George Graham: Building the Foundations of Arsene Wenger’s success

The revolution at Arsenal began on 1st October 1996 or so the history books will tell you. That day, Arsene Wenger walked onto the Highbury turf for his parade, ready for his photo to be taken with club scarves in time-honoured footballing fashion. By the time the press gallery finished taking their photos and he took the five-minute walk to his office in the stadium, the headlines of “Arsene Who?” were already written.

Wenger introduced a new wave of young, hungry French footballers to the English game, changed the diets of the staggering old pros, and introduced callisthenics to a back five who thought ballet was the answer to the quiz question, “Complete this famous 1980s band: Spandau….”.

But he was successful. Not immediately; 1996/97 was no better than Bruce Rioch’s singular season in charge but 1997/98 through 2003/04 brought silverware and glory, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in north London since the 1930s when the club landed five league titles and a couple of FA Cups.

Arsenal then was the ‘Establishment Club’; now the club was back in business and the legend that is Arsene Wenger was written. His star is waning now, to the point where his dismissal is demanded by a vociferous section of the fanbase while the majority of supporters are apathetic to the point of leaving the Emirates half-empty.

A sword hangs over Wenger’s head every time the shrill peep of the referee’s whistle is heard to signal kick-off. At half-time during the recent 3 – 0 win over Stoke City, the team left the pitch to a chorus of boos. It was surprising only for the supporters still being awake enough to rouse themselves for the show of dissent; it had truly been a turgid display.

For older fans, it was déjà vu. During Bertie Mee’s final season, the football was dismal as Arsenal mired in a relegation battle, resorted to uncultured and agricultural football as they scrambled to safety. Terry Neill, Don Howe; both began their reigns brightly, both ended dismally.

And then there was George Graham.

The Scot brought a brave new world to Highbury and a reign where success begat success. Born of poverty in the new village of Bargeddie in North Lanarkshire where he was born on 30th November 1944. Graham’s early years were harsh; his father died on Christmas Day the year George was born, his elder sister seven years later. Tuberculosis claimed them both in a village were prospects were grim.

There is no justification for the events which ultimately led to his dismissal as Arsenal manager, but the impact of those early years, seared into his psyche offers some explanation. However, without George Graham, there would arguably be no Arsene Wenger reign to talk about at Arsenal. How different life might be had the Frenchman taken his expected path to London, ending at White Hart Lane instead.

Graham arrived at Arsenal in May 1986. The Arsenal board approached the appointment of Don Howe’s replacement in a ham-fisted way. Among the names they asked about the job was Terry Venables, then coming to the end of his spell as head coach at Barcelona. He was a bright, confident Londoner with a forward way of thinking about football. He was also Don Howe’s friend and after turning down the prospect of replacing his old friend, told Howe about the approach. Howe walked before he was fired.

Graham built a reputation with Millwall. A double-winner with Arsenal, he was a gifted player, talented and by his own admission, lazy. Not without good reason had Graham been known as “Stroller”. He freely admitted to being the type of player he would hate in his own Arsenal squad.

His Millwall sides were hard-working, and he got results quickly. He staved off relegation to the Fourth Division (League Two) in 1982/83 after taking over in December 1982, winning promotion to the Second Division (the Championship) a year before taking over at Arsenal.

Team-mates from his time as a player at Highbury still speak with incredulity at him going into management; he’d shown no interest in pursuing a career in football once his playing days were over. Teaming up with his old friend Terry Venables at Crystal Palace in 1976 changed all that.

Stars Aligning On and Off the Pitch

Other stars were aligning which would lead Arsenal to Arsene Wenger’s door. A commodities trader, David Dein was passionate about Arsenal, something which remains to this day despite his own ignominious departure from the club as a director.

He bought a tranche of shares in 1983, prompting Peter Hill-Wood to make a disparaging comment about it being “dead money”. It didn’t stop Dein being named Vice-Chairman and becoming a friend of the stars in the Arsenal squad at the time.

By 1991, Dein owned 42% of the club. Dead money it might have been, but it brought him power within the world of football and a foresight about the game which was sorely missing when Arsenal moved to the Emirates in 2006. That is a story for another day.

Dein was enthusiastic about every Arsenal team, no matter the level they competed at. From the first team down to the youths, he was a keen spectator, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than seeing a promising young player emerge from the ranks.

This ardour for the club was a key characteristic of his relationship with Arsene Wenger. Dein recognised in the Frenchman a spirit, one who held the club’s values to his heart but was determined to win playing football with a Joie de Vivre which was previously missing.

The desire for a combination of bright football from a mix of experienced professionals and a strong core of Arsenal-bred youth was fired up by George Graham. His teams from 1986/87 through to 1990/1 all had a strong core of players who had risen through the Highbury ranks. They won trophies with verve, combining Graham’s love of a strong defence and freedom of expression in attack.

