Champion of contrary values

FOOTBALL: George Graham guided Arsenal to their most successful spell since Herbert Chapman's reign but leaves in disgrace
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The Independent Online

George Graham will go down as one of the most successful, yet unfathomable managers in Highbury history. He will be remembered as the manager who had it all, but then put himself in a position where it had to be taken away.

The biggest question will always be why? Why risk it? Financially independent and with a large salary he did not need money. But then, his whole reign was one of contradictions.

As a player Graham was a lazy trainer and stylish player. As a manager he worked his players hard and produced mostly functional teams. Close friends regard him as good company with a dry wit. Yet, as a manager, he was no more inclined to drop his guard than to indulge a whimsical, or critical player.

A keen student of the game he steered Arsenal to last season's European Cup-Winners' Cup success with a series of tactical triumphs against individually superior opposition. Yet, at home, his teams have failed to adapt to the changing nature of the Premiership and have become sterile mid-table labourers.

He brought Arsenal their greatest success since the Thirties. Before he took over they had won one trophy in 15 years. Since his arrival, in May 1986, they have lifted six. He also possesses as strong a bond with the club as most supporters.

Yet the attitude towards him among the Highbury faithful is ambivalent. Some - regardless of the bung inquiry - think he has passed his time; some resent his apparent sympathy for the bond scheme; some are just fed up with watching boring football. Others look back six years to Michael Thomas's last minute championship winner at Anfield and will forgive him anything.

Then there is the moral contradiction that appears, ultimately, to have brought him down. While Arsenal have never been quite the paragon of virtue ascribed to them in myth, certain standards have generally prevailed since Sir Herbert Chapman's time. And Graham seemed quite at home with the whole marble halls ethos. The patrician role required of an Arsenal manager - not for him the antics of a Dave Bassett - seemed to fit him as snugly (or smugly) as the immaculate suits he and his team wore.

But the image was superficial. Graham's players have constantly featured in the wrong end of the tabloids. The worst cases - Tony Adams being jailed for drink-driving; Paul Merson confessing to a cluster of addictions - have merely topped a list of infamous acts from extra-marital affairs to boozy brawls. Although admonishments may have been given in private no examples were made of in public - Adams was even paid while in jail. On the pitch things have been little better. Paul Davis' assault on Glenn Cockerill may have been out of character but the sight of a posse of Arsenal players beseiging a referee will remain an abiding image of the Graham years. So, too, will the brawls against Norwich and Manchester United.

Those incidents reflected, however, one of Graham's great strengths. He was builder of teams with spirit and a desire to work, and win, for each other. That was one reason for his refusal - like Alex Ferguson - to criticise his players, no matter how bad an example they set to the thousands who idolised them. Within the team players conformed for the overall good or were sold. They were drilled on the training ground, always under Graham's tutelage, over and over again until the various set plays and patterns became instinctive.

This method of team-building was made easier by his recruitment policy. The club wage structure was inviolate - and many a player was lost because of it. Stars were made aware the team came first. Only Ian Wright, of the players Graham has retained, is really a star and his competitiveness and brilliance outweighs any dangers of egotism affecting the team-spirit.

Graham was never a big spender of money in the transfer market, even once it became available. He built his first team from promising players he had seen while managing Millwall, players with hunger who would respect him. Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn were early recruits and, with Adams, have formed the defensive basis of all his sides. Young players, steeped in the club and wide-eyed, made up much of the side and still do - though the likes of Ian Selley, Steve Morrow and David Hillier are hardly adequate replacements for David Rocastle and Michael Thomas in their pomp.

That said, neither of those players have recaptured their Highbury form elsewhere. Indeed, few of the players Graham has sold went on to better things, Niall Quinn and Kevin Richardson possibly, and, of course, Andy Cole. But the sale of Britain's most expensive player, for £500,000 to Bristol City less than three years ago, was widely seen as the right thing to do at the time. Wright had joined Arsenal, there were a number of other strikers at the club, and Cole was not the sort of character to wait his chance quietly.

Overall his transfer record is good in financial terms. Before the recent expenditure he was down just £1m in eight years' dealing. Compare this to the vast sums expended by Kenny Dalglish or Ferguson. The majority of his purchases have been good although Pal Lydersen now appears to be have had far more influence on Graham's career simply by joining Arsenal than anything he has subsequently done on the pitch.

But it is the players he has not bought that have been the problem. In the last month he has bought, in Chris Kiwomya and John Hartson, as many forwards as he had in eight years and neither are yet, if ever, the stuff of legend. On the wing Glenn Helder's arrival comes three long years after Anders Limpar ceased to be a regular. And as for a creative midfielder, from Graham's pronouncements one would have thought they were extinct, rather than just rare.

This refusal, or inability, to sign forward-thinking players is one of the reasons while current performances are so poor. For Graham this is one of the saddest things about the timing of his departure. He goes when dull goalless encounters and home defeats to all and sundry are the freshest memories. Graham's Arsenal were not always boring. It is barely remembered now that, when Arsenal won the title in 1988/89, and when they were fourth three years later, they were the top scorers in the division. Every so often, Graham would appear to let players off the leash and there would be a spell of attacking football. Then would come a defeat and it was back to the tried-and-tested.

For a man who only drifted into management Graham has always had a keen sense of his position in its scroll of honour. Only this month he was quoting a survey in FourFourTwo magazine that placed him 12th in the post- war list, ahead of Bertie Mee, his manager in Arsenal's double-winning side.

Now it seems posterity will remember him not for what he brought to Highbury, but for what he flirted with taking from it.