Football: The strain of London's yearning

Ian Ridley asks George Graham to explain the capital's failings in the title race
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The Independent Online
TODAY Arsenal take on Chelsea at Highbury; tomorrow Crystal Palace and Wimbledon meet at Selhurst Park. The matches have considerable significance for both the championship and relegation respectively, but perhaps not as much for the rest of the country as the capital assumes, hard as it may be for southern editions to believe.

London football is a bloated beast, its self-importance fuelled by expectation engendered by the national media based in its midst. However, its record scarcely deserves the reputation. In 94 League campaigns, the champions of England have come from the capital only 13 times. Of those titles, 10 have gone to Arsenal. Despite all the fuss made about their size and history, Tottenham have won the championship twice, Chelsea just once.

There are many theories why it should be that London can gather itself for cup occasions but underachieve over the more demanding season-long competition. A softer way of life and the draining effects of so many derby matches are just two.

Probably the man best placed to judge is George Graham. Over the past decade, his Arsenal - champions in 1989 and 91 - have been the only club to come close to emulating the power and passion, if not the panache, that Alex Ferguson has fostered in Manchester United. Now with Leeds, Graham believes that it has indeed been harder for a southern club to win the title.

"It has been the same in Italy where the northern clubs dominate," he said. "And while Spain may be an exception, the industrial cities are always more successful than the capital. I'm sure it's to do with having more working-class support to draw on, which transmits itself to the players. There is passion in a certain amount of the Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham supporters - but more in the north."

Does the "soft-life" theory hold water? Graham agrees that there are more distractions in London, but added: "The main problem in the south is that you can't keep as much control of the players away from the stadium and the training ground. London is just so big and the players live so far apart. In smaller cities, you know more or less what everybody is up to."

With London clubs able to attract a better quality of overseas player in these post-Bosman days - Dennis Bergkamp, Gianfranco Zola - isn't any title challenge likely to be strengthened?

"It is true that the majority of foreign players want to come to London because they feel it is one of the liveliest cities in the world and they can have a private life where they are not pestered," said Graham. "In fact, I know that if Leeds are in for a player in competition with a London club, the likelihood is that he will go to London.

"But I think you need a majority of home-grown talent and to instill that camaraderie and discipline at a young age. Alex knows the value of having half his team domestic at United and I had it at Arsenal, with the likes of Michael Thomas and David Rocastle. You need that collective spirit to make a collective challenge.

"That will be what Arsenal and Chelsea now have to achieve. They have the individuals, but do they have the teamwork? Arsenal have got to get that back. Chelsea have got to get it." There is another idea that players are all the better for moving north. Would David Beckham, for example, have been the same player had he stayed with, say, Tottenham rather than come under Ferguson's tutelage? "It is down to the manager more than the geography," Graham insists, though he concedes that the media spotlight is less oppressive in the north.

Graham also concurs with the theory that local derbies take their toll, even though every game for United nowadays means adrenalin-charged opposition. "I have been in derbies as player and manager and I know how much they mean. The underdogs are so hyped. There is always more evenness to the games and that is detrimental to a London challenge."

Statistics are inconclusive. In 1994-95, Tottenham finished as London's top team in seventh spot, but a place in Europe was lost because they drew half of their 12 derbies. Crystal Palace also drew six and were relegated.

Last season, Arsenal had a splendid record in derbies, winning four and drawing three of their eight. Five defeats by United, Liverpool and Newcastle were more their problem. But the local tussles drained them so much that only twice did they win a derby and their next match.

Arsenal's third place was the best by any London club since the Premiership was formed and today's match would seem to offer, for both sides at Highbury, a stepping stone to going one better, at the very least. The North-west, meanwhile, will probably take consolation in watching the dog-eat-dog nature of another capital confrontation.