Football: Discord in the new dynasty: George Graham has brought success to Arsenal, but the image of the club is suffering. Norman Fox reports

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The Independent Online
ARSENAL are victimised. Arsenal players are not especially uncouth and in any case get goaded into their indiscretions. Arsenal are always knocked when they are down and damned with faint praise when they win. And, adapting the complaint of John McEnroe, when did a referee ever do Arsenal any favours? Who says so? Arsenal's manager George Graham, of course. But he really believes it and as a result last Thursday he was told by the Football Association to stop being rotten to referees and by his chairman to stop dragging down the once good name of Arsenal.

Should anyone worry, least of all Graham? Clearly the FA were not all that bothered otherwise they would have fined him more than the amount he probably earns in a day, but where are Arsenal going, under the influence of a manager who himself is breaking the rules and whose players seem more trouble prone than most? Also on Thursday Ian Wright, upon whom Arsenal and Graham depend more than they would care to admit, was suspended for three matches at the very moment the club thought they were recovering from a nasty bout of midwinter blues.

In spite of his jaundiced behaviour towards referees, most people agree that Graham is one of football's brightest and most reflective managers. Admittedly he changes complexions according to situations. If Arsenal are losing at half-time, he comes to the touchline and turns purple with anxiety. Afterwards, so they say, he can go scarlet with rage in the dressing-room. Later, though, cool as you like, he explains everything to us, the media, and you would think that butter would not melt in his mouth.

That Graham cares deeply about Arsenal Football Club is not in dispute. Unlike other managers who walk out on their clubs at the drop of a cheque, he is loyal to a fault and is aware of his club's special place in the history of the game. His success in achieving two championships has been followed by last season's downturn and this season's disappointments but the decline has been nothing like a disaster and on the evidence of post-war history was predictable. Defending the championship is something only Liverpool have achieved with any consistency.

What grates with Arsenal and Graham is the fact that they seem to have lost the opportunity to displace Liverpool as the club most likely to achieve continuity at the top. He was saying after the Coca- Cola Cup win at Scarborough that all they needed now was consistency. But even if they win the bulk of their remaining matches this season, the chances are that Arsenal will not become the club of the Nineties. Too much continuity has already been lost. The question rumbling around north London is whether Graham could have made it happen.

He could - perhaps should - have jumped ship after his success started to bring comparisons with Herbert Chapman. The offers came thick and fast, from home and abroad. Everyone assumes he has a contract that makes it unlikely that he will ever need to phone friends for work. Rumour has it that he only stayed because he wanted another chance in the European Cup, but sometimes it seems that he almost cares too much about Arsenal and might never find another spiritual home.

His touchline manner and belief that when Arsenal lose, the referee and linesmen almost always failed in their duty, make him appear obsessed beyond his own call of duty. His calm after-match talks with the press must often belie the remnants of his seething. He speaks his mind to the players in language that would make wallpaper curl, and in the heat of the moment he gets exceedingly angry with referees who, by and large, he doubts are as competent as they ought to be. He could be right, but suggesting that certain ones are not put in charge of Arsenal games simply comes across as a demand for refs who might apply positive discrimination.

Until the cup wins against Yeovil and Scarborough, his match-time attitude had become increasingly ratty. His struggling team, who had been made pre-season favourites for the first Premier League title, had a bad run. There were also serious injuries, not least to Alan Smith, who is central to Arsenal's style of play, and the crowd have fallen out with Graham over his reluctance to use Anders Limpar, the best ball-player in the club. There is no midfield to speak of (even Yeovil had the better of that area last weekend), and not much style. This in a team managed by a man who as a player with Arsenal was pretty to the point of being pretty superfluous and was often dropped as a consequence. This, too, is someone who, in spite of the enthusiasm of his vice-chairman, David Dein, is critical of the 'new' Premier League because it offers too little time to cultivate skill.

