The stamp of Graham

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The Independent Online
Howard Wilkinson never really looked at home in Elland Road's press suite. It is like the back room of a night-club, all mirrored walls, black ceilings, chrome and spotlights. Wilkinson would sit there, rambling on in his Leeds sweatshirt, shorts and socks, as incongruous as Nora Batty on the catwalk.

George Graham is much more the part. Wearing a fashionably cut navy blue suit - set off by a yellow and navy silk tie and immaculate white shirt - he strolled in and perused the room like an eligible bachelor assessing the possibilities on a night out.

Graham has promised, in his post-bung career, to be more amenable to the media. So far he has been true to his word. Despite a 1-0 home defeat to Newcastle, during which Leeds had Carlton Palmer sent off, he was all smiles on Saturday. He joked, he winked (his latest habit), he even fed us a bit of controversy. The referee, Paul Alcock, "had a very, very bad 45 minutes," Graham said. Not enough to earn a disrepute charge, but enough to get his message across.

Alcock, added Graham, had "failed to enter into the spirit of the game". Maybe, in booking Rod Wallace for encroachment near the half-way line, he had failed to enter into the spirit of football generally but he had certainly caught the mood of this game.

His first yellow card came after 25 seconds. That was how long it took David Wetherall to crash needlessly, but deliberately, into Peter Beardsley. There followed a spiteful, niggling 35 minutes in which Leeds sought to counter Newcastle's superior quality by drawing them into a kicking match.

It worked up to a point - David Ginola, his hamstring and temper fraying, was withdrawn after 33 minutes. But the likes of David Batty and Darren Peacock managed the difficult balancing act of competing physically without losing control of their actions or emotions.

Then, after 35 minutes, a flaw appeared in Leeds' strategy. Four minutes after being booked for clattering into Faustino Asprilla from behind Palmer perpetrated a similarly calculated - though not savage - foul on Alan Shearer. This tackle is illegal, but not always punished. This time, after apparent encouragement from Shearer, it was and Palmer departed. Shearer was subsequently booed but he knows what it is like to suffer serious injury. He will also recall that it was the cumulative effect of tackles from behind which ended Marco van Basten's career.

That was game over. Newcastle had looked the better side when it was 11 each. Now they penned Leeds back until, after 58 minutes, Shearer moved on to a neat pass from Robert Lee to score his fourth Newcastle goal and his first from open play. It was also his 10th in 10 matches against Leeds.

Newcastle have now won five successive games including three tricky away ones - the others were at Sunderland and Spurs. Batty and Peacock have been outstanding, giving the team a solidity they lacked in last year's run-in, and there is clearly more to come. After a slow start their championship challenge is well on course.

Leeds have no such ambitions at present yet Graham was not being fanciful when he said he saw much to encourage him. Leeds were severely weakened by injury (a point Graham could not resist making in the first paragraph of his programme notes) and fielded a young side. Yet Newcastle never overwhelmed them and could easily have been held to a draw. Leeds had marginally the better of the last half-hour and, were Newcastle's defence still in the habit of making unsolicited gifts, or had one of several headers been better directed, could have snatched a draw.

It was not hard to see Graham's influence. Leeds were organized, committed and dangerous at set-pieces. When they reverted to a flat back four the offside trap was so effective it only needed Tony Adams' raised arm and red-breasted shirts to complete the illusion that we were at Highbury.

Graham, incidentally, denied reports that he had made an inquiry about Adams. "The Arsenal board would be lynched if they sold Tony," he said, just managing to suppress a chuckle at the thought. It is, however, fairly clear that Graham would be interested if they did.

Just as pressing is the need for a creative midfielder - not an unfamiliar situation for Graham. Gary McAllister has not been replaced and Lee Bowyer will be out for two months. With Tony Yeboah, Tony Dorigo and Brian Deane also on the long-term injury list Graham's squad is thin on experience. He said he had not even spoken to Wesley Boyle before sending him on as a second-half substitute. The 17-year-old was not even in the programme's 31-strong team list.

Boyle's brief but promising display was further evidence that Graham has inherited an inpressive clutch of youngsters from Wilkinson - just as he did from Don Howe at Arsenal. There is money available (to be administered by the board) and a huge and passionate support. Whether Graham can recreate the success he had at Arsenal depends on how much he appreciates that the game has moved on. By the end of his Highbury reign Arsenal were well off the championship pace and it was only their resilience, and a spine of outstanding individuals, that kept them challenging for cups.

His start, there was also a defeat at Coventry and a home draw with Darlington, does not augur well but, perversely, it may be the best of beginnings. There are no false expectations, even the most fervent Leeds fan now realises the magnitude of the task ahead. Goal: Shearer (58) 0-1. Leeds United (3-4-2-1): Martyn; Wetherall, Palmer, Jobson; Kelly, Couzens (Jackson, 66), Ford, Harte; Wallace, Sharpe; Rush (Boyle, 83). Substitutes not used: Radebe, Blunt Beeney (gk). Newcastle United (4-4-2): Srnicek; Watson, Howey, Peacock, Beresford; Lee, Beardsley (Clark, 76), Batty, Ginola (Gillespie, 33); Shearer, Asprilla. Substitutes not used: Elliott, Albert, Hislop (gk). Referee: P Alcock (Redhill). Bookings: Leeds: Wetherall; Wallace, Palmer (two - sent off). Newcastle: Ginola. Man of the match: Batty. Attendance: 36,070.