Football: Graham manages to work his magic

The new Tottenham: Scotsman's arrival puts team in cup semi-final as Ginola discovers the delights of direct football
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The Independent Online
AS GEORGE GRAHAM discussed David Ginola after Tottenham's Worthington Cup win over Manchester United on Wednesday, the mind went back to February 1995 and a press conference in Milan's San Siro. Arsenal had just been well beaten in the European Super Cup and Graham, swallowing his disappointment at his own team's performance, purred: "Good players, working hard, that's their secret."

When we met up at Tottenham's Chigwell training ground on Thursday afternoon he remembered the night as if it was yesterday. "I was a big fan of Milan," he said, "and I really wanted us to play well that night but we got hammered. I really got into the players after it. It was only 2-0 but it was a bad defeat."

Within a fortnight he had been sacked by Arsenal over the bungs affair but the philosophy stayed with him and after a year's suspension in exile, and two years' resuscitation at Elland Road, he is beginning to impose it on the cosseted world of White Hart Lane. As ever, his reputation has gone before him and there has been much surprise at his apparent rapprochement with Ginola.

"Why are people surprised?" said Graham. "Manchester United work hard, Arsenal work hard, other successful teams work hard. Why should Ginola be different from Giggs or Beckham. I'm supposed to say I don't like these talented players. I want Ginola to be an effective entertainer, like Bergkamp and Overmars, Giggs and Beckham, Fowler and Owen: they integrate themselves into the team effort. Ginola is blessed with a very good physical condition, I've been surprised by how fit he is."

I put it to Graham, whose team play Liverpool today, that players have been indulged in the past. He replied: "Maybe that's why they have always been a cup team, you only need to win six games, one every two to three weeks. People said `George Graham's coming - they're going to have a hard- working team'. I hope I do, but I also hope there's good talent."

Graham concedes that his reputation has been helpful, with not a peep of complaint, for example, over his occasional afternoon sessions. The Arsenal players nicknamed him "Gaddafi" and Les Ferdinand admitted: "Christian Gross came here with a reputation but his reputation had not been proven in English football, George's reputation has. He's probably a harder fella than Gross but he's had success doing that, so everyone respects that."

Whether Graham is such a fearsome bastard as he is painted is open to question. David O'Leary said after succeeding his mentor at Leeds: "George liked his Gaddafi reputation. I didn't think he was a big Gaddafi, he never threw cups. I think I'm as hard as George."

Graham certainly does enjoy it. Earlier, in the general press conference, he had played to the gallery when he said of Ginola: "He's a good trainer and I like people who train every day." He also added: "As soon as he has a bad time he'll be out, he's got to keep producing."

Fair enough, and fairness is one of Graham's tenets. O'Leary, who was full of praise, added: "He treated people fairly. If someone had to get a bollocking, whether a star or not, they got it."

Such equality is crucial in a team environment. Ferdinand spoke of Graham quickly establishing a team spirit which, in a struggling team, is easier said than done. "It is achieved," said Graham, pointing at the manicured training pitches beyond his clean and tidy office, "by what happens out there, the way you do things, the way you treat people. This red carpet treatment for individual stars is total nonsense. For me, if a player is treated better than any other player, that's shown in the contract. As soon as they walk through the gates for training, everybody is equal. The one thing I am is I'm honest, if the players want to be bullshitted I'm not the man.

"It's not a problem having millionaire footballers. The majority want to be told, they need direction and guidance, 95 per cent of society want to be led, the other five per cent do the leading. But the more powerful players become, the more powerful a manager has to become."

Like John Gregory, Graham said he preferred to build a team of predominantly domestic players. This was partly because they tended to be less argumentative, but more because it made for a better team spirit. "The Continentals get in the habit of moving every two years. The sad thing is most of them offered to you are 30 years old. Their best years are behind them."

Even so, Graham had walked into the office caressing the latest edition of the European Football Yearbook, now as invaluable to a Premiership manager as Rothmans. One could as easily imagine him sitting down with it in front of Eurogoals on Eurosport as fulfiling the more popular image of him dressing snappily for dinner in a Hampstead restaurant.

It was the pull of London, his fiancee, family and garden (which had a starring role in his autobiography and of which he still speaks with evident enthusiasm) which drew Graham back from Leeds. There appear to be no regrets, though he describes his time at Leeds as "two very happy years" and admits managing in the capital has professional disadvantages. Apart from the greater media attention and 10 derby matches a season, there is the difficulty of keeping an eye on players. "In Leeds I knew the restaurants, I knew the clubs - not that I'd been in them - and I knew where my players were. You can't keep track of them in London."

He does "regret" the circumstances surrounding his departure from Highbury, though he is not inclined to go into detail: "It is water under the bridge now, I'm pleased the way I've resurrected my career."

Of his time out of the game, he missed the training more than the matches. "I love the day-to-day involvement of working with players, even this morning we just had a warm-down and a chat about last night. It's a little thing but part of that bonding process."

At Leeds, Graham left much of the coaching to O'Leary but he is more involved now, partly because Chris Hughton, the No 2 he inherited, does not know his methods. Hughton, like all the staff and players, is on trial to the end of the season, when Graham expects a lot of changes in personnel. Meanwhile, the chaff is being sorted, with Nicola Berti the first to be told he can go as soon as he finds a club.

At present the work, said Ferdinand, is primarily on defending though that does not mean the forwards are getting off lightly. "He's been working with front players on closing people down," said the striker. "I think he would prefer not to give any goals away and score a few ourselves."

As well as working on collective problems, individual faults are being ironed out. Ginola's predilection for overplaying is being addressed, with the French winger being instructed to either cut inside his man and shoot or pass, or go outside and cross first time. That way, said Graham, the likes of Chris Armstrong knows that if he loses his marker and makes a run to the near post the ball will be coming over, he will not be left stationary and out of position as Ginola cuts backs and then crosses.

One would think professional players of Ginola's age (32 next month) would know this already but results like Wednesday's, when the second goal came from just such a move, should drum it in. The victory put Tottenham in the last four and Graham said: "Now we can get on with the League. The fans know there are a couple of semi-final ties to look forward to."

More than a Worthington Cup is expected though, for this is a club whose aspirations far outstrip their achievement. Graham's predecessors, Gerry Francis and Gross, both became frustrated with the belief that Spurs should always be jousting for the title, given that they have only won it twice, in 1951 and 1961, and have not finished in the top two since 1963.

"They've won two championships so maybe expectations are too high," said Graham "but I'm not going to tell them that, I'm going to try to bring them to fruition. How can you tell fans not to have high expectations? It's their dream. I don't mind the pressure, I put pressure on myself because my expectations of myself are high."

Though Arsenal has cropped up several times in conversation it is as much my fault as his. It is still hard to divorce the two and, teasing, I compare Highbury, with its marble halls and Art Deco stands, to the spivvy atmosphere of Spurs' car park where Beemers and Rollers lurk under the west Stand's smoked-glass frontage.

Graham, though loyal to the memory of the Gunners, is quick to defend the Lillywhites: "What's the point you're trying to make? Arsenal has always had this aura about it, everyone in football knows that, but it's partly because the stands have a preservation order. Tottenham is much nicer inside than Highbury and, if I get it right, it may have to go up another tier. Then you're talking 50,000, that would be exciting. They can't do that at Arsenal. It's swings and roundabout."

As Arsenal's progress stalls, that of Spurs and Graham appears on an upward swing.