Even at the best of times managing Arsenal is a particularly onerous job. A few bad results make it virtually impossible. Equally, playing for Arsenal has always involved particular pressures. Graham has worked hard on the development of youth teams at Highbury and has had a high success rate, but anyone who comes to Arsenal from another club almost always feels a sense of having 'made it' before a ball is kicked. The 'bright lights' problem of London also still has a detrimental effect. There is a lot of money to be earned and a lot of free time in which to spend it. Self-discipline used to be demanded as part of the contract and undoubtedly some of Graham's apparently curious decisions to sell certain players have had as much to do with the breaking up of disruptive influences as anything to do with performances on the field.

His whole reputation was always based on discipline. He was the one who always talked about respecting authority. He was the one the players nicknamed 'Gaddafi'. Of himself as a player, he said: 'I didn't appreciate discipline until I signed for Arsenal. Bertie Mee was hard and I found the rules irritating. But he was right. Slackness is a short cut to disaster.' Yet his version of discipline is both accommodating and subjective. It certainly conflicted with the standards required by the chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, in the 1990-91 season in which Arsenal were eventually champions. Hill-Wood reacted to the club's declining disciplinary standards by indicating that Graham's job was under threat. In the end he imposed a pounds 10,000 fine but by the conclusion of the season, and with the championship trophy at Highbury, Hill-Wood was talking about improved contracts and Graham becoming the greatest manager in the club's history. This week, though, he was again warning Graham that Arsenal did not enjoy being involved in unseemly scenes at Lancaster Gate.

Not long ago there was much talk of the new Arsenal 'dynasty'. An enterprising fanzine interpreted that as 'if the players dinnae agree, they dinnae stay'. When Michael Thomas left he made a few fairly obvious remarks about Graham's style of football, which he found unattractive and too direct. Football, or at least its court, still being in the dark ages as far as free expression is concerned, fined him pounds 3,000 for daring to criticise his former boss.

In Graham's seven years at Highbury, the club has had to appear before the FA seven times on disciplinary charges. There were also such unsavoury incidents off the field as players being fined or sent home from tours after misbehaviour. When the club captain, Tony Adams, was jailed for a driving offence, it was acceptable to most people that Arsenal did not apply their standards of half a century ago and have nothing more to do with him, but Graham's public show of welcoming him back surprised many. It had a lot to do with encouraging team togetherness. In Graham's eyes (and those of most fans), Adams is the on-the-field spirit of Arsenal, a player with limitations but unlimited enthusiasm and commitment. Graham recalls that it was when the Adams and Steve Bould partnership was broken last year that the defence shipped so much water. Once they were re-united, Arsenal went for 17 matches without defeat.

Early last year it was obvious that there was discontent in the squad. There were heavy rumours of players losing confidence in Graham, who had become even more autocratic, and that he was losing his appetite for the struggle. He has never denied that he would like to coach abroad and there have been good offers. For a time it seemed that his departure was imminent. Then the dust settled and cohesion returned to the team.

There may still be some cliques within the first-team pool and on the field one or two players still look as if the good life takes too much of their energy. Graham is accused of paying lip-service to discipline as far as some players' fitness is concerned and of allowing the togetherness to make itself felt more by players rushing in to support any of their number who happen to get involved in ugly situations than in the cultivation of teamwork. The fault is not confined to Arsenal alone, but everyone now knows they are easily provoked.

It was a suitable commentary on Arsenal's present situation that at Yeovil last week, Graham was so delighted with a

3-1 win over a non-League club, albeit one with quite a reputation for giant- killing. He saw the win as a turning point. Certainly form can change without any deeper explanation than a stroke of luck in the penalty area, but the evidence suggested that Graham was still some distance from sorting out his team's underlying problem of relying too heavily on Wright's goalscoring and having shadows in midfield.

Graham believes there is still time to achieve another successful season. Perhaps so, but the reputation of the club is probably irretrievable. The irony is that it all happened under the eyes of a desciplinarian.

(Photograph omitted)

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