Graham fights to escape 'that Arsenal thing'

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Tottenham are eighth in the Premiership, with a scoring record only exceeded by five clubs, have taken 13 points from 15 at home and recently lavished £11m on Sergei Rebrov, one of the most coveted strikers in Europe. From regularly flirting with relegation they have become established in the safe pastures of mid-table. So how does a section of the White Hart Lane crowd react to George Graham? By booing his players off the pitch - when they are winning - and organising a campaign calling for his dismissal.

Tottenham are eighth in the Premiership, with a scoring record only exceeded by five clubs, have taken 13 points from 15 at home and recently lavished £11m on Sergei Rebrov, one of the most coveted strikers in Europe. From regularly flirting with relegation they have become established in the safe pastures of mid-table. So how does a section of the White Hart Lane crowd react to George Graham? By booing his players off the pitch - when they are winning - and organising a campaign calling for his dismissal.

"Why, George?" I ask, as we sit in his spacious office at the club's Chigwell training ground, though the fact that the bare walls lack the photographs of past triumphs which adorn some managers' offices gives the game away.

"It's purely personal, it's the Arsenal thing," admits the man who not only won nine trophies for Spurs' hated rivals, as player and manager, but was so steeped in the lore of the marble halls that he built the Gunners' crest into his garden patio. He adds: "The sad thing is - sad for them, not me - there is a small group here who will not accept me. They are now using the websites to organise a demonstration, arranging when to boo and what to chant. They are creating a situation to get someone the sack - me. If they can keep on at it, and we lose a couple of games, then others will join in."

After years of being reviled, for "boring, boring, Arsenal", for the "bung", for walking out on Leeds, Graham has developed a thick skin. "I don't like it, but I can take it," he said. His players, though, are finding it harder to bear and that has upset their manager.

"I won't tolerate it affecting players because we are working hard, this morning we were in preparation for Chelsea [who Spurs visit today]. I have an honest bunch here, they may not be the best but they are honest. At half-time on Saturday [when leading Derby 2-1] we were booed off.

"The players came in and said: 'Listen to them, boss, what can we do? We've had a bad 10 minutes but we've played superb'. So I want to tell them to get off the players' backs, it affects their confidence and confidence is a wonderful thing in a football team."

Of course, it is not just "the Arsenal thing" - Graham's reputation for producing dour teams does not help his cause, with the press and supporters always looking for evidence of his negativity. "I just have to smile at it," he said. "If I was really like that I'd be taking Stephen Carr's legs off for going over the half-way line all the time, he's like a winger. No-one ever says: 'What's George Graham doing letting him attack like that, that's disgraceful?' I want Ben Thatcher to do the same but he's finding the transition difficult because that wasn't encouraged at Wimbledon." Graham says in his opinion Carr is the best right-back in the country, which should help him in his ongoing contract negotiations.

Under Tottenham's management structure, wages are not Graham's concern, though he is the one who has to work within the resources that Alan Sugar allocates for salaries and transfers.

These, for many fans, are inadequate and their ire will increase if, as everyone expects, Sol Campbell leaves on a free this summer, but Graham and Sugar seem to understand one another better than might be imagined.

In particular, both appear to have agreed that putting Spurs up where their image, if not their record, demands is going to be a long-term job.

Sounding very much like a Railtrack official discussing the problems wrought by decades of under-investment, Graham said: "There are big clubs which, for their reputation, are under-achieving. Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle. All three are now managed by managers with tremendous CVs. Walter Smith, who won seven or eight championships in Scotland consecutively, goes to Everton - a big club needing to be revitalised - and just avoided relegation.

"At Newcastle there is Bobby Robson, a messiah in the north-east - though, as someone said to me: 'They've only got two points more than you, he's a messiah and you're getting booed'. All of us get capacity gates but we have fallen so far behind, over so many years, that it is not going to be put right in two years, not these days, not anymore.

"When I came in I realised half the playing staff were not good enough. There are three avenues to bring in new players: the youth policy - have I got any kids that are ready? Bargains - backing your judgement and buying four or five players; and ready-made stars - top dollar.

"At Arsenal I was fortunate, there were a lot of young players ready to come through. At Leeds I brought in 'bargains' [not all were hits, but they included Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Alf Inge Haaland].

"Here there was nothing coming through the youth policy. And if you come into a club that has just avoided relegation, like us, Everton, and Newcastle to an extent, there is no way you can spend all your budget - mine was £15m - on two or three players, you need six to eight.

"That is the difficulty. People blame me, the chairman, the club, but once you've gone down the road of being potential relegation candidates, unless someone throws £60 to £80m at it - and even that has gone wrong in the past - it is not going to be quick.

"The fans don't want to know because we are living in a fast-track world, we want success and we want it today. The chairman understands, but I can't get it over to the fans. I think the club is in a much better position than when I took over. There is direction at the training ground, people come in here to work. When I came there was a swagger about 90 per-cent of the players for just avoiding relegation. I could not believe that."

Now he feels he has gone a long way to doing "the dirty work", the clearing out of dead wood and stagnant attitudes, just as he did at Millwall, Arsenal and Leeds. Millwall went on to reach the top flight, Arsenal gained several trophies, Leeds look like doing so. How much further Graham, or anybody, can take Spurs without huge investment is, however, open to debate.

The glory, glory club has won one trophy in nine years - the Worthington Cup under its present manager - and last took the title in 1961, the Double year. Are expectations too high? "I have to be careful what I say because I'll upset the fans, but I'm a realist, I deal in facts. Tell me, when were the last two consecutive seasons Spurs have contested the championship?" Graham asked.

It took a trawl through the record books and a call to a Spurs fan to discover the answer. Not since the early 1960s, and the break-up of the Double side.

Graham added: "A good side is a good one for five to eight years, then you have built something, it is no accident you are challenging.

"I would like to build a side here which challenges for three to five years, then I will know I have done a good job. Though for certain fans, because I'm ex-Arsenal, that won't be enough."

Ex-Chelsea as well, as a player. A smile breaks across his face as he ponders today's return to the Kings' Road neighbourhood he cut a swathe through in his youth. "Those were the fun years," he said.

Unlike now? "I love it, I love football. I left school at 15 to join Aston Villa and I don't know anything else. I've been a manager 18 years and I still quite enjoy it."

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