Football: Graham's comfort in the uneasy chair

Andrew Baker watches the former Arsenal manager tackle a screen test
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The Independent Online
George Graham, the stoney-faced Leeds United manager who was sacked by Arsenal after a financial scandal, may seem an unlikely candidate for soul-bearing on national television. But his appearance in The Chair, to be broadcast on BBC2 on Thursday night, is unexpectedly revealing. Graham confesses to greed, naivety and stupidity, and reveals that as a child he was disciplined with a leather strap. Why should he subject himself, as an adult, to more humiliation? The world knows that he does not need the money.

Perhaps Graham felt that his grilling at the hands of unseen interrogator Oliver James would constitute both a public acknowledgement of his personal failings and an explanation of their underlying causes. The Chair, a televisual version of the long-running radio series In The Psychiatrist's Chair, is predicated on the straightforwardly Freudian theory that if you go into detail about a celebrity's childhood you are likely to turn up some juicy stuff about the adult they became.

Graham obliges (the previous occupant of The Chair, Julian Clary, was cagier) with some fascinating detail about his tough upbringing. Graham's father died a matter of weeks after young George was born, leaving his eldest brother Andy and his mother to support and care for the infant and his five other siblings. His mother worked in the fields picking potatoes; Andy, in assuming the paternal mantle, abandoned a promising career as a goalkeeper. He became, George said, "the hero of the family, and still is".

It was to Andy that George turned when his dealings withthe Scandinavian agent Rune Hauge brought his career at Highbury to an ignominious conclusion. This is the nub of the programme, and Graham, to his credit, does not wriggle on the hook.

He accepted "an unsolicited gift" of pounds 285,000 from Hauge, an action he now ascribes to "fleeting greed, stupidity, naivety". But his motivation may be more accurately revealed by his recall of his childhood hardships and his later recognition that "...money is paramount in a lot of people's lives. It's very, very important. It makes a lot of decisions for people... people will do a lot of things for it."

This is not the average sporting interview, although at one stage Graham admits to being "gobsmacked" when he was fired by Arsenal. But James, a qualified psychologist, has the time, the opportunity and the tacit approval of his subject to probe deeper; circumstances which are routinely denied to, say, Desmond Lynam. It whets the appetite: one would love to see Naseem Hamed, Raymond Illingworth or Linford Christie in that chair.

"George was very charming," James recalled last week, "but quite cautious about what he said. He had a strong concept of the narrative that he wanted to communicate, but I think he unwittingly communicated more than he intended."

One particularly intriguing anecdote was left on the cutting-room floor, a decision that James now feels may have been mistaken. In it, Graham recounted that his mother would return to the potato fields long after picking was over for the day and steal a few extras, which she would then lob into her youngest offspring's pram. Perhaps it was felt that the connection between receiving illicit vegetables as a baby and irregular payments as an adult was too tenuous.

The interview, one hour cut down to 20 minutes for airing, was recorded before Graham's appointment to the Leeds job, which may have emboldened him. "I thought he was quite a tough character," James said, "and he also struck me as sensible - it was a pretty satisfying experience."

The result no doubt serves Graham's purpose and will aid in the rehabilitation of his reputation among the wider sporting public, albeit at some cost to his standing in the dressing-room. The terror of the half-time team- talk will forever have been diminished by the picture, surely firmly lodged in the minds of all the Leeds players, of a leather strap descending on boyish buttocks.

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