Football: Graham inspires with his bright ideas: Pre-season training at Arsenal dispels some old notions about the club. Clive White reports

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The Independent Online
A LIST of names on the noticeboard at Arsenal's training ground at London Colney provides a tell-tale sign that another football season is almost upon us. For some of us the break seems to get shorter every year; for others, like the six players who faced fines for reporting back overweight, it has, apparently, been long enough.

If George Graham had his way he would have had them all back two weeks earlier - and have them finishing their season two weeks later as well. If that sounds excessive even for a task master such as Graham it should be pointed out that he would give them December off.

'It would give the season an added impetus while at the same time recharge the players' batteries,' he said. 'It's time we fell into line with the Continentals and gave the game in this country a chance.'

Graham has been full of such bright ideas during pre-season training, some of them seemingly quite out of character. For instance, Graham thought officialdom missed a great opportunity last season with the new offside rule to favour the attacker rather than the defender in close decisions, 'and I say that as someone renowned for deploying offside tactics'.

A privileged peep behind the curtain which Graham normally keeps tightly drawn at their training headquarters at the University College London Ground gave the lie also to one or two other popular impressions of the club that so many people love to hate. For one thing there could not have been a higher concentration on ball skills had it been Milan's training camp, even if Graham could not resist the temptation to point out to his players that even the Italians' work- rate was renowned. Most of the stamina work, multiple uphill sprints and similar tortures was done in the first week at Trent Park, Cockfosters.

'I hated pre-season training as a player,' said the one they used to call Stroller. 'I was always asking, 'When are we getting the balls out?' ' On a field in a far corner of the UCL Ground's pristine 100 acres, Graham was dutifully doing just that, placing spanking new balls and cones in a nice symmetrical shape, while his assistant Stewart Houston took the first-team squad for a gentle jog. 'Some players may be intellectually thick but they're not stupid. They're street-wise and they soon suss it out if things aren't properly organised.'

Graham takes pride in the fact that at nearly 49 he can still work out with the players and not look out of place, at least that is when it comes to the ball skills. 'Bloody hell, I'm so good it's embarrassing,' he said while demonstrating a particular heading technique. And he is, too. It must help when you can practise what you preach, just so long as the congregation does not suffer an inferiority complex in the process.

'I learned all my skills playing with other kids in street football in Scotland. It never leaves you. Unfortunately for some of these lads it's too late, they should have mastered it when they were young.'

It did not stop Graham offering them all manner of discouragement to disprove his theory, telling them once: 'Remember, treat the ball like a lady's breast - caress it.' And on another occasion when the new signing fumbled at some attempted fondling: 'It's all a bit new for you, Eddie McGoldrick, I know, coming from Crystal Palace.'

Many of the players would have heard it all before - it cannot be easy for a manager to stay fresh going into his eighth season at a club - but they responded enthusiastically. The only protests came from Ian Wright, who complained mildly about not having drinks to hand in the warm morning sunshine. The rapport is good, in spite of newspaper reports to the contrary over the years. With fines of 50p for unnecessary obscenities the swear box is filling up nicely ('We have lots of schoolchildren here in the summer,' Graham explained), and with the additional fines for those who reported back overweight, Great Ormond Street Hospital will also benefit from Arsenal's pre-season.

Graham decided to have all the players report back for training at the same time, five weeks before the start of the season as usual, including the England players, whose season had ended much later because of international matches. 'I know Fergie has given his England players time off but I've decided to do it this way. I didn't want them to miss out on all the training and togetherness.' Only Steve Bould, who is still troubled by a thigh injury, looked like missing the pre- season. A disconsolate-looking figure, he worked out alone in the grounds on a bike.

At a break in the session, Graham called the players together and outlined one or two aims for the season, like working harder to retain possession and introducing an extra pass in the build-up to attacks. Lest anyone should jump to the conclusion that Arsenal were about to undergo a major style change, it should be added that Graham felt more convinced than ever after two Wembley wins over prosaic Sheffield Wednesday last season that his more direct style was still best.

Arsenal have done reasonably well in their friendlies, winning all three matches on the tour of South Africa, including a controversial 2-0 defeat of Manchester United, their opponents in Saturday's Charity Shield. But, as the pre-season drags on, Graham acknowledges there is a dip in the players' enthusiasm: 'They start getting bored. The rehearsals have gone on long enough. They want the games.'

(Photograph omitted)

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