Graham grimly reaping

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The Independent Online
Smartly attired - blazer, club tie, bright red scarf wide as a prayer shawl falling from his shoulders - George Graham was lecturing on the art of survival. "The important thing is to be in the draw for the next round," Arsenal's manager said.

Nothing given away. Not by Graham's team in a fiercely contested, graceless Cup tie at the Den. Even less personally.

What goes on behind the sardonic smile that has become Graham's first line of defence? Unsurprisingly, he looks older, but the demeanour is impenetrable. Some of his closest friends find the composure baffling.

It is no longer a case of changing the subject because in public Graham's eyes do not permit the subject of his future at Highbury to appear on the agenda. If they communicate inner emotional disturbance they demand discretion. Graham is touchy on professional subjects too. Sensing dissatisfaction with Arsenal's performance, he said: "The positive information is that we've now played 10 Cup games this season, won seven and drawn three. That says it all."

Hardly. There was the matter of inflammatory remarks attributed to Ian Wright on Saturday morning that provoked a malevolent section of Millwall's supporters. English football cannot afford to ignore the issue of racism, but in the circumstances Wright was exceedingly foolish. "I didn't see the articles," Graham insisted, declining an offer to be acquainted with them.

Until recently, Graham was seldom exposed to the public in a vulnerable position, when he wasn't in complete command of everything within a 10-mile radius. Wright's imprudence served to undermine that impression.

Graham proved himself a winner by being smarter than most of the competition, because he imposed his will on his players with the sheer force of his personality. Now he has a team who do not appear entirely sure of where they are going. Tony Adams is a great loss, but his absence does not fully explain the failings. "Arsenal are not a great side by any means," Millwall's manager, Mick McCarthy, said. "I thought we were better for long periods. If they come at us in the replay, then I think we'll get something. I thought we could and should have won it today."

It is too easy to say that Arsenal are in serious decline and Graham has run out of ideas. However, the available evidence suggests that his future depends on more than dressing- room oratory. A touch of creativity might improve matters considerably.

Never mind what has gone before, losing is all the chemistry that fans need to elect to boot a manager into a vat of sulphuric acid. In addition Arsenal fans, spoiled by success, convey a feeling of manifest destiny, that the normal cycle of ups and downs should not apply to them.

The basic fact about professional footballers is that they will put up with most of what is asked of them if you win. No doubts could be expressed about Arsenal's commitment - "a lot of teams would have buckled in this sort of atmosphere," Graham insisted - but perhaps the experience is no longer pleasurable.

The FA Cup is supposed to provide English football with its most heart-warming spectacle because underdogs can be shockingly disrespectful in their enthusiasm.

This match served to remind us that football is not always a terrific thing; that there are powerful opportunists getting in the way of technical improvement. Ironically, the type of player George Graham was would, unquestionably, have improved the spectacle.

Millwall (4-4-2): Keller; Dawes, Thatcher (Kennedy, 70), Roberts, Witter; Stevens, Savage, Rae, Cadette; Mitchell, Van Blerk. Substitutes not used: Webber, Carter (gk).

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Linighan, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Jensen (Keown, 82) Hillier, Schwarz; Smith (Campbell, 82), Wright. Substitute not used: Bartram (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

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