Football: Graham leaves a golden legacy

Managerial merry-go-round: Former Arsenal man's ability to rehabilitate will be tested to limit at White Hart Lane
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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, George Graham's column in the final programme of his first season with Leeds United contained nothing more than the customary managerial platitudes. But the sentiments in one paragraph are the kind that will ensure a stormy reception from the Elland Road crowd when he returns with Tottenham on 6 March.

"Someone asked me the other day if I would be tempted if a big job came along in London," wrote Graham, not specifying whether that someone had been Alan Sugar. "My answer was that I have taken on this big job at Leeds and will finish it."

Finish it was precisely what he did yesterday, walking out on Leeds three weeks after the second anniversary of his appointment. He leaves an understandable feeling of betrayal, and not simply because he also talked of wanting to recreate the success of the Don Revie era.

Behind his departure is the implication that Spurs, who last won the championship in 1961, are a bigger club than Leeds, with three titles in the past 30 years. Such notions have little currency in Yorkshire, where resentment of the capital's perceived arrogance needs no encouragement.

Moreover, Graham's claim that his engagement to a London woman was a factor in his decision seems a trifle far-fetched from a man of 53. And who was it, Leeds fans can be forgiven for asking, that gave him a chance to manage at the highest level after a year's ban had made him a pariah?

Yet when passions have subsided, they may also reflect that they have much to thank him for. Graham effected a remarkable transformation in Leeds' fortunes after succeeding Howard Wilkinson, overhauling the playing squad to the extent that not one of their 1992 championship side remains.

Wilkinson's failure to build on that triumph had accelerated into a serious decline, culminating in a 4-0 humiliation at home to a Manchester United inspired by the player he sold for pounds 1.2m, Eric Cantona. When he was dismissed, five games into the 1996-97 season, some critics saw it as the impatient act of ignorant new owners. In fact, Leeds' 12-month record was that of a relegation side, and influential performers like Gary McAllister and Gary Speed had jumped ship that summer.

Graham inherited a squad that was a mixture of ageing high earners: most obviously Ian Rush and Tony Yeboah; players from the Youth Cup-winning class of '93 who were not fulfilling their potential, such as Andy Couzens, Mark Ford and Mark Tinkler; and journeymen defenders favoured by his predecessor, like John Pemberton, Richard Jobson and Paul Beesley.

Wilkinson also bequeathed him some excellent players, notably Lucas Radebe and Nigel Martyn, as well as a new, improved generation of teenagers. But the overall legacy was not impressive and one remembers Graham saying pointedly, after Leeds had drawn with Darlington in the Coca-Cola Cup in his first home match, that the task was bigger than he had thought.

He set about it in a manner that did not instantly endear him to the faithful. His first buy, the utility player Gunnar Halle from Oldham, was hardly calculated to excite the public (the Norwegian was, ironically, to have been Wilkinson's last recruit).

He deployed the one-time serial scorer Rush in midfield, largely ignored Yeboah's demands for inclusion and made avoiding relegation his priority. It was not pretty - Leeds scored only 28 goals, the lowest total this century by any club not actually demoted - but it bought Graham time.

Before last season, which proved to be his only full term at Leeds, he began his overhaul of the team in earnest. On one of his numerous scouting trips to Europe, Graham spotted an unknown Dutch striker called Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in Portugal. He paid pounds 2m for him and, after a slow start, Hasselbaink vindicated Graham's suggestion that he had something of Ian Wright's finishing prowess about him.

Curiously, his most expensive signing, the pounds 3.25m David Hopkin from Crystal Palace, proved one of his least successful, perhaps reinforcing the impression from his Arsenal days that Graham is better at finding bargains than at buying big. But even with Hopkin struggling for form, Leeds were a revelation.

With an average age of 24, they doubled exactly their goal tally from the previous campaign, climbing from 11th to fifth and claiming a Uefa Cup place. Hasselbaink was one of five Graham players to go to the World Cup finals, and in Harry Kewell, an Australian attacker who turned 20 last week, he had a young player coveted by his rivals.

Leeds under Graham became a formidable counter-attacking unit; even at home they encouraged opponents to come on to them. They finished with an away record bettered by only by Arsenal and Manchester United.

Nevertheless, their inability to break down well-organised defences before their own, expectant support increased the pressure on him to bring in a high-class playmaker in the style to which a crowd weaned on Giles, Currie, Sabella, Sheridan and McAllister were accustomed.

Graham, who appeared to have an aversion to such players at Arsenal, acknowledged the need for greater quality. He also intimated that such individuals would cost rather more than Leeds were prepared to pay, a suggestion disputed by the chairman, Peter Ridsdale.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it formed part of Graham's rationale for leaving, but is unlikely to spare him a hostile welcome next spring.

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