Football: Graham expert in surviving a grilling

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the things that distinguishes George Graham in football management is the sunny disposition he brings to interrogation. Show Graham a microphone or a room filled with scribes and a disarming smile crosses his lean features. Politicians could take lessons from him.

There is nothing new in retrospective praise for the opposition to emphasise achievement but nobody employs the trick more effectively than the man whose mark is already on the Tottenham team that held Arsenal to a 0-0 draw at Highbury on Saturday. "I thought Arsenal were outstanding," Graham said. "They pounded us." Then, with a glint in his eye, "but we didn't crack."

Clever in his manipulation of the audience, alert to the traps of cross- examination, Graham made light of issues that arose from the appointment of a famous Arsenal hand as Tottenham's manager.

The boos Graham heard when taking his place in the dug-out? "Just normal football banter," he said. "Supporters don't determine the jobs you take." And what about remarks attributed to Nigel Winterburn who was a raw full- back when advanced to help form a vaunted Arsenal defence and win six major trophies, but now supposedly glad to be free of his old mentor's guidance? "Nigel's a good lad," Graham said. "He was set up."

Graham was soon at it again, stating that the satisfaction of a point gained in difficult circumstances did not blind him to deficiencies in collective application. "We can play a lot better than that," he added. "We scored two goals at Aston Villa last week, then three at Liverpool, but today we hardly gave Arsenal's defence a problem."

When we spoke on Friday evening Graham stressed the extent of his task at White Hart Lane. Too many players with age against them, very little coming through. "It's going to be a long haul," he said.

Nevertheless, Graham's influence, especially in matters of defensive co-ordination and collective responsibility, was soon evident on Saturday.

Employing a narrow shape that made it difficult for Arsenal to make central progress within the cramped confines of their pitch, Tottenham were further bolstered by Espen Baardsen's expert shot- stopping.

The statistics are revealing. "We had 11 shots on target to only one by Tottenham, 11 corners to their one," Arsene Wenger said, when stating that everything about Arsenal's performance pleased him except the finishing.

With Dennis Bergkamp still unfit and out of form this season, goals are Wenger's most pressing problem. Now only three in three home Premiership games that have seen four points dropped, and just two in Champions' League tussles against Dynamo Kiev.

Graham's priorities are pretty obvious; a resolute central defender to play alongside Sol Campbell, whose own game needs some fine tuning before the praise that has come his way is fully justified, greater strength in midfield and support for Steffen Iversen.

Had Arsenal taken the lead early, had Baardsen not been so agile in dealing with first-half strikes by Emannuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka it would probably have been a much different story. "A goal makes things easier," Wenger said. "The team becomes more relaxed, their confidence increases."

With time running out, Arsenal's normally cool manager began to display signs of agitation. The sight of Luis Boa Morte going out to take a corner instead of Petit, who strikes a wicked ball, sent him bellowing to the touchline. Think for yourselves is something that coaches always stress in preparation. Wenger must still think for his team as Graham thinks for Tottenham.

Graham thinks also about the young players he left behind at Leeds United. "There is some terrific talent coming through there," he said.

In the absence of a supply line at White Hart Lane it comes around to buying players. Too much money chasing too little talent is a common complaint in football today but it is the route along which Graham is sure to be heading.

Privately, Graham found the result at Arsenal satisfying. A difficult day, a statement made, something for Tottenham's supporters to be going on with, a reason for them to believe that things are beginning to look up in their section of north London.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Adams, Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Ljungberg (Wreh,62); Anelka (Boa Morte, 79), Overmars. Substitutes not used: Hughes, Grimaldi, Manninger (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (3-5-2): Baardsen; Scales, Vega, Campbell; Carr, Anderton, Calderwood (Sinton, 78), Nielsen, Edinburgh; Iversen, Armstrong. Substitutes not used: Ginola, Allen, Clemence, Walker (gk).

Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).

Bookings: Arsenal: Winterburn. Tottenham: Calderwood, Armstrong.

Man of the match: Baardsen

Attendance: 38,278.