Football: Ten years after, the fab four go rolling on

Nick Callow records the Highbury anniversary beckoning an enduring defence
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TONY ADAMS said last week that Arsenal would not have won the title with Ian Wright in their side at the end of last season and that they will not necessarily miss the club's greatest ever goalscorer now that he is at West Ham. Quite a statement from the Arsenal captain.

Such sentiments would notcause such a stir had he been speaking about his less illustrious team-mate Steve Bould, or any of the other fellow members of the most accomplished defence an English club, and possibly European, has ever assembled. But they should, because it is the men at the backwho make Highbury tick.

In an era when players swap clubs more often than an angry golfer, Adams, Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Lee Dixon and, more recently, Martin Keown, represent more than an anomalous group of players; they are downright weird.

They are also downright impressive, having between them played a significant part in the winning of three championships, two FA Cups, the European Cup-Winners' Cup and a couple of League Cups too.

When Bould steps out at Wembley for today's Charity Shield against Manchester United, it will mark a remarkable 10th anniversary for Arsenal's defenders. With Adams, Dixon and Winterburn already installed at Highbury, and a League Cup in the bag, Bould made his Arsenal debut at Wimbledon in August 1988 and marked the start of an era.

Like Dixon, he had been signed from Stoke City (the pair cost a lot less than pounds 1m combined) and was ready to accept a supporting role. Bould admitted as much last week. "I didn't think I would get in the team as George [Graham, the then manager] had made it clear I was really cover for David O'Leary, but I played in that first game of the season against Wimbledon, alongside Tony.

"After 10 minutes we were 1-0 down and I'd had a nightmare. It was my fault for the goal, I should have picked up John Fashanu at the far post, and everyone was wondering what was going on - that includes me and 12,000 Arsenal fans at the ground. I could almost hear them saying: `Who have we bought here?'"

Not for too long. Arsenal ended up 5-1 winners that day and went on to win the title. Bould played 28 games, including the final one at Anfield when he partnered both O'Leary and Adams in the 2-0 victory which took the title to Highbury for the first time in 18 years.

The silverware has been flowing fairly freely ever since. Managers have come and gone, David Seaman has replaced John Lukic as the goalkeeper, but the names of those just in front of him have remained the same.

The only real exceptions to that are Andy Linighan, the scorer of the FA Cup winning goal in 1993, and now Keown. The latter had grown up at Arsenal with Adams and Graham and his reintroduction after misguided spells at Aston Villa and Everton has been seamless.

The reason? George Graham. Bould explained: "We've all been raised the same way and I think we've all got a lot to thank George Graham for. Basically, his methods are the ones we've used ever since.

"When a new manager comes in you expect changes to be made, but we know each other's game so well and have remained so ambitious that we have made it hard for the coaches, whether it be Bruce Rioch or Arsene Wenger, to bring in new faces.

"George trained us as a defence every day for four years - every single day. It was monotonous and boring sometimes, but look at the results.

"The other players used to think it was funny when George took us off. We were the daily training-ground joke. It petered out towards the end of his reign; maybe he thought we knew what we were doing by then."

Training is far from boring now. Bould says Wenger makes it different every day - every single day - and credits the Frenchman's forward thinking in the areas of both coaching and diet for adding at least two years on to his career.

He concedes that they cannot stay together forever, though, and that is a factor close to Wenger's heart. He has already signed the outstanding youngsters Matthew Upson, David Grondin and the Argentinian World Cup defender Nelson Vivas to ease the transition, but he seems in no hurry to carry it out.

"We may never see their like again, but I will only make changes when they have a series of poor games and their recovery time slows down," Wenger said. "But there is no sign of that yet. They have all come through pre-season training as well as anyone else and, remember, it was Nigel Winterburn who played most games for us last season, our eldest player at 34."

Their chief spokesman, however, remains Adams the skipper. "They keep writing us off every summer, don't they? Maybe the end is nearer, but there is a lot of life left in us yet."