Lee Dixon: 'Chelsea have changed every aspect of English football, for the worse'

Brian Viner interviews the former Arsenal and England defender reveals his problem with Abramovich's millions and gives a fascinating insight into the coaching skills of Wenger and Graham

"When you have a product to sell, which is less than exciting and the prices are going up, it's no wonder that people are turning their backs on it," says Dixon, who knows a bit about giving value for money. We are sitting, in glorious sunshine, on the terrace of the manifestly thriving restaurant he co-owns, the Riverside Brasserie overlooking the Thames at Bray Marina.

"There has been a distinct lack of goals," he adds, "and I've never heard so much mention of 4-5-1 so early in the season. It's as if there's so much fear of losing that teams are settling for a point, especially away from home. But the game's about players, not systems. I watched West Ham v Fulham last Saturday, and West Ham played a kind of 4-2-2-1-1, one of the weirdest formations I've ever seen. You could call it defensive, but it was a brilliant game, end to end, and West Ham had three, four, five players in the opposing box every time they attacked. It's about players, and how they interpret a system."

It is interesting, I remark, that Dixon is holding up promoted West Ham as an example to the rest, when the rest includes Chelsea, Manchester United and his own beloved Arsenal, for whom he played 623 games in 14 intermittently glorious years, scoring 27 goals. "Yeah, well, I know Arsène [Wenger] came out the other day and said that we have a duty to entertain, having a slight pop at Chelsea. But Chelsea play a style of football that's highly effective for them. Maybe, instead of having pops at Chelsea, everyone should put their own house in order."

Meaning, heaven forfend, that the Arsenal house isn't in order? "Well, last season was a transitional season, and I'd hoped they would push on from there, but it looks like this is going to be another transitional season.

"[Patrick] Vieira was a massive loss, both as a player and a role model for the younger lads. Arsène thinks the young lads can cope on their own, but I've got my doubts. I don't think we'll win the league, anyway. I think we're short in defence, lacking experience in the centre of midfield, and short of a striker. Basically, Arsenal have been blown out of the water by [Roman] Abramovich's millions."

It doesn't take long, even for an ex-Arsenal player who believes that it's wrong to take pops at Chelsea, to take a pop at Chelsea. When I ask Dixon whether he thinks that Abramovich's millions devalue the success that Chelsea have had, he does not equivocate.

"As a purist, yeah, I do. You can't deny they've bought the championship because without the money they wouldn't have won it, it's as simple as that.

"And in doing so they've completely changed every aspect of English football, for the worse. It was good to have another team to break up the Man United-Arsenal dominance, definitely, but the transfer market has been completely distorted. Everybody else is signing players Chelsea don't want.

"I know Arsène was very interested in Shaun Wright-Phillips, but he had to see whether Chelsea wanted him first. That can't be good for the game."

Could it be, I venture, that critics of Chelsea among Arsenal and Manchester United fans in particular are simply recoiling at the taste of their own medicine? After all, when Wenger was shelling out huge money for the likes of Jose Antonio Reyes, there were plenty of Premiership managers looking on with envy, unable to compete for such a hot property. The rest of us can hardly be expected to shed tears for Wenger and Alex Ferguson just because there's a bigger moneybags in town.

"No, point taken, but there's always been a bit of competition, and that's not the case any more. A monopoly situation in any industry is not good, and as a player I don't know whether I would want to be involved in that.

"Obviously it's great to get 80 grand a week, but at Arsenal we always felt that if we worked hard and played well we would be rewarded with a new contract. We had to earn the right to feel part of something, and I'm not so sure that players at Chelsea have that feeling. [Jose] Mourinho can change whoever he wants whenever he wants. What kind of security does that bring as a player?"

Dixon's career, it occurs to me in the light of yesterday's reports that the Wigan chairman Dave Whelan wants Premiership players' wages to be capped, coincided almost exactly with football's salary explosion. It is one reason why he keeps being asked if he will write his autobiography, but keeps refusing, preferring to keep his fund of stories for the golf club bar. A three-handicapper and self-proclaimed golf obsessive, he has formed a company called Back Four Productions, which specialises in small corporate golf days, at which he and one of his famous mates such as Tony Adams, David Seaman or Will Carling, will take out half a dozen businessmen for 18 holes, followed by dinner.

The company name, of course, refers to the great Arsenal defence of which he, at right-back, was a key component. Not that he foresaw such distinction on the day in 1988 that he sat in George Graham's car at Watford Gap service station, discussing a possible move from Stoke City.

"I went down with [his manager at Stoke] Mick Mills, who had about 159 million England caps, so I believed him when he said 'you've really made it now, you can't earn less than £1,000 a week in the First Division'. I was on £500 a week at Stoke, so those figures blew me away.

