from one another. I became a season ticket holder in the 1992-93 season. That year, Arsenal finished 10th in the Premier League but won both domestic cups.

Despite the pretty dire, unimaginative football the Gunners had begun to churn out at that stage of Graham’s reign, it felt like a huge success. In 2016, the domestic cups would be seen as scant window dressing for a midtable league finish. Times are different and so too are expectations. Wenger has never finished lower than 4th in the league table, a position which has been garnished with new meaning and new rewards since Graham’s departure. This has, in turn, elevated expectations. Finances in modern football are such that competition is almost ringfenced.

It’s much easier to perpetually finish in the top 4 when you reap the riches of Champions League qualification. The parameters have changed and so has the definition of success. Graham only had one crack at the European Cup and it ended ignobly. However, I maintain that the Cup Winners Cup triumph of 1994 remains the club’s most underrated silverware, as I wrote on these pages a few months ago. The PSG and Parma teams schooled by Graham’s legendary back 5 were beneficiaries of significant external funding. Canal + and Parmalat respectively had bought both clubs some of the most revered players in Europe.

Comparing Wenger and Graham is a pointless exercise. But it does raise the question as to how Arsenal place George Graham’s reign in their history. The Scot was a member of the 1970-71 double winning team, so he had some pleasing previous upon arrival as manager in 1986. He lifted the club from the doldrums in the mid-80s, stripping the team of some of its more established egos and replacing them with talented players from the academy and hungry professionals from the lower leagues. (There is a troubling parallel between Graham’s arrival at Arsenal and Pochettino’s first two seasons at Spurs, I think).

He delivered the Littlewoods Cup in 1987, the club’s first ever triumph in the competition. Two league titles, the second of which won with comfort and plenty of flair, an F.A. Cup, a further league cup and the Cup Winners Cup. Graham has been saddled with a reputation for dour football, but during the first half of his reign, his teams were exuberant and exciting. I chose to support Arsenal because I fancied myself as a playground wing wizard and Arsenal boasted David Rocastle, Paul Merson and Anders Limpar at the time.

The European Cup exit to Benfica in late 1991 convinced Graham to dismantle the more creative wing of his team, he replaced Rocastle with John Jensen and Limpar was cast into the shadows in favour of Eddie McGoldrick. Arsenal’s time as a league power was over as they descended into a workmanlike style, wholly reliant on the goals of Ian Wright.

However, defensive frugality made Arsenal into a good cup side. So even as Graham’s powers deteriorated, the team competed for trophies. (Arsenal were 16th in the Premier League table when Graham was eventually sacked, but progressed to the Cup Winners’ Cup Final). In 2016, cup success is simply not enough to incubate a top level manager from criticism. Arsenal’s F.A. Cup wins of 2014 and 2015 have done little to settle a phosphorous fan base.

Cup success helped to preserve a managerial reign that was going stale, but Graham’s legacy is complicated by two incidents. Firstly, the ‘bung’ that eventually saw him fired. Not to excuse his aberration, but it’s difficult to believe that Graham was a lone assailant when it came to this kind of fiscal ‘sweetener’ in early 90s English football. There is circumstantial evidence that Arsenal were aware of the indiscretion well in advance of his sacking. But the ensuing scandal provided a good excuse to remove a popular manager who was in danger of taking the team back to the mediocrity he had rescued them from.

Then, in 1998, George accepted the Tottenham job. The move was met with disdain from Arsenal fans, he was jeered upon his return to Highbury as Spurs boss in November 1998. His reign at Spurs proved to be unspectacular, which is possibly why his move across North London has been so quickly forgiven by Arsenal fans. Spurs fans never accepted him. I also think that the rivalry between Spurs and Arsenal has heightened significantly since the transfer of Sol Campbell.

Graham’s move to Spurs was met with contempt, but in the ensuing years post Sol (PS), I think such a move would garner more ferocious attention. The club seem to have forgiven him his trespasses in any case; he was invited to join a crescent of legends on the pitch on the day that Highbury closed its doors for good. Graham accepted the invite and appeared on the pitch decked out in a decorative red scarf.

Graham was a contradictory, often divisive character. As a player, he was nicknamed ‘Stroller’ due to his economy of effort. As a manager, the players secretly referred to him as ‘Gaddafi’ due to his autocratic management style. He was guilty of transgressions that would be considered as treacherous in modern parlance, that were viewed more generously in a contemporary perspective.

Maybe there is no need to tether George Graham’s legacy, to define it as good, bad or indifferent. It was probably a mixture of all three to varying degrees (largely good). But there is certainly no need to try and compare it to Wenger’s, or any other manager’s for that matter. Sometimes it’s more satisfying to see something for what it is, rather than where it rates.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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