Football Interview: George Graham, Fear is the spur for the mythical hard man

Image is now a tool for tough-guy trouble-shooter who judges only by results.
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The Independent Online
George Graham is impeccably turned out, as you might expect, even after a morning's coaching at Spurs Lodge, near Chigwell, Essex, as he greets you in all black, rolled neck shirt and slacks. It evokes an image of a latter-day Wyatt Earp, the character who rode into Tombstone, a community surrounded by mineral riches, to clamp down ruthlessly on lawlessness. Although the Spurs manager has not yet applied himself to the job with quite the zeal of the legendary enforcer, the analogy is apt enough. The troubleshooter, as he alludes to himself, will not have any thieves and cheats in this footballing town called Tottenham.

When Graham arrived from Leeds at the beginning of October to succeed Christian Gross, his reputation had definitely preceded him. He wanted his men to be lions not Christians. "The players knew all about how I worked and that definitely helped," admits the manager born 54 years ago in the village of Bargeddie, near Glasgow. "The players knew it was going to be tough, and that's good. I'm all for using the fear factor when necessary. At the start, some players wandered in at this time and that time. I said to them 'I expect everybody to be out on the training pitch at 10.15, because if you're not there we'll start without you. And if that happens you'll be disciplined.'"

He adds: "When I came here I said to them, 'You will fall in line with my way of doing things because I am not going to fall in line with yours. Yours is avoiding relegation. There's too many good players here for that.'"

Similarly, although the command "take up thy bed and walk" has a Biblical ring about it, Graham has taken a far from Christian attitude to some of those with injuries. "Players are here to play, not get a little brass plate on the treatment table reading, 'This is my bed'. Obviously I'm not talking about genuine injuries, but we've got to get players back and walking, and running, quicker. It's just that there are some footballers who are softer than others. I like players with great ability but who are mentally tough, which is why I bought Tim Sherwood." All of which suggests that Tottenham is in no danger of becoming a hot-bed of player- power. "It's always there, if the manager is weak," the Scot says dismissively. "I don't have a problem with it."

There is clearly not an ounce of self-doubt within that lean frame. "Of course there is," Graham retorts. "But you mustn't display it. People say I'm emotionless, but that's nonsense. There's nobody more passionate in the game. But I'm a bit of an actor. I keep it in check. That's why I'm good at my job. You mustn't lose it and do something stupid, or it makes the media's day."

Hence, there was no reaction to the howls of "Judas" on his return to Elland Road last Saturday. As far as he was concerned, Leeds were in his debt. "There was some hard groundwork to be done there, a lot of really nasty stuff to sort out," he says. "And now, hopefully, David [O'Leary] will take them on to be a really exciting team." His pupil's squad includes the teenagers Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate, who only became first- team players after Graham left and have since proved themselves prodigious talents. Graham shrugs off criticism from the Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, that he failed to introduce them. "I wouldn't do it simply because they were only 16 at the time. But they were always going to be real quality. My record of introducing young players is excellent. You only have to think of Tony Adams, who I made Arsenal captain at 21."

He adds: "David will do a great job. He's got that lovely Irish nature, but I've seen a hard, tough streak in him as well. As a manager, he's going to have to use that and he will. But the question mark is finance. Will he have enough money to complete the jigsaw, with a real quality player, a Yorke, a Cole, a Bergkamp, an Overmars, that costs big money?" Five months into Graham's tenure at White Hart Lane and, without radical surgery or massive outlay, the pounds 4m signing of Sherwood being the only expensive implant, the goals-conceded flow has been staunched to an acceptable 25 in 26 games, from a previous ratio of two a game.

Tottenham also have a Worthington Cup final date on 21 March.

Yet, there are still those churlish souls for whom Graham will never be a composite of Ronnie Burgess, Bill Nicholson, Keith Burkinshaw, and maybe a dash of Ossie Ardiles to flavour the finished minestrone, that they so demand in a Tottenham manager. Particularly with his near nine- year affair of the heart with the old enemy, Arsenal, during which they won six trophies, even if it culminated in him being regarded, according to his own words, as a "leper" when he was ignominiously dismissed and then banned by the FA for a year over the receipt of a "bung".

The north London rivalry is one that no rationale will dissipate. Witness how that Spurs supporter and comedian, the late Peter Cook, used to explain his antipathy to the Gunners, "They smell, don't they". Hence, any trophy Graham's Tottenham secure is tainted by association. "People go on to me about the Tottenham-Arsenal thing, and I have magnificent memories from Highbury," he says. "But I'm Tottenham now, through and through."

However, he recognises that it will require more than a repetition of that declaration to claim the hearts of the more demanding regulars at White Hart Lane because of his perceived emphasis on defence at the expense of entertainment. "I suppose a lot of people can criticise me in different ways and say I could be more exciting, more attractive with my teams. I've never said I was a genius, but I'm proud of the jobs I've done. I get it right at the back. I make them stop losing, and build from there. Do you know, I'd be an absolute hero if I was in American sport. I've got quite a few of their sports psychology books, and they just talk about winning. That's the American philosophy - and it's mine."

He adds: "Too many people talk about flair, but it's all such nonsense. There's a lot of people in football coming out with things like, 'we lost 3-2 today but we played the right way. We played the passing game'. They're probably at the job centre a couple of months later. I want to be excited, I want to go away from a game, saying 'Jesus, that shot, that save, that header'. I want a bit of magic, but one that has an end product."

Which brings him neatly to the subject of David Ginola. The smart money had been on the Frenchman to depart tout de suite come the utilitarian Graham's arrival. On the contrary, the winger with the sublime talents has demonstrated that he is indeed "a footballer, not a movie star" - to borrow from his L'Oreal advertisement - under a manager who has encouraged him to employ his gifts constructively.

"In training, as soon as he started, head down, beating legs, I'd stop everything and say, 'David, oh, no, no, no'." Graham wags his finger in schoolmasterly fashion to emphasise the point. "Simplicity is genius. I tell David that and talk to him about Pele. I bet you that 80 minutes out of every 90 he played was simple. Give it and pass it. For five to ten minutes you'd have genius and that's all people remember.

"I said to him, 'David, I want an end product to your play. You've got too much talent to be an entertainer. If I want to watch tricks, I'll go to a circus'. Some of his crossing this season has been magnificent. But he's got to score more goals."

Graham's purchases have been limited to just over pounds 6m thus far, and two- thirds of that on Sherwood, because he has felt no immediate requirement to strengthen the squad. "When you walk in, you think, 'Hm, going to need another centre-half, another right-back', then four or five months later, you think 'Christ, these players have improved.' Graham doesn't like to divulge names; however, his list would include the defenders Ramon Vega and Stephen Carr. However, he appreciates that next season will be far tougher, with fans' expectations so much more grandiose, even though he says pointedly: "Their expectations are no higher than mine."

As a winner already of two championships down the road, one thing is for sure. Whatever their reservations, the Tottenham faithful are unlikely to be disappointed by Graham's ambition.