THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Regrets, but no remorse

Having nearly served his ban, George Graham is poised to return to football management. Ken Jones talked to him about his past and his future
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The Independent Online
Looking around the room arranged as a study in George Graham's tastefully furnished Hampstead apartment makes the scandal that led last year to his dismissal at Arsenal and a 12-month international suspension all the more baffling.

There are the usual mementos of a successful career in football, medals, international caps, photographs; but what strikes you immediately is the depth of Graham's affection for Arsenal, his sense of their history; in truth a love affair.

Framed cartoons and postcards tell of Arsenal's earliest efforts in Woolwich, outstanding players from past eras parade in framed cigarette card collections; shelves contain books about the club and red-bound volumes of match programmes going back many years; Graham's most successful predecessors, Herbert Chapman, George Allison, Tom Whitaker and Bertie Mee are pictured in montage. One of two juxtaposed oil paintings records the goal that brought Graham his first championship as manager. The other shows Highbury on one of the memorable nights of European football.

All this attachment and yet Graham chose foolishly to put it at risk when dealing with the Norwegian football agent, Rune Hauge. "It was stupid," he said last week, "a bigger mistake than I could ever have imagined making. I should have walked away from temptation. But how many people can claim to have gone through life without getting something wrong?"

Contrition however does not come into it. While admitting greed, Graham continues to refute vigorously the proposition that he took money belonging to Arsenal and their supporters. "In any case I've suffered the consequences, done penance and it's time to start thinking positively about the future, get on with what I'm good at, which is coaching and managing," he said. "From now on I won't be interviewed by anyone who wants to bring up what happened last year. Why should I? Everyone is entitled to an opinion but, like Terry Venables, I've had to put up with plenty of smart-arsed criticism."

It was early in the afternoon of a bright day and we were sitting in the sort of elegantly furnished room that makes the pages of Homes and Gardens. Graham had on grey jogging pants, a plain white tee shirt and trainers. He had been playing tennis. "Only took it up after I left Arsenal," he said, "but it has helped me to stay in shape, physically and mentally. I've had a lot of time on my hands but in fact the suspension [it is up in June] has passed quickly and been less frustrating than I feared."

Graham's home, especially its tidiness, says a lot about him. An ordered mind, everything in its place. Never mind that those of us who knew him well as a player scarcely imagined he had a future in football management - "Let's put the ball away," he was always first to say in conversations about the game - once Graham took up the challenge most of the other guys were left standing.

His record at Arsenal bears comparison even with Chapman's. "What I achieved at Highbury is in the past, gone. I reached the top of my profession there and I'm ready for another challenge, whether it's in this country or elsewhere. It would be silly to suppose that I can repeat the Arsenal years but with the right club, one that has real potential and financial clout, I'm sure I can win at least another trophy."

Graham's progress at Arsenal stemmed from the understanding that it made no sense to break with tradition. He inherited good players, he got more good players, he recognised ability in other players that could be adapted to the system. He knew he would have to win and win fast because hard-driving martinets are tolerated by players only if the team is successful.

"The method was little different from Arsenal's style in the Thirties when they dominated English football with a solid defence and fast counter- attacks based on good passing. During my first six years nobody could complain about a lack of quality and excitement but after that we were short of sophistication in some positions.

"It was a mistake not to challenge a wages policy that made it difficult to reconstruct the team, and I found myself relying more and more on hard- working lads."

It is interesting that Graham sees a lot of himself as a player in the inconsistency that has so far prevented Paul Merson from fulfilling outstanding potential.

"Gifted but unreliable. It was a see-saw ride Highs and lows. Brilliant one week, anonymous the next." Like Topsy, when Graham was good he was very good, but when he was bad he was awful.

It raises a dilemma in Graham's mind. "With more consistency I might never have known the exhilaration of a special performance," he said, "but that was no help to the managers I turned out for. Merson is very gifted but unreliable. A team that is expected to win things can afford only one inconsistent player, otherwise there are going to be days when you are only playing with nine men."

The storied gridiron coach, Vince Lombardi once said that people celebrated "genius above discipline which is never going to work." Graham was a winner a Arsenal because he was smarter than most of his competition, because he was an unyielding perfectionist and because he imposed his will on his players with the sheer force of his personality. He quotes an American basketball coach, Pat Riley, "Style can juice the player and stir the crowd, but it must never overwhelm the fundamental goal of playing the game and winning."

Graham's priority is success. "Fine, I accept the philosophising of coaches and managers who only want to play a certain way, but you have to suspect that some of them hide behind the idea of a passing game. It becomes an excuse for losing. What is the passing game anyway? Winning football comes from selecting the right option. Long or short. As a manager what you're after is an end product, a goal or an attempt on goal. Simply moving the ball around can be boring for the audience. The other night I watched a game between Charlton and Derby. Charlton passed the ball well but most of the time it didn't lead to anything. It wasn't until they got in some good crosses in the second half that the crowd got excited."

Graham rejected two job opportunities that came between Arsenal's decision to fire him and appearance before a Premier League inquiry. "At the time I was pretty confident of being allowed to carry on working in the game, but neither of the offers appealed to me. They didn't feel right.

"I'm looking forward to managing again, but it won't be a case of jumping at the first thing that comes along. One or two people have already spoken to me, but obviously it would be wrong for them to take things further at this stage."

A serious thought suddenly made Graham reflective. "I think Arsenal were ready to get rid of me anyway. After eight years they probably thought that I'd gone beyond, my time. If things are no longer working out it's easier to change the manager than tear the team apart so what happened was pretty convenient because it saved them a great deal of money."

The components of victory are complex. A manager runs his game. He picks the team and formulates strategy and tactics, and he had better ignore the risk of being booed. A manager who worries about abuse from the stands ends up sitting there himself. "It's never happened to me," Graham said, "but during what turned out to be my last season at Highbury I sensed that it was time to move on. If you are successful with a club that doesn't happen in this country. Elsewhere they have a different attitude. Trapattoni won three championships with Juventus, said thanks very much, and moved to Internazionale. Leo Beenhaaker took off to Ajax at the peak of his success with Real Madrid. Boskov went from Real to Sampdoria then Napoli. The more successful they are the more they look around."

Professional football is an insecure society: today it pays lavish salaries to players, and then, when the men reach 35 or so, it abruptly stops paying them anything. It is the tragedy of fulfillment.

Graham overcame it, becoming eventually one of the most successful managers in the history of British football. Then the gross error of judgement that almost terminated his career. "A part of me will always be at Arsenal," he said, "but I don't think I'll ever be able to forget that the board refused to give me a proper hearing.

"I said, `You've known me for 18 years, and yet you take the word of strangers without listening to what I've got to say.' Despite all I'd achieved, they just turned their backs."

Merson's testimonial match on 8 May coincides with the 25th anniversary of Arsenal's Double. It has been suggested that the 1971 team should be on parade. Graham will take some persuading.