Football: Question of conscience for fans

Cynicism flowed down the Seven Sisters Road yesterday. Andrew Longmore reports on George's day
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The Independent Online
IT TAKES a villain of pantomime quality to unite rival supporters on a Saturday afternoon. George Graham, he of the jutting chin and the receding hairline, can add a line to his considerable curriculum vitae. It takes a rare mess to reduce the supporters of Leeds United to philosophical asides. Football's gift for misinformation managed that, too. "Stand up if you want the truth" sang the little enclave of Leeds fans stacked away in the corner of White Hart Lane. The cry was accorded a standing ovation from every corner, followed by the more predictable Tottenham riposte: "Stand up if you hate Arsenal." Point taken. Off the field and on it, in the end. "Thank God it wasn't 0-0," Graham joked.

Kick-off was delayed by 10 minutes. Depending on who you believed, the cause was: a) a crush of spectators outside; b) coffee at the Sugar-Graham lunch date was a bit delayed; or c) the ink on the contract had taken an extra few minutes to dry. Cynicism flowed down the Seven Sisters Road yesterday.

At half-time, Media Monitor, which appears on the Spurs internet site, was advertising a service to fans. "Ring up to see if the stories about your club are true or false." It could provide no less information than yesterday's Tottenham programme. Pravda could not have operated a stricter censorship on the little matter of who would be the next manager. The introductory programme notes were anonymous. It was left to David Pleat to enlighten us. "The real truth is that Mr Sugar has flown to America to see about Hurricane George," he said. Only joking, I think.

During quieter periods, those of more fertile imagination put their minds to work on the text of Graham's team talk. "I'm going outside now, I may be some time." The only unanswered question was not if, but how much. A million seemed to be the haggling rate for compensation.

Graham wisely decided to take his place in the stands not on the touchline, given the battery of photographers. From the press box, all you could see was a flash of a handsome wrist watch above the hoarding for Hewlett Packard, Tottenham's sponsors. When he appeared for the second half, he turned left to the away bench, to the thundering sound of apathy. Either the Leeds hordes, whose first-half chants had degenerated to a simple "F... off, Graham" and, after each of the goals, "Georgie, what's the score?", had missed their big moment or they were still digesting the half-time plea by the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, to get behind the manager. Ridsdale's quaint belief was that his man might be swayed by something as arcane as crowd support. The second half began in stony silence. Perhaps Leeds really want Georgie, after all.

Spurs supporters have yet to be convinced by the credentials of a committed Arsenal man. Most were busy playing a game of Scruples with their conscience. A typical sentence began "You've got to respect him as a manager, but...". "Loyal supporters" as the Leeds crowd sang. Terry Neill, the only previous incumbent of the hot seats at Arsenal and Tottenham, found the transition less than comfortable. Graham is a tougher character altogether, but trophies would have to come fast to dissipate the lingering discomfort. "You need someone with a rhinoceros skin," as David Pleat said. Graham's is steel plate. "I thought the fans were good," Graham said. "When I saw the hype down here, I thought I had better put my armour on."

And what of Pleat, whose appearance on the touchline caused a flurry of support? Minutes before scheduled kick-off, he lent on the tunnel wall and chatted to colleagues, while the public address system expounded his philosophy of football. "Simple game... the best teams keep the ball and pass it quickly and we have players who can do that." Leeds had more, as Graham doubtless pondered on the journey back north. He would have disowned the first two goals, both set-piece headers from corners.

To add to the surreal air, a single protestor invaded the pitch midway through the second half. He sat down cross-legged and gestured impolitely in the general direction of the main stand. Quite what his message was, which side of the fence he was on or where he had come from, no one could divine. His appearance at least seemed to galvanise Tottenham, who hauled themselves back into the game soon after. Graham's face turned to thunder as he brought on another defender, to no avail. Campbell's last-minute header capped a hazy, crazy day. "The new George Graham approach, keep the fans happy," Graham said, his smile as warm as a stiletto. The Tottenham fans kept their nastiness to the end, a group of them blocking and then attacking the Leeds team coach as it headed north.

Graham as manager of Tottenham? It would be like putting Captain Hook in charge of The Lost Boys.

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