George Graham was arguably at the height of his managerial powers during the afterglow of Italia ’90. Sprinkling his pre-season interviews with phrases like "hunger" and "fighting spirit", he was clearly psyching the team up for another assault on the First Division summit some 12 months after the night at Anfield.
Tellingly, he also spoke about "battling against the odds to achieve goals". It was a portend of the forthcoming 1990/91 campaign, which was laden with adversity and obstacles. Graham raided Highbury’s coffers in order to rejuvenate his jaded ex-champions, although his first purchase, QPR stopper David Seaman (£1.3million), proved to be a controversial choice, as he replaced the popular John Lukic in goal.
Shoring up the central defence was Andy Linighan, whose £1.25 million move from Norwich City provided excellent back-up for David O’Leary, Tony Adams and Steve Bould. But it was the arrival of Cremonese’s Swedish winger Anders Limpar which was arguably the boldest move by Graham in the transfer market. A replacement for the outgoing Brian Marwood, Limpar’s impact during the early months of the season, along with Seaman’s consistency behind the back four, proved the springboard for Arsenal’s title charge.
Unbeaten in their first eight league matches, the Gunners side headed to Old Trafford to face Alex Ferguson’s emerging Manchester United, and a smartly taken goal by Limpar was sufficient for Arsenal to come away with all three points. Yet arguably the pivotal point of the season lay in the brawl between both sides which ensued in the second half, and which saw Graham’s men deducted two points. The Football League’s decision was reached just days before Arsenal faced reigning champions Liverpool at Highbury, and newspaper headlines suggested that the League had gifted the title to Kenny Dalglish’s men.
Alan Smith recalled: “We used the points deduction to our advantage, and George used it to further cement our fortress mentality.” The sense of injustice felt by the players certainly worked in their favour as they swept Liverpool aside 3-0 at Highbury in a game shown live on ITV. Even after captain Tony Adams was jailed for drink driving offences, Arsenal never looked back. They won the title by seven points from Liverpool, having also won 1-0 courtesy of Paul Merson’s goal at Anfield in early March. Smith with 22 league goals, ran out Golden Boot winner, and Arsenal only conceded 18 goals all season.
A single defeat (2-1 at Chelsea) prevented the Gunners from going through the entire league season unbeaten, and Graham expressed his hope that Arsenal could go on to prosper in the European Cup the following season.
The reigning champions endured a tricky start to the following campaign, but quickly fell into their stride by late September and began to score goals at will. Graham remained convinced that an out-and-out striker was needed and bought Ian Wright from Crystal Palace for £2.2 million in late September. His impact was sensational, bagging a hat-trick on his league debut at Southampton. But it was the manner of the Club’s departure from Europe which arguably changed the course of the Club’s fortunes in the 1990s.
After gaining a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the Stadium of Light against Benfica, Arsenal came unstuck in the return match at Highbury, losing 3-1 on the night. “George Graham wasn’t impressed,” explained Anders Limpar. “We played the type of helter-skelter football which he didn’t like. Arsenal lost their self control that night.” Arsenal finished fourth that season and were top scorers in the league, but Graham realised that if the Gunners were to be successful in Europe, they would need to be tighter in midfield and play more on the break than had been evident in 1991/92.
Those Arsenal fans who traipsed into a three-sided Highbury the following season (the North Bank was being redeveloped so the ‘Mural End’ was created) watched a team shorn of David Rocastle (sold to Leeds), often without Paul Davis and Limpar (consigned to the reserves) and with combative midfielders Ian Selley and David Hillier more the order of the day.
Up front, the pressure upon Ian Wright to score the required goals, as Alan Smith’s goal tally dried up, was immense. Yet Wright invariably delivered (to the backdrop of, “And it’s Ian Wright FC”). He netted two sensational strikes at home to Nottingham Forest that season in an FA Cup clash and ended up with 25 goals at the end of the campaign as the Gunners won both the Littlewoods and the FA Cup. Both finals were won against Sheffield Wednesday, and although neither game (nor the FA Cup Final replay) were classic encounters, Graham’s men dug in and revealed their fighting spirit. Steve Morrow and Andy Linighan proved themselves to be unlikely heroes in the process.
The following campaign saw Arsenal conquer Europe and win the Cup Winners' Cup final against a far more technically-gifted Parma team containing the likes of Faustino Asprilla, Gianfranco Zola and Tomas Brolin. In front of over 20,000 ecstatic Arsenal fans in Copenhagen, singing “1-0 to the Arsenal,” Smith’s superb winner was enough to land the trophy, with Ian Wright suspended. It may have been one of the most memorable nights in Arsenal’s history, but the final neatly encapsulated what Graham’s team had become: doughty fighters who could tangle more skilful opponents up in a web of harrying and pressure football, and nick a winning goal.
That style may have been sufficient to grind out victories in two-legged European encounters, but a more attacking style (embodied by Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis at Old Trafford) was needed to win the Premier League. Graham’s days were numbered, as whispers of financial impropriety began to circulate, and with his team mired in mid-table, he was dismissed in February 1995. With two league titles and four cups to his name, not to mention the signatures of players including Wright, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Bould, Graham had mastered the art of moulding ‘blue collar’ players into winners.
But as Alan Smith recalled: “By 1995 I think George had said pretty much all he had to say to us.” With Arsenal under the temporary control of Stewart Houston, they succumbed to Nayim’s late goal for Real Zaragoza in Paris in the Cup Winners’ Cup final. Everyone associated with Arsenal admitted that it was time for a new direction, and a new playing style. Salvation lay just around the corner...
- Just 25,558 turned up to see Arsenal beat Derby 3-0 on Boxing Day 1990, amid train strikes and storms. Those who attended saw a “David Seaman assist” as he hit the bar with a mammoth goal kick, and Alan Smith snapped up the rebound
- The Gunners scored six goals in a remarkable second-half blitz against Sheffield Wednesday, winning 7-1 after drawing 1-1 at half-time
- Arsenal’s record appearance holder, David O’Leary, bowed out in style by winning the FA Cup at Wembley in 1993 on his final turn-out for the Club