Football: Graham determined to silence the Gunners

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time George Graham entered the Highbury boardroom, nearly four years ago, it was to be told that his eight, trophy-laden years as manager were over.

Today, in a bid to bury the hatchet, Arsenal have invited Graham up for a drink after the derby against his Tottenham side. In the event of Spurs beating the Double winners, he may be sorely tempted to take up the offer. However, Graham's sense of betrayal by certain directors is reputedly so strong that he is unlikely to socialise. Instead, he will settle for making the Gunners fall silent.

Arsenal's supporters gave him a warm welcome on the three occasions he returned with Leeds. But that is likely to be withheld now that he is in charge of their detested rivals, with the Spurs contingent doubtless being reminded in song that "George Graham is an Arsenal fan".

Graham's four Premiership matches in charge at White Hart Lane have produced only four points. Yet there were signs in both the 3-2 loss at Villa Park and Tuesday's 3-1 win at Liverpool in the Worthington Cup that he has already turned Spurs into a more competitive unit.

His belief, with which only the most anachronistic adherents of the "Tottenham way" could argue, is that players must be as effective when the opposition have the ball as in possession. If he could deliver only their second success in 14 visits to Arsenal, even those who continue to view him as the great Satan of N5 might be won over.

The way Arsene Wenger has steered the champions into second place, despite patchy performances and the draining effects of the Champions' League, commands their former manager's respect. Adding spice to an occasion which hardly needs it, Graham's old captain, Tony Adams, is set to return after injury.

It promises to be quite an afternoon for managerial firsts. The collision of Liverpool and Leeds, which used to be a bone-crunchingly intense battle of wits between Bill Shankly and Don Revie, is Gerard Houllier's opening match in sole charge of the Anfield club.

The Frenchman, who must launch the post-Boot Room era without Michael Owen and Steve McManaman, is actually an old hand compared with his opposite number. David O'Leary's three weeks as Graham's successor at Elland Road have seen the Yorkshire side eliminated from two cups, and precedent provides few positive pointers for him today.

Liverpool's 2-0 defeat of Leeds in Dublin in a summer tournament would count for little had it not confirmed a pattern. Since losing to Tony Yeboah's memorable volley three years ago, they have rattled up 19 goals to Leeds' one in winning six of their seven meetings.

In 18 trips to Liverpool, Leeds have scraped just four points and as many goals. More pertinently, they seem incapable of holding an advantage on their travels. Leading in the final third of four away games, they drew them all, taking the trait to new extremes by losing at Leicester in the Worthington Cup after entering the 88th minute 1-0 up.

The lesser of the national knock-out competitions may have saved Roy Hodgson's bacon at Blackburn. Squeezing through at Newcastle has certainly rescued their season, although Old Trafford is the last place to try to build on a good result.

The memory of Manchester United's 4-0 romp a year ago, when Hodgson's aspirations concerned winning the title rather than avoiding relegation, is still fresh. So, too, will Alex Ferguson's team be after their understudies took the stage in midweek. Peter Schmeichel is assured of an emotional ovation after announcing that this is his final season.

The reception at Southampton for those with a Portsmouth pedigree tends to be hostile. John Gregory, who endured a deceptively poor start in management along the south coast, will laugh it off, especially if Aston Villa at least maintain their two-point lead at the top.

Villa, remarkably, have taken 52 points out of 66 since Gregory's appointment; title form by any standards. But with Liverpool, United and Arsenal all visiting them in the next month, they can ill afford to let the reviving Saints spoil their unbeaten start.