The Madness of King George

Tim Stillman column Arseblog

On Saturday, George Graham will watch the North London derby from the Emirates Stadium directors’ box as a guest of Arsenal FC. Graham was an integral part of the 1970-71 Double winning team as a player and went on to manage Arsenal, winning two league titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup and a Cup Winners Cup during his tenure.

But of course, Graham’s Gunners CV bears two significant stains. Firstly, the ‘bungs’ he received for the transfers of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen, which eventually resulted in his sacking. Secondly, in the autumn of 1998, Graham took the Head Coach position at Tottenham where he stayed until 2001, winning the League Cup with our neighbours.

So how do we make sense of Graham’s legacy some 22 years after his departure? There is plenty of suggestion that Arsenal were well aware of Graham’s transfer market ‘misdemeanours’ well before he was dismissed in February 1995. But the team’s form had begun to slump markedly and they were drawn into a relegation battle in the 1994-95 season.

By the time of his sacking, Arsenal were 16th, had been knocked out of the FA Cup at home to Millwall and suffered humiliating defeats to Spurs, Crystal Palace and Leicester City (the latter two were relegated that season). Following the European Cup defeat to Benfica in 1991, Graham dismantled the more decorative components of his team, in favour of a more conservative style.

The likes of Rocastle and Limpar were jettisoned for Jensen and McGoldrick, Davis was banished to the reserves and the Gunners became a dull, functional cup side. Graham’s Arsenal reign, a little like Arsene Wenger’s, is split into two definitive halves. George built a fantastically exciting side that swept to two league titles and the fluidity of those sides is often unfairly lost to selective memory.

This is predominantly because Graham will always be identified with the formidable defence that he built. There is no shame with being identified with such a beautifully functioning unit, even if the football community sometimes tries to portray the art of defending as a base practice. But also because Arsenal became a decidedly dull, functional team at the birth of the Premier League and its carrier pigeon, Sky Sports.

Footballers that bridge this divide between Football Before Sky (FBS) and Football After Sky (FAS) often find their legacies unevenly accounted for. Just look at Alan Smith, two time Golden Boot Winner in the FBS era, but still largely remembered as Ian Wright’s hod carrier because his role changed shortly after Sky beamed a soda light on top flight football.

It is interesting to observe how Graham’s legacy has become so weaponised on social media. George is often forged into a weapon to beat Arsene Wenger with because, in many respects, he is the anti-Arsene. Wenger’s difference to Graham (and his short lived predecessor Rioch, the son of an army major) made him incredibly popular upon arrival. That trend is reversing in some segments of the Gunners fan base as Arsene’s popularity dwindles.

It’s not difficult to see why the memory of Graham is so attractive. When he took office in 1986, Arsenal was a squad of talented playboys in need of a disciplinarian. In fact, George cleared out a lot of established players that he deemed surplus to requirements and replaced them with young, hungry players from the academy and the lower leagues.

It’s difficult to imagine that such a trick would work in the same way in 2017, which is no small part of the reason Graham has not managed for 16 years. He is a throwback in a modern context, but that in itself appeals to the imagination of many supporters. George is a symbol of the old days, which we all understand to mean ‘better days.’

Graham stirs up memories of club ties and blazers at away games and short back and sides. George was known as ‘Gaddafi’ to his underlings due to his authoritarian style. He was very drawn to the club’s history and regularly extolled Arsenal’s uniqueness. He reconnected the club with ‘Arsenal values.’ In many ways, the first half of his tenure was a product of Thatcher’s dream. Of conformity, national service, prison works and pulling oneself up by one’s boot straps.

Upon taking the job in 1986, Graham told the press, “Standards in society are falling and I don’t want that to be one of Arsenal’s problems,” which could just as easily have tripped off the tongue of Willie Whitelaw or Geoffrey Howe. George applied this vision in a contradictory manner. The likes of Kenny Sansom, Viv Anderson and Charlie Nicholas were victims of the Graham coup. He didn’t have time for superstars and anti-social behaviour. Yet he willingly forgave the trespasses of the likes of Adams, Merson and Parlour.

Largely, the George Graham era is appealing to so many fans in retrospect because it calls to mind the Arsenal of their youth. I have always understood the slogan “We want our Arsenal back” to mean, “I want Arsenal to be exactly as it was when I was young.” It’s a trick of memory dressed up as protest. By contemporary supporters, George would be seen as ‘pre-modern football.’

Yet to someone reared on watching football in the 50s and 60s, the idea of shirt sponsorship, or a mulleted striker nicknamed ‘Champagne Charlie’ might have been considered gauche and an unwelcome emblem of ‘modern football.’ Wenger’s reign of course, crosses over into football’s transition into sports entertainment- a vehicle for selling TV subscriptions and other assorted products.

