PROFILE: The king of Highbury brought low

David Aaronovitch charts the rise and fall of Arsenal's George Graham
Click to follow
The Independent Online
By next July, George Graham, the disgraced former Arsenal football manager, will be back at work, having served the one-year ban from the game imposed by the Football Association this week. But his action in pocketing a huge rake-off from Arsenal's purchase of two Scandinavian players still baffles. Why did one of the most successful, loyal and highly paid managers in soccer history accept a large amount of money to which he was not entitled?

Graham was born in Bargeddie, a Scottish mining village not far from Glasgow, at the end of 1944. His family was poor and his father died when he was very young. His talent as a footballer, however, was such that by the age of 18, he was playing for Aston Villa, the major Midlands' club. After a two-year interregnum with Chelsea, he joined Arsenal in 1966.

Arsenal at that time was a famous outfit, but the club's culture was unusual. The club was renowned for its probity, its lack of drama, its marble halls and, above all, its patrician directors.

In the mid-Sixties, Arsenal was also known for its lack of success on the field. Bertie Mee, just arrived at the club as manager, was determined to break the cycle of failure, and discipline was his secret weapon. Players - even big names - who failed to play his way, or whose attitude was found wanting, languished in the reserves. Graham, Mee's first signing, had to endure this treatment. And he saw how it transformed the club's fortunes.

Football in those days was a different sport to the one it is now becoming. There were still very few players who enjoyed superstar status, and the overwhelmingly male, working-class fans stood packed together in stadiums untouched since the Twenties. Graham was earning well, compared with the expectations of other young men of similar background, but salaries were not astronomical. As a Scottish international, he was near the top of the pile, but when his playing career ended in his early thirties he had to take part-time bar work to supplement his coaching income. Almost no player at that time was set up for life.

In 1982, Graham went into management, signing on with Millwall, a small London club, for a relatively low salary. When someone wondered at how cheaply he had sold himself, he replied: "Don't worry. When I'm successful I'll be very expensive." In the event, his four years at Millwall were indifferent; but they coincided with a period in which maladministration and hooliganism (in the shape respectively of the Bradford fire and the Heysel riot) nearly killed football. Many despaired of its ability to revive - and none realised how dramatic would be its transformation.

When the call came from Arsenal in 1986, Graham was ready and waiting. On his first day in the job, he entered Highbury and one of the secretaries greeted him as George. "It's Mr Graham now," he corrected her.

Almost from the moment he sat down to his task, the cool and friendly communicator who had charmed the press at Millwall was replaced by the man of iron will.

The virtues of discipline and effort learnt in that first spell at Arsenal would now guide the new manager in his second stint. Three years later, Arsenal won its first championship for nearly two decades; and two years after that, they did it again. Graham was the miracle worker who had melded youth and age, flair and graft. What counted, he said, was winning - there was nothing else.

There to congratulate him were not just the Etonian scions who had run the club for decades, but representatives of the new soccer, figures such as David Dein, a millionaire commodities broker and a club director. Like Alan Sugar at Spurs, Dein had recognised that the reforming impulse that followed soccer's years of shame should be harnessed. A loss-making hobby could be turned into a fantastically profitable business proposition. Rights sold for huge sums to the newly emerging satellite and cable channels, paid for by individual subscription, could underwrite new stadiums, new fans and international players.

Players were the main beneficiaries of the new money: their transfer values were climbing to staggering levels and their own packages - fuelled by agents - were reaching film-star proportions. Over at Arsenal, keen observers noted, George Graham resented this trend. He would speak of the extra noughts added to a young star's contract as if it were his own money. Why should he be on pounds 250,000 a year, when his top players, 20 years his junior, were raking in up to pounds 400,000?

Nor did he have any time for the occasionally maverick flair merchants who wanted to do it their way. His idea of a great soccer player was his skipper, Tony Adams: hard-working, inspirational and obedient. To some who did not fit the mould, he was almost sadistic - playing them out of position, dropping them and then passing them by in silence. Not long after the triumph of 1991, he was becoming known around the club as "Gaddafi".

Paradoxically, this reputation for sternness did not prevent Graham from tolerating transgressions by his stars towards others. The infamous fist-fight on the pitch between Arsenal and Manchester United players, Tony Adams's prison sentence for drink-driving, Ian Wright's numerous brushes with referees; all were defended or mitigated by the manager. Arsenal were becoming a unique blend of decadence and efficiency.

Externally, all seemed well. Graham, separated from his wife and living in a superb apartment in Hampstead, escorted a succession of women as elegant as himself, and was the personification of cool. Unlike other managers, he also knew how to dress, shunning medallions and blazers.

But by late 1991, when Graham was receiving the disputed money, things were beginning to go wrong at the club. The manager himself was retreating into an odd paranoia. No longer sitting on the touchline at matches, he would phone instructions down to his coach, Stewart Houston, covering his mouth with a piece of paper just in case - presumably - the opposition had employed a lip-reader with binoculars. Key players in the club's success fell out of favour with Graham and were transferred, while the superstars the fans craved as replacements were shunned by Graham. Grumbles slowly turned to complaint, and complaint to criticism. Graham, it was believed, did not want anybody at the club who was bigger than him.

And in the middle of it all, pounds 400,000 of Arsenal's money found its way into George Graham's bank account. "Bungs" had long been part of British soccer, but this was a bung on an industrial scale. Why would such a well- paid man take the risk? At its simplest, the answer is that Graham probably felt he was entitled to it; he had earned it. It is a characteristic of very highly paid people that their earnings often become their main topic of conversation and their only way of measuring their own value. This was the atmosphere in which Graham existed. In his actions one discerns the revenge of the manager, squeezed between the superstar players and the fat-cat tycoons who increasingly do business with each other - the actions of a man of the old world, coming to messy terms with the new.

Comments