A banner fluttered from the front of the upper tier of the East Stand at Highbury, it was a simple effort, a white sheet daubed in black paint which succinctly stated ‘George Knows’. The date was the 6th of May 1991 and Arsenal were beating Manchester United 3-1, the league title having already been secured for the second time in three seasons, by Liverpool’s defeat at Forest earlier in the day. Credit for the banner was actually claimed by comedian Paul Kaye, he of Dennis Pennis fame, and was shown on the TV and highlighted in Nick Hornby’s iconic ‘Fever Pitch’.
The reason for the above reminiscence was an interview by Oliver Kay in the Times that Our Kid sent to me in the run up to the North London Derby last week (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/theres-winning-and-entertaining-i-never-got-the-balance-right-z6pxzs0nv?shareToken=3c512e312e8ed13d630c3356c3e2381b)
The fact that Our Kid is a Liverpool fan, whose team were on the wrong end of a number of George Graham’s greatest achievements, really drove home just what this pragmatic, disciplinarian Scottish manager gave to us Gooners of a certain age.
In order to fully appreciate just what he achieved, it is vital to consider what Arsenal were like at the time of his appointment; the 1985-86 season, in which Liverpool won the double in a close-fought battle both in the League and the FA Cup Final with Merseyside rivals Everton, for Arsenal ended in a dismal 7th placed finish and the resignation of Don Howe amidst rumours that the board had been courting Terry Venables as a replacement. After years of underachievement and the failure of big name signings to bring back the glory days of the early 70’s, or even the pretty good days of 1978 to 1980, the club was in a state of stagnation.
When he swept into the club in the summer of 1986, Graham wasted no time in imposing a new attitude and standard of expectation on the club; his first item of business was to ship out the deadwood, Woodcock and Mariner, two big name internationals who were doing nothing, were dispatched with the utmost urgency, although maverick Charlie Nicholas survived for another season, albeit with his card well and truly marked.
Graham added shrewd new signings based on his knowledge of the lower leagues, garnered from his time at Millwall, to a golden generation of young players and moulded a team, the core of which would remain beyond a decade later to form the foundation upon which Arsene Wenger built his initial success.
What followed was a run of 6 trophies in 9 years and a toppling of Liverpool from the summit of English football; the thrill of Anfield in 89 and the brilliance of the 90-91 Championship winning side that lost only 1 league game are things that personally I will never forget. George’s later Arsenal teams and the ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ days that followed will always, unfairly in my opinion, be tainted with a reputation for being defensive and boring; yet that is to forget the last minute Cup Final replay win and the utterly gripping backs-to-the-wall performance in Copenhagen to steal the Cup Winners Cup away from a supremely talented Parma side.
Maybe you have to be from a certain generation to fully appreciate just what George achieved; his initial success was before the Premier League and he left while it was still in its infancy and well before the mega-bucks and wide scale foreign ownership arrived. It is also easy to forget just how dominant Liverpool were at the time, the Anfield club winning a trophy in 16 out of the 20 seasons and a grand total of 30 trophies in the 70’ and 80’s; only Aston Villa once and Everton twice had beaten them to the title in the 1980’s. To build a team with a limited financial outlay that were not only able to compete, but ultimately to surpass that team is testimony to Graham’s hard work on the training ground and his astute tactical awareness.
The acrimonious nature of his departure and his lack of media profile since his retirement are probably the main reasons why Graham and his achievements continue to be both undervalued and underappreciated. Far be it from me to downplay the financial shenanigans that ultimately saw him sacked, but as Our Kid suggested in our discussion about the article , the temptation of a £400K bung would have made a huge difference to a manager on an annual salary of £300K unlike the currently extravagantly rewarded Premier League managers.
For this particular, at the time teen-aged, Gooner, while I remain sad at the way it all ended, I will always retain a fond appreciation for the way in which George re-established my team at the top of English football and laid the foundations for what has come since. For a few years George really did know!