The flaws in a master of the functional school

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The Independent Online


Shortly after George Graham achieved his second League championship as manager of Arsenal, we spent a few hours talking about this and that, inevitably dwelling on the past, but giving attention to what the future might hold for him.

Having known Graham for more than 25 years, seen his development as an intelligent, stylish, but essentially carefree footballer, I found his success in management surprising. As I remembered it, he had never shown much enthusiasm for coaching or tactical considerations, and was always the first to suggest an alternative topic of conversation. "Let's put the ball away," he used to say.

A change in Graham occurred suddenly, rather than gradually. When cornered by friends, he admitted to being acutely aware of the anticlimax that confronts all athletes at a time in their lives when people in other fields are still rising. Beyond that response, though, there was something else; something internal and supremely private. Insecurity. If he was not obsessed with money at first, it would later become a matter of great importance.

Even as one of the most succesful managers in British football, and second only to Herbert Chapman in Arsenal's history, Graham was uneasy about what the future could bring. "Memories are short in football," he said. "No matter how successful you are, one bad season can change things completely."

Graham was not suffering a fatigue of the spirit, and was confident of further advancement. Nevertheless, he had negotiated the guarantee of substantial compensation to be paid immediately on dismissal.

"This is a great club and there is no reason why I should doubt the integrity of the directors, but plenty of sacked managers have been kept waiting for their money," he added.

A curious thing about some managers is that they promote ideals contradictory to how they themselves had played. Bill Nicholson, a dour half-back, sent out teams to fully represent Tottenham Hotspur's stylish tradition. An elegant forward, Don Revie expected Leeds to be as tough as they were skilful. It was soon noticed that a similar transition had occurred in Graham.

Compromise took hold and soon fed itself. In lusting after success, he grew suspicious of the qualities that had helped to make him a notable performer. "We are short of creative players, but I must be able to rely on them," he said. The triumphs that came along spoke more of commitment and concentration than artistry.

By then dark clouds were gathering, and there was an air about Graham that even close friends found puzzling. "It is as though George is convinced that that he has not done anything wrong," one said. "Practically everyone who knows him says the same."

However, the impression was that if Graham could just about get through the days, the nights were making him nervous. He suspected a conspiracy involving a number of London-based football writers, believing that information was being leaked to them.

Recently, in a long telephone conversation, he set his troubles against the serious illnesses afflicting a member of his family and an old friend. "What is all this compared with what they are going through?" he insisted.

"I've had a great life in the game, done more than I ever imagined, and I feel for everybody who comes into football management. It is getting more and more difficult. The pressures are ridiculous."

If Graham has aged visibly, his public demeanour since denouncement has been remarkable. "I'm determined not to show or say anything that the media can jump on," he said. "There are people out there expecting me to crack, but they don't know me well enough."

Graham's team-building blunders would probably not have affected his career. And he continues to insist that he is innocent of the charges levelled at him.

I am now thinking about Graham in other times. The freshness of his contribution to a vibrant young Chelsea team that was denied the thrill of fulfilment by Tommy Docherty's impatience. The cares we shared with Terry Venables as partners in a misguided business venture. The friendships we formed and kept.

Graham's departure from Highbury was not accompanied by a thundering statement. The words were regretful, appreciative of the great success his stewardship has brought. In the testimony, there is sadness.