Dein adored that Arsenal style. Like fans, he was less than enamoured with the relentlessly dull route one football the Scot adopted in his final seasons. Trophies still came but the fun stopped.

The Arsenal vice-chairman knew what fans wanted in that sense. He was one himself, albeit with a business head on when it came to the club. His friendship with Wenger brought him the chance with a coach who felt he had something to prove after leaving Monaco under a cloud.

But before that, he had a Scot. One whose control over the purse-strings would continue to rest with the manager, even after the ignominious nature of Graham’s departure. The club took control of transfers and signing the cheques; under Wenger, they ceded the power to the manager once more.

That was some time in the future. Graham was driven; a winner who refused to accept second best. His first task was to rid his squad of divisive players, stars whose effort -didn’t reflect the size of their pay packets.

His first dip into the transfer market served notice on Graham’s view of the world. Perry Groves arrived from Colchester United for £65,000. The ginger-haired imp had his own view on the deal. “It was very brave of George Graham because when you take over a club like Arsenal everyone expects you to make a statement of intent by immediately going out and buying a suitably big name, not a £50,000 nobody from Colchester.”

Graham was making his own statement, even if Groves and the Arsenal supporters didn’t know it at the time. Having spent his coaching and managerial apprenticeship in the lower divisions of the Football League, Graham knew the players who were hungry and capable of making the step up to the First Division. He was exploiting his market knowledge in the same way Wenger would with French players a decade later.

During the film ‘89’, Graham recalled his secretary would come in on a Monday morning with all the weekend’s papers. He would devour them, looking for clues as to which player was performing well for their club. Scouts and the Arsenal manager himself would watch the individual to see if the press talk was worth it or just hot air.

Giving Youth a Chance

In that sense, Graham moved slowly. Alan Smith was the only other signing that year, and even he would remain at Leicester City on loan until the end of the season. The Scot was taking his time to watch the players and weed out the undesirables.

He was ruthless but not hasty. Tony Woodcock was sold, and Paul Merson returned from loan to replace him. David Rocastle became a first-team regular as Stewart Robson departed for West Ham; Martin Hayes and Michael Thomas were both promoted to the senior squad on a regular basis.

Steve Williams, never shy of an opinion found himself cast into the wind during the summer of 1988 with Kevin Richardson replacing him. The team retained strong characters but gained a harder working ethic. Add into the mix the signings of Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and to a lesser extent Nigel Winterburn, brought players who grafted their way to the top.

Graham capitalised on his good fortune in inheriting a strong youth team and found there was a stream of youngsters desperate to prove themselves in the first team. This belief in youth made Arsenal an attractive option for youngsters during their formative years.

Arsenal, at the top of the English game, were once again building a formidable youth system where players not only learned their trades but also how to conduct themselves. Even those who never made the grade at Highbury remember with affection their time at the club where there was life and the ‘Arsenal Way’.

He kept the flow of young players coming through and Wenger topped it up as football became a global game. If Graham re-established Arsenal on the domestic scene and made the club known on the European stage, the Frenchman ratcheted up European awareness of Arsenal through two decades of Champions League participation, while his brand of football attracted a worldwide following.

These were the days when the lower divisions were a breeding ground for a generation of professionals and English clubs were more willing to do their shopping in that marketplace. The desire to bring in foreign players was less apparent but also the ban on English teams participating in Europe meant the Football League wasn’t as attractive a proposition.

Graham exploited this as his side gelled and embraced his ethos. The first sign of that came in the Littlewoods Cup semi-final. Paired with north London rivals Tottenham, Arsenal lost the first leg 1 – 0 at home. Clive Allen made it 2 – 0 on aggregate at White Hart Lane before the Gunners fought back to force a replay.

A strong sense of déjà vu as Allen once more gave Tottenham the lead. At half-time, the tannoy announced details of how Spurs fans could claim their Wembley tickets. The next forty-five minutes underlined just how much the squad bought into Graham and his ways. Ian Allinson levelled and with minutes remaining, David Rocastle scored the winner.

It was in many eyes as defining a moment as 26th May 1989. That night at Anfield is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest not just in Arsenal’s history but also in English club football. But the spine of that side – seven players – featured at Wembley two years earlier when a Charlie Nicholas brace wrecked Ian Rush’s record of never losing a Liverpool match in which he scored. One-nil down, two-one up became a familiar Arsenal refrain.

When Graham left in February 1995, five of those seven remained at the club: Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon, Paul Merson and Nigel Winterburn. Although Merson would be shipped out by Wenger, the other four would be the rock upon which Wenger’s first double would be built.

