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.