"Anyway, George was waiting there with Steve Burtenshaw, his chief scout, and when we arrived Mick and Steve went in for a cup of tea, and I got into George's car. He went into this big opportunities speech, about me being part of something he was building, and in the end he offered me 50 quid a week more than I was earning at Stoke. I was shocked. I said I was expecting a better offer, and he said 'what do you want?' Well, I'm 22, I've been to London twice in my life, I've no agent. I'm like 'come back Mick!' I said 'I want £1,000' and he burst out laughing. He said 'I've got internationals not on that'.

"Mick nearly crashed the car when I told him what the offer was. And when I got home I phoned George and said I couldn't go, I couldn't afford to move my family to London on that. He put the phone down on me. Then Steve Burtenshaw phoned Brian Talbot, who was at Stoke, and said 'we've got Lee all wrong, we didn't know he was just money-orientated', which broke my heart, because it's not true. I phoned George back and said 'I need to see you.' I'd been offered £650 to stay at Stoke, and in the end he made a revised offer of £750. So I sold my house in Stoke for £35,000 and bought one in Hertfordshire for £174,000. My mortgage went up five-fold overnight.

"I was so broke. I kept having to phone my dad and say 'I'm a bit tight this month, dad'."

Not only did Graham hate to spend the club's money, he was a notoriously harsh taskmaster. He was also, of course, a brilliant manager who delivered exactly what he had promised in the car at Watford Gap. So when Dixon later found out that the manager had been taking "bungs", he felt conflicting emotions.

"He'd made us work our socks off and earn every penny, so to learn he'd been taking backhanders, that tainted it a bit. I've never spoken to him about it. I've bumped into him half a dozen times since, and we get on well, but it's still a teacher/pupil, sergeant-major/soldier relationship. I couldn't imagine him giving me a hug."

Surely he didn't get hugs from Wenger either? "No, but you get hugs in other ways from Arsène. His bond with the players is based on total respect, both ways, which is warming. I should add that George was the best coach I ever played under. He taught me how to defend, while Arsène allowed me to become more expressive. George would never let me go over the halfway line if the ball was wide on the left. But Arsène gives you the confidence to make up your own mind. He says 'you're actually a very good footballer. If you think it's right to go, then go'. His teams pass the ball and move, and his strength is picking players to fit into that framework. Obviously he makes tactical changes but in general we used to coach ourselves."

Dixon chuckles. "That first pre-season after Bruce Rioch [Graham's successor, another hard taskmaster] left, Arsène came in and on the first day of training we did two 12-minute jogs around the pitch. And he kept stopping us because we were going too quick. Then we had a rest, then a stretch, and he said 'off you go'. We're like 'er, when do we go on the 15-mile hike up a hill and be sick?' After 10 days we pulled in Tony Adams.

"We said 'you've got to see him, the season starts in two weeks and we're nowhere near fit enough'. He told Tony [cue a convincing impression of the Frenchman], 'it will be OK'. And Tony says, 'with due respect boss, you don't really know us. We need to do more than this.' Arsène goes 'it is OK. You will be fine.'

"Then we played the Charity Shield against Man United, and on the Friday I'm saying to Tony 'there's no way I can get through 90 minutes'. I hadn't played one full game in pre-season. But Arsène kept saying everything would be fine, and sure enough we beat them 3-0. We were running for fun, and I thought 'I can't understand where all this fitness is coming from'. It blew me away, how he knew. I played in the Premiership until I was 38, and there was no way I could have done that without him."

The same omniscience does not extend to all foreign managers of outwardly calm demeanour, however. Dixon, who won 22 England caps, believes that Sven Goran Eriksson is "a lovely bloke" without the skills required to lead England to World Cup glory. "I met him years ago when we played Lazio, in the tunnel before the game. He made a point of shaking my hand and saying that it was really nice to meet me, and nothing's changed my opinion of him as lovely bloke. But whether he can inspire a team to win the World Cup I have deep reservations.

"There have been times when the team has needed inspiration that didn't seem to be forthcoming, times he's made substitutions that staggered me. Nobody would pick different players, it's what you do with those players when the opposition are forcing themselves. I'm worried that he hasn't got an answer, and if those doubts are in my mind, in your mind, then they're in the players' minds too."

All of which is easy enough to say on a warm afternoon watching swans glide along the river, but Dixon says it articulately. He might yet prove to be as good a signing for Match of the Day as he was for Arsenal. And I don't suppose he had to quibble about the money.

Lee Dixon appears on Match of the Day tomorrow at 10.30pm on BBC1

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