On Wenger’s watch, symbolic players from the Graham era, such as Tony Adams, have passed into retirement. As such, I often think Wenger has been allowed to become a symbol of people’s dissatisfaction with modern football- a pejorative term if ever there was one. The ghost of Graham maintains that cherished link to a more sepia toned time.

This is where social media polemics have made it very difficult to judge George’s legacy fairly. (Something similar has happened with Tony Adams). Because Graham is so often held up as the ‘anti-Wenger’, those that maintain great affection for Arsene occasionally deride George unfairly by way of counter strike. In the wider consciousness, the Scot is probably remembered more for the more dour elements of the second half of his reign than the first.

If the first half of Graham’s reign reveals a kind of Thatcher like reverie (and by no means am I suggesting that everyone that remembers George fondly is a Thatcherite), then the second half of his tenure was very much his John Major phase. He steered Arsenal back into the mid table decline in which he found them. Alan Smith later admitted that the sergeant major shtick lost its emphasis.

That George went onto manage Tottenham is oft forgotten. Is this because we as fans are mature enough to recognise that he was a professional offered a decent job? Does the fact that he achieved little at White Hart Lane make it easier to wipe from memory? I recall his first game back at Highbury as Spurs manager in 1998 and he was booed vociferously. There was even a particularly unpleasant ditty about his mother.

And what of the ‘bung’ scandals? It’s probably right that Graham was far from alone in dipping his hands in the till during that era of football transfers. But does that make it any easier to forgive? Do we care? Should we? It’s a difficult moral maze to negotiate. That said, were Arsene Wenger to be caught in similarly unflattering circumstances before taking the manager’s position at Tottenham, it’s hard to imagine any level of forgiveness in these more febrile, tribal times.

So how do we remember George Graham? As a traitor that stole from the club and then went onto manage that lot up the road? Or the man that masterminded Anfield 89, Copenhagen 94 and gave us the almost Invincibles in 1991? As ever, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Not everyone has to be a superhero or a super villain. But George remains one of the most colourful characters in Arsenal’s history.

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  1. I just wish we had that defence now. Watching Adams in his pomp was wonderful – the complete defender and an Arsenal man through and through. The rest were pretty good as well.

    • He was allowed to tackle back then. I remember him going through players in an England shirt to huge cheers from the Wembley crowd, winning the ball and sending the player cartwheeling up in the air. Play on said the ref, ball was won fairly and a point made to the foreign striker. Today he would be sent off.

  2. George Graham may of stolen from the club but the most interesting thing at the time is no one called the police. I’ve always wondered why, because £450,000 at the time represented a significant amount of money for the club. It’s worth remembering that Arsenal famously don’t pay their shareholders a dividend, a fact i think is worth thinking about.

    Also at the time GG was heavily criticized by the fans, who wanted him gone, i’m very much of the opinion he was sacked for results not the bung

  3. I was listening to a 5live piece about Dalglish this evening. An ex player said: “players like Dalglish, Souness, you didn’t need a manager in the dressing room; you had players like them”
    Tough, working men who didn’t take any shit and took control when it was needed.

    I think George did a bit of that, and no doubt inspired some of his players to take on the mantle – have we ever have a captain as strong as Adams since? It’s sadly lacking from manager, ‘captain’ and players in our current squa. We don’t have strong determined players who aren’t afraid to encourage/intimidate the rest of the team into pulling their bloody socks up and turning around a slump or a bad performance.

    • You mean apart from Vieira? He didn’t do to badly. I think the days of the chest screaming Adams/Terry/Keane days are over.
      Kompany is captain at City, Carrick at Utd, Lloris/Kane at Sp*ds, Henderson at Liverpool. The first two don’t even play, and I would hardly call the latter three ‘strong intimidating leaders’.

  4. People do forget how attacking the 89 team was. We won the league on goals scored, not goal difference in case anyone had forgot.

    The 91 team was even better. Two points deducted for fighting and our captain in prison for two months.

    They cane so close to being the invincibles, and lost only one game all season. We only list that game as David Hillier had to play centre back in the second half.

    It’s now 22 years after he left the club. All I can remember are the good times now.

    I wonder how people will remember Wenger 22 years after he has left the club

  5. Least we forget George handed the money to the club thats how they found out about the bug and one thing is for certain if Arsenal were in the top 4 at that time I’ve no doubt the whole thing would have been hushed up

  6. I remember being at Highbury on the last game of the 90/91 season – 6-1 up and the whole whole stadium singing “You can stick your fucking two points up your arse.” Joy!

  7. The reason people love George is because you know he’d do whatever it took to win. There were no niceties, no budgets, no profits, no owner to please. Just hard Scottish win…or lose. If that meant chopping a lad off at the knees then so be it. And he bought players like that. Winners only. It was so much purer. He wasn’t interested in top 4, or the cup, or the handbrake. Just the league, the currency of success. Trophies, or none. I miss it. And him.


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