Twenty years on from Graham's Highbury heave-ho, Jon Spurling argues it’s not just Arsenal fans who should remain eternally grateful to him for shaping the Gunners in his own vision...
In February 1995, George Graham was fired by Arsenal in the wake of a bungs scandal. Since then, Gunners fans’ views on the Scot have remained mixed, and when he last publicly appeared at the Emirates – for the club’s 125th anniversary celebrations against Everton in 2011 – he received a muted reception.
Perhaps it’s because, decades later, the playing style of Graham’s teams appears crude and agricultural. Maybe it’s because he was caught with his fingers in the metaphorical till, or the small matter that he later went on to manage north London rivals Tottenham. Nonetheless, the divisive Scot's influence at Highbury ultimately helped pave the way for a relatively unknown Frenchman to take the club to new heights...
1) He provided a formidable backline
For the first four years of his tenure, Graham’s antennae for signing the right player rarely let him down. Lee Dixon and Steve Bould were plucked from lower-league Stoke City, and left-back Nigel Winterburn arrived from First Division new boys Wimbledon. With Tony Adams installed as club skipper by Graham in 1986, and the hugely experienced David O’Leary still as effective as ever in central defence, Graham moulded a blue-collar defensive unit through relentless and remorseless drilling exercises.
It remains a moot point as to whether Graham ever did use a piece of rope in training sessions to ensure the players operated as a unit – but the message was clear – Arsenal were a team built from the back. Their offside trap was a hugely effective system which squeezed the life out of the opposition. The Bould-Adams-Dixon-Winterburn quartet first played regularly together during the 1988/89 campaign – which ended with the decisive victory at Anfield – and remarkably it was still in place when Arsene Wenger took over in 1996.
The Frenchman explained: “The back four is the club’s rock. It is the foundation... the concrete base which keeps the team secure.” Initially, it seemed that Wenger would replace the ageing selection, but he gave them licence to roam on the pitch – and to stretch. “We would stretch before, during, and after training... then we’d stretch some more,” recalled Dixon. All four were as formidable as ever when Wenger’s Arsenal won the Double in 1997/98. “We were more mobile and forward moving than we’d been under George,” explained Winterburn, “but in essence, we were the same defenders.”
Behind the back four, goalkeeper David Seaman was brought to Highbury in 1990, much to the chagrin of Arsenal fans who resented the fact that popular keeper John Lukic was shunted out to make way for him.
But 'safe hands' was an upgrade on Lukic, and in the days before he grew a pony tail and began to go AWOL from his goal-line, his calmness and ability to organise his defence was another anchor of Arsenal’s success.
When Wenger took over in 1996, Seaman had just enjoyed a career-defining Euro 96, and his new manager explained: “When you arrive at a club and see that Seaman is in goal, you feel relieved and grateful.” Seaman was injured for much of 1997/98, but returned as the season reached the business end. Wenger’s foreign legion was lauded for its stellar displays during that campaign, in which they conceded just 33 league goals, but it was Graham’s English defensive lieutenants who marshalled the troops.