Football: Graham's lament for the lost art

`Twenty years ago you'd walk down the street, shake a tree and you'd have centre-halves falling out'
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IT IS AN institution so enduring it ought to have a National Heritage plaque affixed to Highbury's Marble halls, adjacent to the bust of Herbert Chapman. "This was the birthplace of the Arsenal Back Four, c1988."

Even from White Hart Lane, four miles away from the construction site of one of his most celebrated creations, its architect George Graham can, even now, survey the renovation of Arsenal's back four with a touch of nostalgia as he plots the renaissance of their most avowed rivals. Tony Adams and Co will survive another season, although without the Herculean presence of Steve Bould, but the workmen are already in, chewing on their pencils as they await the swing of the demolition ball.

The gradual reconstruction of the most defiant defence in Europe is, according to Graham, evidence of further decline in one of the arts for which England players were once revered.

"Defending in this country is deteriorating at a very fast rate," claimed the Tottenham manager. "We're trying to work on possession and trying to work on people with better technical ability, but in my opinion we're not paying enough attention to defending. It never used to be the case, but there's a lack of good quality defenders in the game at the moment. Those Arsenal boys have lasted so long because they actually enjoy defending."

He added: "When I see half the clubs in the Premiership going abroad to buy defenders, it's a sad indictment of English football. And yet, at Arsenal for the last 10 years and more, you've had the best defence in the English game."

Graham positively purrs at the memory. "It's still the best defence in English football, and that's not by accident. Under Arsene [Wenger], they've improved creatively as well, but they've not lost their love for defending. I look at whether defenders like to defend, and we're actually getting away from that. There are a lot of outstanding kids coming through now, but I question: are they defenders?"

He clearly harbours no doubt on that score about the qualities of one of his three close- season signings, Chris Perry, a pounds 4m purchase from Wimbledon, one of the relatively few multi-million pound moves involving a British player this summer. "Chris has been one of the mainstays of the Wimbledon back four for the last four or five years, and they've been very strong defensively," maintained Graham. But he insists that his ilk are becoming a rarity. "Twenty years ago you'd walk down the street, shake a tree and you'd have centre-halves and defenders falling out. In my day there was Chopper Harris, Tommy Smith, Dennis Smith, Dave Mackay, Maurice Norman, Billy Foulkes at Man United, all typical British defenders. The British were famous for it. Now, they're nowhere to be seen. Alex Ferguson had to go to Holland and pay a record transfer fee for Jaap Stam. The top teams abroad can still defend better. Why? I don't know. Maybe coaches are not coaching the right way. There's too much concentration on creative defending.

"Here at Tottenham, apart from Sol Campbell, they just keep talking about the days of Mike England. I find it sad. These days, up-and-coming defenders seem to think 75 per cent creatively and 25 per cent defensively. In the old days it was the other way around."

It is not difficult to establish why Perry, an incisive tackler, a perceptive reader of the game and a proficient marker, is Graham's kind of player. The former Tottenham captain Gary Mabbutt suggests that the 26-year-old, who surprisingly has never achieved England recognition at any level, and Campbell "could become one of the strongest partnerships in the Premiership".

For the moment Perry will leave such accolades to others and, indeed, prefers to avoid the celebrity attention consistent with joining one of Britain's most eminent clubs. This week he hurried away from the dressing-room after training, preferring that the likes of new team-mates David Ginola and Darren Anderton fulfil TV interview demands. "I didn't really expect anybody in particular to come in for me; I just knew it was that stage in my career when it was time to move on," he explained, climbing into his BMW before making the 90-minute journey from Spurs' training centre at Chigwell, Essex, to his Surrey home.

"Wimbledon are unique and I loved it there, but when Tottenham came in I had no hesitation in signing straight away. It was a great move and such a good time to come to Tottenham, where things are really looking up."

His early influences were Alan Hansen - "although I'm nowhere as good on ball" - and Des Walker in his prime. "I enjoy stopping goals. If I come off the pitch and we've drawn 0-0 I've done my job. You're there to defend first, and if you get the ball then to play. It's fantastic to have players like Darren Anderton and David Ginola in the side who can, maybe, score a goal out of nothing, whereas at Wimbledon it was a big team effort to score a goal."

It was typical of Graham to make his priority signing a defender. His philosophy has always been to place the emphasis on the rearguard before seeking to advance. Yet he is adamant that Tottenham require at least another striker before a serious improvement on last year's mid-table placing can be entertained, particularly with Chris Armstrong recuperating from an operation and concerns over Les Ferdinand. As if that did not provide enough to worry about as he prepares for tomorrow night's first home game, against Newcastle, the club is still embroiled in a contract wrangle with Anderton. "We have a wage structure, and he's been offered the top salary, the same as David Ginola, who's accepted it," explained Graham.

He believes that the issue will be satisfactorily resolved although on a general level, he says that it is much more difficult to manage now. "Look at Leeds," he said of his former club. "They were a good bet for the championship this year, at least I think so, and all of a sudden their top goalscorer who guarantees 20 goals a season, leaves. Every employee has the right to ask their boss to double or treble their wages. It's up to clubs if they are stupid enough to do it."

Yet, while he admits that David O'Leary will have been taken by surprise by the stance of Hasselbaink (whom he signed for pounds 2m two years ago and has departed to Atletico Madrid this week for pounds 12m), he has no such sympathy for another club he managed, Arsenal, over the Anelka affair. "They had plenty of time to think about players to replace Anelka. They must have known he was not going to stay in the middle of last season."

Graham added: "Players may be getting transferred in the middle of contracts, but the only good thing is that clubs are well compensated. Arsenal have got a player for next to nothing, legally but perhaps not ethically, from Paris Saint-Germain and sold him for pounds 23m."

It is all in such vivid contrast to the days when the Scot started his playing career with Aston Villa in 1960 when the maximum wage was abolished. "Then all the power was with the clubs, but since then it's gone almost a full circle, and the players are dictating it; they've got the power now," he said. "We've got to try and get the balance correct and establish what's right for both parties, club and players."

He's right, of course, though something tells you, judging from this summer's shenanigans, that it is all going to get worse before it improves. Just like the state of English defending, at least so sayeth the Graham gospel.