Football: Graham on shifting ground

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE MAN who brought you "Boring, Boring Arsenal" and the club who gave us "Glory, Glory Hallelujah" may soon become an item. But before prompting any sardonic choruses of "One-nil to the Tottenham", George Graham must first jilt Leeds United, making him likely to incur the displeasure of both sets of fans at White Hart Lane today.

Spurs' more nostalgic followers, who have been doomily predicting the death of "the Tottenham way" this week, evidently view Alan Sugar's approach for the creator of Highbury's hermetic defence as the equivalent of the Tories tapping up Dennis Skinner or the Vatican vying for Ian Paisley.

Since their Leeds counterparts have waited in vain for an assurance from their manager that he will honour his contract, Graham's walk to the dug- out promises to provoke a noisy response. Sustained hostility from the home supporters might even persuade him that the cannon and the cockerel really are incompatible, and that he would be better off at Elland Road.

Even by the chequered standards encapsulated in the title of his autobiography, The Glory and the Grief, Graham is in a peculiar position. He has spent the week preparing Leeds to exploit the very weaknesses which Sugar, in a kind of a footballing Faustian pact, hopes he will shortly begin to rectify.

What effect the uncertainty might have on the players remains to be seen. David Ginola, most obviously, may wonder whether he would have a future under a manager who set the tone for his previous sojourn in north London by replacing Charlie Nicholas with Perry Groves' more prosaic attributes.

Leeds, meanwhile, find themselves in the psychologically anomalous situation of knowing that the cause Graham will be exhorting them to fight for is one to which he appears relucant to commit himself. Scarcely propitious circumstances in which to maintain an unbeaten run, or to approach a European tie as finely balanced as Tuesday's against Maritimo in Madeira.

Aston Villa will be in Norway that night, also defending a one-goal advantage in the Uefa Cup. Should they avoid defeat at home to Derby, in a fixture which pits the Premiership pacesetters against the club lying second, they will travel having equalled their best post-war start. A year after enduring the worst opening sequence in their history, four defeats, they are undefeated in six.

The curious aspect is that Villa's run - bettered only by the claret- and-blue class of 25 years ago in the old Second Division - has been achieved by largely the same group of players. The striking difference is that the manager who has effected the transformation, John Gregory, looked on from Wycombe during last autumn's woes.

Derby, one of Gregory's clubs as a player, are also unbeaten. Victory would see them scale the summit for the first time since 1975, when Dave Mackay's Rams were defending the title. Jim Smith, who likes to balance his Yorkshire pragmatism with a dash of panache in his teams, admits: "I'm truly starting to dream."

Smith's first love, Sheffield Wednesday, receive Arsenal after a wretched week. As if the public washing of dirty linen by Danny Wilson and Paolo Di Canio were not damaging enough - the manager questioning the commitment of foreign fancy dans, the Italian doubting his accuser's maturity - Wednesday went out of the Worthington Cup to Third Division Cambridge United.

The time appears right for Arsenal to claim their first away success since April, when they beat a Barnsley outfit managed by Wilson. Yet they traditionally fare poorly at Hillsborough, winning just once in the past 14 visits, and need to demonstrate ahead of their next Champions' League game that Sunday's rout of Manchester United was not merely a case of being "up" for a big game.

While it is a little early to talk about relegation six-pointers, the meeting of Everton and Blackburn finds both teams and their managers desperately seeking three points. Walter Smith still awaits his first home League win or goal since arriving from Rangers; Roy Hodgson's Rovers are in the bottom three, weeks after he was touted as a possible coach for both England and Germany.

Everton have won the previous four meetings at Goodison Park. However, the card count looks likely to exceed the goal tally today. In the only table they are likely to top this season, Smith's new charges lead with 18 yellows and one red, closely pursued by Blackburn on 15 and one respectively.

By coincidence, among other Premiership statistics is one revealing that the teams who have hit the woodwork most times are Tottenham (four) and Leeds (three). Oh, and the side caught offside more than anyone else are Sheffield Wednesday, so expect Arsenal's back line to indulge in a spot of formation arm-raising to gladden the heart of Spurs' manager-in-waiting.