In 1966, a 21 year old Scottish left Chelsea to join fellow London rivals Arsenal. He ended a two decade long wait for the league title at Highbury. A decade later he was the Arsenal manager on the night Thomas scored with the last kick of the game at Anfield. This is the story of the man who crossed the London divide 35 years before Sol Campbell. It is the story of the last Arsenal manager to win an European trophy. It is George Graham’s story.
Crossing the London divide
Arsenal had shelled out the then club record transfer fee of £70,000 for Joe Baker in 1962. However a string of mid table league finishes meant they were forced to look for a new striker again in 1966. Across the other side of London, George Graham was no ordinary player. Between 1964 and 1966 he averaged a goal in every two games for Chelsea. Bertie Mee was convinced that Graham was the solution to his problems. In the summer transfer window of 1966, Arsenal paid £50,000 plus Tommy Baldwin to secure Graham’s signature from Chelsea.
George Graham started exactly where he had left off at Chelsea. He was an instant success at Arsenal and was their leading goalscorer in the 1966-67 and 1967-68 campaigns. The club’s performance improved but it was still not enough to win the league. Manager Bertie Mee decided to move Graham in the midfield. He converted Graham to a central midfielder from a striker. George was a very good striker up front but lacked pace and was susceptible to being outpaced. Moving him to central midfield would allow the club to play another striker in the team and guarantee goals from midfield. After finishing as a runner up twice in two consecutive League Cup finals, he tasted victory in the 1969-70 Inter Cities Fairs Cup. The next season was perhaps the most important one for Bertie Mee’s Arsenal. His side had not won the league since 1953 and this was their best chance to end that wait.
History was made when Arsenal won their eighth first division title on May 01, 1971 with a 1-0 victory over London rivals Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Graham had etched his name in the glory books with Arsenal. He also played a key role in the FA Cup win over Liverpool in the same season. Graham claimed to have scored the winner but it was eventually credited to Eddie Kelly. In December 1972, Graham left Arsenal to seek newer pastures after finding himself out of the squad. But his story wasn’t over. In some ways, it had just started.
Back to Highbury
In March 1986, Arsenal manager Don Howe resigned from his position at the club. The board offered the vacant job to Terry Venables, the then Barcelona manager. However, Venables swiftly rejected the incoming offer. Attention then switched to 45 year old Alex Ferguson. Ferguson was managing Aberdeen as well as the national Scottish side after the sudden death of Jock Stein. The original plan was to install Ferguson as Arsenal manager and bring ex player George Graham as his assistant. Alex Ferguson gave a deep thought to the idea of coming to Highbury but he wasn’t available until the World Cup which was due later that summer. There were two options before the board now. Wait until the end of the World Cup and announce Ferguson or search for a new name.
In the meanwhile, Graham’s stock as a manager was on the rise. He was appointed Millwall’s manager in 1982 while the side were lying at the bottom of the third division. He turned around the side, avoided relegation and instead got them promoted to the second division in 1985. After Ferguson’s immediate unavailability for the job, the board announced George Graham as the next Arsenal manager on May 14, 1986. The club had failed to finish in the top five for four consecutive seasons and the new manager was under pressure to make an immediate impact.
Graham’s policies worked as his side were top of the table on Christmas eve in 1986. He let go of several players who had outlived their legacy at the club and replaced them with younger players. His side could only manage a fourth placed finish in his first season in charge. George Graham perhaps took one of the most crucial decisions in Arsenal history by promoting Tony Adams to the first team and handing him the armband. Graham then laid the foundation of Arsenal’s famous back four which included Adams, Dixon, Bould and Winterburn. Prolific goalscorer Alan Smith was signed in 1987. The Graham revolution was completed with the assembly of a new back four, a goal scoring striker and an impressive midfield consisting of David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson.
On May 26, 1989, a former Arsenal player became its modern day glorious manager when his side defeated Liverpool and lifted the title at Anfield. It was no ordinary title win. Young fans think football in the country peaked when Sergio Aguero scored that goal. But it actually peaked long before that when Thomas charged through the middle and put it in the back of the Liverpool net. Both as a player and manager, Graham was successful in ending an 18 year wait for the title twice. Arsenal won another league title under Graham in 1990-91. The team narrowly missed out on going an entire league campaign unbeaten but managed to receive a guard of honor at Old Trafford.
This period of football under Graham was probably second only to Herbert’s time at the club. The Hillsborough disaster resulted in the expulsion of English clubs from European competition. It perhaps stole George Graham and Arsenal to win the coveted European trophy long before other clubs. Arsenal under Graham weren’t the most glorious or exciting side but they knew how to win trophies. They had an elite mentality and were able to find a way back in almost every game they played. The famous back four was as strong as steel and laid the foundation for the midfield and attack to decimate the opposition. Graham instilled a winner’s mentality and turned his boys to men.
Foundations of the modern Arsenal
In 1991, Graham signed Ian Wright from Crystal Palace. Little did he know that his latest signing would break Cliff Bastin’s all time goal scoring record at the club. A record that had stood for more than five decades. Cliff Bastin was by far the greatest Arsenal player of all time who won an unheard of five league titles in eight years at the club. He won his first title at the age of 19. He scored 178 goals in 18 years at his beloved Arsenal and was the club’s all time leading goalscorer until Ian Wright broke the record in 1997. It’s unbelievable that Wright took only six years to break a club’s all time goal scoring record. Graham’s side later completed a unique cup double in 1993. In the following year, Graham lifted the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and became only the second Arsenal manager to win a European trophy. In the process, he also became the first man to win a European trophy at Arsenal both as a player and manager.
Graham left the club in 1996 but his impact was felt even years later. Much of Wenger’s early success was possible because of Graham’s back four. He left a young and solid defense for his successor who didn’t need to spend for a new defender. This allowed Wenger to solely focus on bringing attackers to the club which helped him win his first two league titles. George Graham was no ordinary man. He crossed the London divide, won the league and other trophies as a player, returned as a manager and won trophies again. This was the story of George Graham, an Arsenal legend.
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