As one of George Graham’s disciples, I’m not sure the gaffer gets enough credit for his achievements. If it hadn’t been for him, Arsene Wenger surely wouldn’t have been able to get off to such a good start in 1998 with a double that was owed so much to George’s famous back five.
More generally, he should also be regarded as one of the best managers of the decade in the old First division. Despite his inauspicious end at Arsenal, George Graham’s considerable achievements cannot be overlooked but at times, it feels they have been.
Wenger is lauded for his Invincibles season in 2004, but Graham came within a whisker of achieving the same in 1991 when his side lost a single game that season. It’s the narrowest and cruelest twist because the game they lost was away to Chelsea at an inhospitable Stamford Bridge at a turn of the year winter encounter that showed how unkind the game could be.
That loss ended what could have been the ultimate accolade for George Graham’s durable and talented side and instead of some harping on about bungs, his legacy would be viewed just as favourably as the Frenchman’s.
The squeaky clean, cerebral Frenchman was put on a pedestal for apparently changing the game single-handedly, whilst Graham took on the role of the self-serving, money-obsessed egotist who did well personally from the club’s success. As with all things in football, neither statement is accurate or deserved.
Graham’s reign saw Arsenal emerge from a long period of underachievement and take up regular residency at the top table and he ensured the club’s stock would rise against an all-conquering Liverpool.
It was a time that gave birth to the iconic chants of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’, something Gunners fans adopted themselves as George Graham’s side managed to grind out wins, but the North London side also had an abundance of skill and didn’t just sit behind the ball. If there was a failure, it was on the side of the opposition who, more often than not, were unable to breach the well-drilled defence.
George Graham won the League Cup in ’87 and ’89, he pulled off the ultimate finish to a League Division One campaign by beating Liverpool by two clear goals at Anfield. Arsenal were back in contention and Graham had fashioned a team of unknowns and academy prospects into a winning outfit. He had moulded a side that didn’t lose their nerve on the big stage and one that shared the belief of the canny Scot that anything was possible even if the odds said differently.
The second league title came in 1990/91 with Liverpool once again the victims of the George Graham hoodoo. 1992/93 saw Arsenal pick up the league cup and FA cup in the same season, but greater success was just around the corner when the Gunners picked up the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Parma 1-0 in the final. Arsenal haven’t lifted a European trophy since.
Arsene Wenger was never to enjoy European success and in that respect, Graham is far, far ahead of his eventual successor. By 1995, Graham’s reign was over and Bruce Rioch had the unenviable job of minding the shop until Wenger arrived to begin a fresh new chapter in the club’s history.
Wenger collected 17 trophies in an astonishing 22 years which consisted of three Premier Leagues, seven FA Cups, and seven Community Shields.
Now, rather unfairly, I’m going to look at the percentages. Unfair because Wenger was in situ for so long. The win percentage has Graham at 48.91% and Wenger on 57.25%, but there’s not much in it however you want to judge it. Just the length of time each spent at the club.
Both were great managers for the club, but I think it’s fair to say that they are viewed very differently by the club and its fans. The club acknowledges the achievements of the man referred to in his playing days as a stroller but not from the rooftops as they have with Wenger.
Ask the majority of older fans and George Graham gets the hefty praise he deserves and that is perhaps part of the problem with this ‘here and now’ culture. You have to be interested in the history of the club to see what Graham achieved and that it’s as worthy as anything Arsene Wenger managed.
My favourite moment from the Scots’ tenure was the league title win in ‘89, nothing has come remotely close to that event in my football life and I’d put that above the Invincibles any day of the week.