George Graham went on the offensive last night hours after his sacking by Arsenal, declaring through his solicitors that he would "vigorously contest" the decision and calling for an open inquiry by the Football Association.
His reign, hugely successful and largely distinguished, had been ended earlier in the day when Arsenal's board responded to the findings of a Premiership inquiry that their manager had pocketed a slice of the transfer fee paid to the Danish club, Brndby, for John Jensen in August 1992 and that there was no defence for his actions. The findings will be made public tomorrow.
Graham's reaction was one of anger and disappointment. He accused his former employers of making a "kangaroo court" judgement, described the allegations against him as "nonsense" and claimed he was deserving of far more loyalty.
The Arsenal chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, explaining the decision of the eight-man board, said Graham had not acted "in the best interests of the club." In his own statement Graham hit back saying: "I have made the welfare of Arsenal my sole objective for the eight and a half years I have been the manager and my track record shows my success. Before that I played for Arsenal for seven years and so I can demonstrate more than 15 years of total commitment to the club. The allegations are nonsense.
"I deeply regret that this kangaroo court judgement should have been reached in such a hole-in-the-corner way. My record of loyalty and service demanded better treatment. I believe this matter should be fully investigated by the Football Association. What is the future for football if standards of justice inside the game can be ignored in this way?"
Arsenal had taken their decision yesterday even with the team facing an important game last night against Nottingham Forest, and even with a European Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final against Auxerre little more than a week away.
Stewart Houston, Graham's assistant, was put in charge of the side for the Forest game and will have talks with the chairman, Peter Hill-Wood today. He also immediately joined a list of likely successors that included Steve Coppell, ironically part of the three-man Premiership inquiry team. Graham will not be compensated for the remainder of his £300,000-a-year contract, which was due to run until May 1997.
Graham's demise came soon after 1pm in an official statement from the club running to exactly 100 words. You could sense in it the reluctance in making the decision but there was also the feeling of relief that the threatening cloud hanging over the north London club for four months could now begin to disperse.
A few hours earlier, at a meeting in the same boardroom where together they had toasted more triumphs and good times than a football manager has any right, Hill-Wood gave Graham the news he had been fearing ever since the Inland Revenue and football's bung-busters announced they were on his trail.
"I cannot recall a sadder day," Hill-Wood said. "For me it was very difficult but George was very calm and sensible about it. I suspect he thought it may be the reason I had asked to see him. It is very sad for me. The saddest for me at the club. I said to George that I was sorry it came to this. We have had some very happy times together and he has been very successful. I speak for everyone n the board when I say that. They have great admiration for what he has achieved and what he stood for."
With two championships, three cups and a European crown on the sideboard, Graham, 50, appeared to feel untouchable as the Highbury king. His mistake was to think his immense record as a succesful manager left him immune to criticism from inside one of football's biggest institutions.
He he never denied the allegation that he took £285,000, from the Norwegian agent, Rune Hauge, who was involved in negotiating the Jensen transfer. He is said to believe it to be an unsolicitated gift. When questions were asked following Arsenal's visit to Brndby in October for the Cup- Winners' Cup second-round tie, and after talks between the rival directors, Graham returned the money in full. Since it was first revealed that the Inland Revenue had queried the payment as part of an investigation with the Norwegian tax authorities Graham has insisted that he "never benefited from a single transfer."
Graham carried on in the job, giving every appearance that nothing was wrong. Bizarrely, in the last few weeks, he has been handed money to spend. He has invested nearly £4m on John Hartson and Chris Kiwomya, and last week, despite mounting speculation he would soon be relieved of the Highbury reins, Graham invested more than £2m on the Dutch winger, Glenn Helder. "You don't give spending money to someone you are about to sack," he said. Yesterday he discovered otherwise.
The Graham Years,
What the fans think, page 38
`Arsenal Football Club have now been informed by the FA Premier League inquiry of the results of their investigations into alleged irregularities concerning certain transfers, and the Board have concluded that Mr Graham did not act in the best interests of the club.
The Board have therefore terminated Mr Graham's contract as manager.
The Chairman said that it was sad that Mr Graham's distinguished career with Arsenal FC should have to end this way, and he paid tribute to Mr Graham for the success that he had brought to the club over the past eight and a half years.
Stewart Houston will assume the responsibilities of manager.'