The recent pictures of Alexandre Lacazette with a balloon at his lips indulging in ‘hippy crack’, is another embarrassing saga involving an Arsenal player. It seems that the Gunners could use a strict disciplinarian at this moment, typically of George Graham breed.
There was a similar incident in 2018 with a group of high profile first-team players and recently, there was a small gathering of Arsenal players that decided to break the social distancing guidelines set out by the government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It appears that Arsenal’s problems are not confined to the pitch and their variable form. Discipline seems to be a dirty word in North London as the team tests the resolve of new coach Mikel Arteta.
George Graham is hardly ever spoken about in the same way as Arsene Wenger and yet the Scot worked miracles at Arsenal and fashioned a successful side that even pipped the mighty Liverpool to the title in 1989. George was an astute individual and a thinker. To a degree, he was part philosopher, part hypnotist, and above all, a disciplinarian.
Graham believed in structure, rules, and discipline and if any player got a bit above themselves or thought they had special dispensation to flout his rules, he was benched or sold. Perhaps, Arsenal could do with the Scots’ velvet touch in an iron glove to raise the standards and end the star player mentality.
Arsene Wenger was about freedom of expression but in his later years, players took full advantage of his pleasant and generous nature. A few big names played when they felt like it, asked for separate training regimes, and withheld their contribution in a failing Arsenal side that saw Wenger eventually sacked.
Unai Emery tried to exert some control to win back the heart of the Arsenal side, but his warmth and friendly disposition weren’t enough to bring about meaningful change. The ugly standoff with Mesut Ozil was a publicity disaster and virtually condemned the Spaniard to an early exit along with a series of tragic and unexpected results.
Now it’s the turn of Mikel Arteta, but we have yet to see if the coach can succeed where others failed, with Lacazette providing him with the biggest challenge so far.
George Graham was about the team and when he took over Arsenal in 1986, he cleared out several highly paid, comfortable, underachievers such as Tony Woodcock, Graham Rix, Charlie Nicholas, Paul Mariner, and Kenny Sansom. On his appointment, he gave a hint of life at George Graham’s Arsenal when he said:
“Standards in society are falling and I don’t want that to be one of Arsenal’s problems.”
It wasn’t. Similar to Wenger, Graham knew what every player was up to inside and outside of Highbury but unlike Wenger, players would pay the price for selling him and the club short with any form of reckless behaviour.
He didn’t mind players having a drink or socialising as long as they worked hard and were prepared to spill their guts for Arsenal. The one thing he didn’t want is adverse publicity, George was old school and blazers and had no time for ‘champagne Charlie’s’, a phrase he shared with the likes of Alex Ferguson who became a good friend.
Graham often referred to as ‘Gaddafi’, put the fear of God into the players which earned him the respect he needed to be successful. Lee Dixon admitted that Graham scared him and Paul Merson commented on the look that he gave which signalled displeasure and trouble.
A friend of mine who’s uncle worked at Highbury at the time said “ George didn’t indulge players, stand for any nonsense or bullshit! He was straight down the line.”
Graham was indeed demanding and in some ways, a menace and bully to get his point across but ultimately, he was a winner and if a player wasn’t willing to give his all, then he would find life incredibly difficult. There were no second chances or forgiveness as a ruthlessly ambitious Graham plotted Arsenal’s path out of the wilderness years.
He won six trophies as Arsenal manager bagging the League Cup in his first season. He delivered the First Division title with a 2-0 win at Anfield in 1988-89, in one of the most exciting deciders in football history, bringing an end to an 18-year wait for a title. He won the title again in 1990-91 when Arsenal lost once during the season, almost becoming the Invincible’s, years earlier than Wenger’s side.
Under Graham, Arsenal managed to pick up the English domestic double in 1993, and in 1994, he bought home European silverware in the form of the Cup Winners Cup, something that Arsene Wenger hadn’t managed in 22 years.
Arteta has come to Arsenal in similar circumstances to Graham. The team requires an overhaul and certain aspects of professionalism seem to be lacking. Could history repeat itself with the modern equivalent of the Scot?
The one glaring difference between the pair is that Arteta is a listener, prepared to offer a shoulder if need be. He’s someone who genuinely wants to understand what a player needs to make them better and by doing so enhances their performances.
George was an uncompromising and direct character, who even employed his Captain to deliver his orders and enforce his demands, not that he was averse to doing either himself.
How Wenger could have done with just a dash of Graham’s no-nonsense approach and how Arsenal could do with it now.