David Seaman was the missing piece of the jigsaw. The Yorkshireman was a long-time target of Graham’s before he eventually moved to Highbury in what wasn’t a universally popular move. John Lukic served Arsenal well. He kept goal at Wembley in the Littlewoods Cup final and was at Anfield when the league title was sensationally claimed. Seaman’s star was rising but not to the point where he was instantly recognised as better.

The 1990/91 season changed that. Arsenal were imperious, losing only at Stamford Bridge on a sandpit of a pitch. For a huge swathe of the season, it looked like the Gunners would claim not only the title but also the record for fewest goals conceded in a First Division season. In the end, it wasn’t to be, but Seaman firmly established himself as a fans favourite, going on to become the undisputed first-choice goalkeeper for club and country.

Gifts to the Gods

The defence was Graham’s gift to Wenger. He honed their skills on the training ground with repetitive drills until their work became second nature. These were men whose education involved ropes tied around their waists, so they learned to move as one. It seems an archaic methodology, demeaning and almost childish in its execution. Yet it was remarkably effective; the players learned to act as a unit and were intelligent enough to understand the tactics involved. Not just understand them, but to live them.

Football now sees shoddy defensive work on a regular basis. Defenders don’t know how to defend; that wasn’t an accusation which was levelled against the Arsenal back four. They understood the game and were solid, not just on the pitch but off it as well. Tony Adams was steeped in the club’s history and the others were strong enough characters to ‘help’ new players integrate; to make sure differing mentalities all understood what was expected of them.

It freed Wenger to work with his forwards and on attacking drills in training. He won over the older players with the theories of how their careers would be longer if they stretched properly and ate differently. When Wenger saw the players buy into his ideas, he knew he had intelligent footballers who would carry the notions of the training ground onto the pitch.

Just as Lee Dixon would know where Alan Smith should be in a certain situation, he found the same understandings with the likes of Bergkamp and Anelka. It was more intuitive than under Graham but equally as effective.

Graham’s legacy included Martin Keown. Graham sold the centre-back to Aston Villa in 1986 and spent £2m rectifying that mistake seven years later. By then, his time at Villa Park and later Everton saw Keown return to Arsenal as an established centre-back, who would also develop into one of the best man-marking players of his generation, if not the English game.

But Wenger didn’t just find himself with ‘ready-made’ players. Ray Parlour is an interesting case. Like those previously mentioned, he was a Graham player. A robust right-sided midfielder who could play centrally. With his Shirley Temple locks and willingness to make drinking an Olympic sport, the Essex lad slipped comfortably into the Arsenal squad.

He wasn’t an outstanding player; not one to catch your eye no matter how distinguishing his haircut, but he was no slouch either. Wenger recognised that and believed in the boy from Romford. In Parlour’s case, the Frenchman took the raw material he was left and arguably brought the finest hours of his career from Parlour.

The midfielder was an integral part of the Arsenal success story until his departure to Middlesbrough in 2004. An Invincible, he claimed two doubles, a goal in the 2 – 0 win over Chelsea in 2002; not only that, he rose through Arsenal’s ranks. He was ‘one of our own’, as supporters are always proud to claim.

No man is an island, particularly at a football club. Managers find themselves moving jobs on a regular basis, inheriting squads and systems in varying shades of disarray. Once in their careers, they might be fortunate enough to join the perfect club. Not necessarily in the state of play as they walk through the door, but in being in the right place at the right time.

Arsene Wenger found that at Arsenal. It was almost the perfect storm. He had a strong set of players, one of whom was certainly at the forefront of creating the scenario for Wenger to take over. Ian Wright, the club’s record goalscorer for a while, rebelled against Bruce Rioch’s authoritarian approach and the board caved into the player’s demands. Rioch was out of the door.

And Wenger came in. The new broom whose ideas would shape the future of the club beyond the years of his reign. Wright and the other senior pros were all heading into the twilight of their careers. Arsene Wenger added years beyond their expectations.

For all his success, Wenger deserves as many accolades as he does brickbats for the football currently on offer at Arsenal. To his acolytes, the Frenchman is a footballing god. To the majority of Arsenal supporters, the first decade – fifteen years of his reign are a footballing wonderland which will most likely never be replicated. It’s gone on too long now and as much as he is wedded to the club, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger will soon be divorced.

It is, however, timely to remember that Wenger owes a debt of gratitude to George Graham. The Scot, denigrated for so long as the football which dragged Arsenal into the doldrums morphed into his bequest, left Wenger with an intelligent core of players. Those players found an intelligent if unassuming, manager to take them to the next level.

All of them speaking in the fondest terms about Wenger and the impact on their lives. And more than a decade on from their retirement, that underlines how much respect the Frenchman deserves.

To Top