Football: Sutton the key to Graham's thinking: Ambitious Arsenal to build on European success by buying English. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
THERE ARE not too many managers qualified to give Alex Ferguson advice, but George Graham has matched him title for title, cup for cup, and is offering a word to the wise. If you want to win in Europe, buy English.

Graham was speaking from a position of some strength, having just added the Cup-Winners' Cup to his impressive collection of battle honours with a team who started with just one player not eligible to represent England - the midfield reserve, Stephen Morrow.

Manchester United, in contrast, prospered at home but perished abroad when a foreign legion recruited from Denmark, Russia, France, Wales and the Republic of Ireland was curtailed in the European Cup by Uefa's restriction on those it terms non-nationals.

'United definitely suffered in Europe because they couldn't play all their foreigners,' Graham said, adding that Arsenal had beaten Parma 1-0 in Wednesday's final with a nucleus of half a dozen youth-team products.

If the inference was clear, that Graham's success was born of good husbandry rather than cheque-book management, Ferguson has a game, set and match return. United have won the greater prizes - the League in successive seasons - playing football light years ahead of Arsenal's systematic hustling.

In fairness, it is a point Graham is willing to concede. 'Let's have it right,' he said, 'we were defending for most of the game on Wednesday night. I would like to be able to attack a bit more - to play with a bit more style. Manchester United have got that right now, we're trying to get it right as well.'

On the domestic front, Arsenal are destined to trail in fourth in the Premiership, some 20 points behind Ferguson's champions. Graham accepts that the League table is like George Washington. It never lies. 'It speaks for itself,' he said. 'Manchester United are the best team. Blackburn Rovers are second, and there are two or three others contesting the minor places behind them.

'We know our strengths and weaknesses. We went through a long spell drawing a lot of games, and that wasn't by accident. We don't like being beaten, and not losing is always our priority. There's nothing wrong with having a good defence, you know. It's a big plus.'

True enough. Disciplined, resolute resistance characterised Arsenal's first European triumph for a generation - since 'Stroller' Graham was providing the ammunition for Kelly, Sammels and Radford to gun down Anderlecht in the 1970 Fairs Cup final.

Tony Adams may have been derided as a donkey in the not too distant past, but nobody is braying now. The England centre-half was a heroic, inspirational figure throughout the European odyssey, the totem all eyes turned to when the going got tough.

Adams was ably supported by his centre-back partner, Steve Bould, whose saving tackle on Faustino Asprilla in the first minute set the tone in Copenhagen on Wednesday.

Against Parma, as was the case against Torino and Paris St-Germain in previous rounds, Arsenal were second best in terms of flair and technique, but clear winners when it came to the good old British virtues of mental fortitude and application. Steadfast in defence and diligent in midfield, they maintained their concentration and shape to stifle clever opponents who had been odds- on favourites to retain the cup.

The midfield reserves, Morrow and Ian Selley, rose to the occasion to ensure that John Jensen's absence was not the debility it might have been, and Alan Smith's canny, match-winning performance as the lone striker in a tight 4-5-1 formation was such that the other notable absentee, Ian Wright, was hardly missed.

Lack of the sort of individual je ne sais quoi which sees Cantona, Giggs or Kanchelskis turn and win games will let them down over a League season, but Arsenal's collective spirit will always make them a formidable proposition in one-off cup combat.

Smith, who supplied the winner on Wednesday, typifies an ability to raise their game for the big one. The Brummie beanpole is in decline, but his meagre haul of seven goals this season includes two in Europe.

One thing Graham is never likely to be accused of is sentimentality, and Smith's reward for satisfying his manager's European aspirations could be an early transfer down the League. The fortune Arsenal have made from this season's run, and stand to make from their defence of the cup, will bankroll at least one major signing during the summer, the priority being a striker to share Wright's goalscoring burden.

Graham is likely to choose between Les Ferdinand, of Queen's Park Rangers, and Chris Sutton, with Sutton's greater reliability, in fitness terms, making the Norwich City man the favourite.

Continental sources report an Arsenal interest in Denmark's Brian Laudrup, but Graham's rigid wage structure and declared preference for English players would seem to rule out shopping in Milan.

Changes next season? Graham avoided the question, saying success in football was transient, and that he and the players who had achieved it deserved to enjoy the moment.

Not even Parma were inclined to argue, their coach, Nevio Scala, describing Arsenal as worthy winners. And so say all of us.