Football: Gunners losing the art of graft: George Graham says his team must rediscover their mean streak to re-establish their championship status. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
AFTER two days with m'learned friends, George Graham was in magisterial mood, sitting behind the most impressive desk in football and denouncing greedy chairmen, fatcat players and irresponsible journalists in a fulminating discourse on the ills of the modern game.

Arsenal's authoritarian manager strongly resented the time he had felt compelled to spend with the lawyers, discussing the possibility of a libel action against the newspaper which carried allegations of nocturnal misbehaviour by some of his players under the ambiguous headline: 'George stars in club brawl riddle.'

Graham would much rather have devoted his full attention to preparing his team for this afternoon's north London derby, at Tottenham, but clearing Arsenal's good name had to take priority. Gimlet eye as beady as any beak's, he declared: 'We are not going to take this lying down.'

He regarded the intrusion as one more unnecessary irritant in an era when managers were having to spend 'too much time on peripheral things, and not enough on the product'.

In Arsenal's case, 'the product' seems to be suffering. That barnstorming run in the second half of last season, when they were unbeaten in their last 17 games, made them everyone's favourites for the inaugural Premier League title, but they are 10 points off the pace, having lost more matches already (seven) than most champions lose in total. If the championship is not yet a lost cause, it soon could be.

Injuries have hit hard, depriving them of their full-backs, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn, as well as that crafty leader of the line, Alan Smith, but in previous years they have been strong enough to cope with such adversity.

Arsenal have become a byword for consistency, and for them to win six League games in succession, then lose the next three (their current run) represents a disturbing decline in standards.

Graham believes that the problem is collective more than individual. A question of attitude. Changes in personnel might be necessary, but the real need was for a return to the traditional values central to their title triumphs of 1989 and 1991. Sated by success, the bodies were no longer quite so willing, the spirit weak.

Graham, the high priest of the work ethic, was not happy with what he was seeing. 'You can say we miss Smith and his ability to hold the ball up, and I would agree that we need a bit more craft in midfield, but its collectively that we've lost something.

'When we won our two championships, the team spirit and the work-rate as a group was excellent. There was a lot of good, attractive football, but they were all prepared to roll up their sleeves when we had to. That's the aspect of our game that has dipped.

'Our balance is not right. We're still exciting when we go forward, but when we lose possession we're left with too many players out of the game, and exposed at the back. We've got a lot of craft up front but, unfortunately, we've sacrificed what I call the Arsenal meanness in favour of a bit more flair. We've a lot of players who are good on the ball. The problem is, we've got to win the ball first.

'I've got to arrest the slide, and maybe that means getting a few new faces in and a few old ones out, but that's an easy thing to say - as I'm sure Howard Kendall would agree. It's a lot harder to make it happen.

'The easy part is to say: 'I need five new players.' The difficult part is to go out and get them. There is a lack of talent in England. That's one problem. The second problem is that there is competition - big competition - for what little there is.'

He is ready to buy, and buy big, when the right reinforcements become available, but in the meantime he is looking to youth team products like Ray Parlour and Mark Flatts for an injection of energy and enthusiasm.

GRAHAM'S tough upbringing ingrained in him that 'you don't get anything worthwhile unless you work for it'. His father, a Scottish steelworker, died when he was three months old, and nothing came easy after that. 'We had a big family, and everyone had to work hard.'

It is this bare-bones background which has left him with no time for shirkers, or those who are not giving 100 per cent for every minute of every match. 'Stroller' he may have been in his playing days, but Graham the manager will always prefer a Tony Adams to an Anders Limpar.

Limpar and Ian Wright have both felt the rough edge of his tongue of late, one for coming back from England duty and 'swanning around' as if his international status guaranteed him a place, the other for an effete performance against Manchester United, when he was completely outshone by Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe.

'In English football,' Graham says, 'you can't afford too many talented players who are not prepared to work.'

Limpar, dropped time and again, and notoriously ineffective away from Highbury, is the one most obviously at risk when the talk is of 'changing a few faces' to regain the hungry fighter mentality.

Selling the winger Arsenal's fans lionise as 'Super Swede' would not be a popular move, but Graham has sold idols before - Charlie Nicholas, David Rocastle, Michael Thomas - and would not hesitate to do so again.

Success led some to relax, and stop putting in the work (that word again) that had made them successful in the first place. 'I inherited some outstanding youngsters, and when we won the title that first time we had players of 20 and 21 who were nowhere near their peak. They got it all early, and after that I was left looking for self-motivation.'

In some cases, it had not been forthcoming. He was not prepared to name names, but no one would get into Mensa for guessing that Thomas and Rocastle, sold to Liverpool and Leeds respectively, are on his mind when he says: 'There are young players who won two championship medals with me who have not improved. They have stood still, and I find that sad, because the world was their oyster.'

The fans had been critical when these, and other good players, left, but Graham added: 'I'm not a fool. I'm not going to get rid of people without good reason.

'I have never flinched from difficult decisions. I have taken a lot of flak over Anders, but all that stuff you read in the tabloids, about personality clashes, is crap. I always make my decisions for the good of the team. Always.'

Despite those damaging losses to Leeds, Manchester United and Southampton, he believes Arsenal are fully capable of making up the lost ground. History shows that champions are usually allowed no more than six defeats, but Liverpool and Everton both won the title with eight in exceptional years, and there is a growing belief, first articulated by Leeds' Howard Wilkinson, that this is going to be one of those years.

Graham says: 'Everyone has their opinions but, if you look at the facts, we're three points behind the second club, and if we win six games on the trot again I'm sure we'll be second, and we might be first.

'Norwich are clear (by seven points), but they weren't fancied at the start and, deep down, they're still not. They've had a bad game, losing 7-1 at Blackburn, but they've not had a bad spell yet. The pressure will be on them when playing Norwich becomes a big deal. The tendency when you're playing them is to think: 'We should win, and if we don't we'll get a draw.' Now that they are top of the League, teams may start saying: 'We're playing Norwich today. Let's settle for a point.'

'That's what always happens to Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. The onus is always on us. At the moment, no one sits back and defends against Norwich, so they can play on the break. When they have to make all the running, the pressure will really be on, and we'll see how they cope.'

Closer to home, Graham was seeking renewed prosperity where he found it in the first place. On the training ground. Greedy chairmen and compliant administrators had denied him the 'quality time' he yearned for by establishing the Premier League way beyond what was seen as its optimum size, but he would continue to make the best of a frustrating job.

'My background has made me a realist. I came into this profession knowing that there were going to be problems - highs and lows. I've never been carried away with the publicity when I've done well because I'm always aware of where I came from, and I know that I could fail quicker than I succeeded.

'That's why, when we have these sticky periods and lose three on the trot, it doesn't knock the wind out of me. I just concentrate on keeping my head together and bouncing back - like we did after losing at Wrexham in the Cup last season. That was my lowest ebb, but we responded with a great run, playing lovely football. Personally, I was so pleased that I managed to come back like that after a complete disaster. That should have told people a lot - not just about the players, but also about me. I didn't run away and hide. I went back to work and put things right.'

Ominously for Spurs, Graham and his players have been going through much the same cathartic process this week. Sleeves rolled up, of course.

(Photograph omitted)

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