FOOTBALL: Houston puts his case for the defence

Glenn Moore hears the views of the new Arsenal manager, whose first big European test occurs tonight
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The Independent Online
Nine days ago he was simply the man into whose arms Ian Wright jumped every time he scored one of his more spectacular goals. Now Stewart Houston is charged with leading Arsenal out of the mire of scandal and depression.

Highbury has been forced to adopt the cry of "The King is dead, long live the King" this month, with the assistant manager suddenly thrust to power after George Graham's departure.

Houston has started brightly enough, Arsenal winning their first two games under his command. Now, however, comes his first big test, as he attempts to extend Arsenal's defence of the European Cup-Winners' Cup. It has reached the quarter-final stage, and the Gunners play their first leg against Auxerre, of France, at Highbury tonight.

Yesterday, as Houston faced the press at a Hertfordshire hotel, it seemed like old times. A smooth Scottish voice emanating from a well-dressed, lean and angular frame neatly evaded the trickier questions, firmly answered the easy ones, and spoke of the importance of the back four. It could have been one of Graham's better displays, right down to the insistent way he corrected one reporter's reading of Paul Merson's tactical role at Crystal Palace on Saturday.

Yet Houston, despite his eight years at Highbury, is no Graham clone. The former manager, on his first day in charge, told everyone at the club that he was to be called Mr Graham. Houston is happy to be called Stewart - for now.

He is closer to the players than Graham allowed himself to be, especially the younger ones he nurtured in the club's reserve team who he ran when he first came to Highbury. "I was the buffer, when he knocked them down I built them up; when he praised them I would bring them back to reality," said Houston, who has already consulted senior players more than Graham did.

His first move was to talk to Tony Adams, the club captain, who was rumoured to be contemplating a move. Houston told him he saw Adams as a key figure in the club, and was rewarded with a promise of support.

There have been few changes. "It is partly a matter of stamping your own authority, but also of retaining continuity," he said. "Everyday things have carried on as before. We will carry on the way we have - it has brought lots of success.

"We must have a solid defence, the success of every good side comes from the back, but we also have players like Glenn Helder and a revitalised Paul Merson. I hope we can bring more of a dimension to our play."

So far, Houston has only got the job to the end of the season, but he is keen to make it permanent. "I had no great ambitions to manage. I was very happy doing what I was doing and, although I had thought about managing, I had not gone into it much as I thought it would mean leaving. If you leave Arsenal, the only way to go is down."

Houston met Graham at Manchester United, when they both played in the relegation team of the mid-Seventies. He went on to play once for Scotland, and in the 1976 FA Cup final defeat by Southampton.

He moved to Highbury in 1987, and has been assistant manager since 1990. Retention of the European Cup-Winners' Cup would clearly help his candidature, and it ought not to be beyond Arsenal.

For the first time in Europe, Arsenal are troubled by the "foreigners" rule, although the situation is eased by the return from suspension of Tony Adams and Ian Wright. Auxerre have bigger problems, with a goalkeeping crisis that may force them to use their third choice tonight.