Graham remains loyal to Arsenal

FOOTBALL: Sacked manager backs 'his' team to win tomorrow's European Cup-Winners' Cup final. Ken Jones reports
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The Independent Online
In response to the question of how he will feel when Arsenal defend the European Cup-Winners' Cup against Real Zaragoza in Paris tomorrow, George Graham was unequivocal. "I'll be with Stewart Houston and the players all the way," he said.

Almost three months after a Premier League inquiry into alleged transfer irregularities led to his summary dismissal, Arsenal's former manager looked fit, square of shoulder and springy of tread, his eyes bright and challenging.

There is bitterness, too, but it remains Graham's team, his philosophy; he spoke about resilience, togetherness. "British football is famous for it," he said. "We may fall short technically, but our morale is respected everywhere.

"I reminded the players of that before last year's final. The response was tremendous and I'm sure Stewart [Houston] will get just as much out of them. It has been a difficult time for Stewart and I don't know what the immediate future holds for him, but I'm convinced that he will make a good manager."

Graham believes a one-off game on a neutral ground is to Arsenal's advantage. "They've got the experience, and history shows that when our teams reach a European final they are extremely difficult to beat," he argued.

"Because the Premiership's two most powerful clubs, Manchester United and Blackburn, failed in Europe this season, a lot of questions are being asked about English football, so Arsenal are carrying a great deal of responsibility. I'm convinced that the players can cope and for their sake, for Stewart's sake, I want them to win."

Resisting a powerful urge to be in close proximity to the team he built and schooled, preferring discreetly to watch on television, Graham's regard for the club he provided with six major trophies in eight seasons, achievements second only to those of the greatly revered Herbert Chapman, ends right there.

Since Arsenal's decision to fire him was taken in February, after months of speculation and when he was still permitted to spend heavily in the transfer market, Graham has been building a case against disrepute charges brought by the Football Association, who are probably embarrassed by the Premier League's constitutional abdication.

Whatever the moral issue, some serious questions are bound to be asked of Graham's former employers at a hearing so nervously anticipated by the FA, as a consequence of Alan Sugar's successful efforts for Tottenham Hotspur last year, that they have engaged counsel.

Why, Graham's legal advisors will ask, did Arsenal renege suddenly on an agreement to pay him off at the end of this season?

What was discussed when Peter Hill-Wood, the Arsenal chairman, and Sir John Quinton, the Premiership chairman, met shortly before Graham was informed that he was finished at Highbury?

What explanation do Arsenal have for the lapse of time between Graham owning up to the receipt of what he claims to have been an unsolicited gift from the Norwegian agent, Rune Hauge, and their decision to fire him without a hearing?

Were Arsenal, in common with others, unaware that transfer fees paid to clubs overseas included payments to players and their agents?

Cleared personally, Graham is being pressed by the Inland Revenue to reveal details of all transfer negotiations conducted by Arsenal during his stewardship.

Confident that any attempt to impose an indefinite international suspension would be blown apart by a restraint of trade action, Graham's lawyers will press for the right to cross-examine witnesses, which could cause Arsenal and the Premier League considerable embarrassment.

Because Graham was solid in the belief that Arsenal would remain true to a tradition of settling their affairs internally, he remains baffled by the suddenness of their decision to show him the door.

Meanwhile, wondering what the outcome would have been if Arsenal had been in contention for the Premiership when his conduct was called into question, he remains solidly behind the players who will represent the club at Parc des Princes tomorrow.

"I'll be with them in spirit," he said. "In the dressing-room, on the touchline. I know their faults, what they are good at. I'll be willing them to win, probably screaming at them, raging at what I see on television."

Is it only a year since George Graham was firmly installed as one of the greatest figures in Arsenal's history? Considering the course that his career has taken since then, it is more like a lifetime.