'I believed we would win'

Defining Moments: George Graham
George Graham

In Defining Moments former Arsenal stars select the situations that defined their career with the Gunners. This is a running feature and first appeared in the matchday programme. Ex-player and manager George Graham is next to recall his favourites.

1# Swapping Chelsea’s forward line for Arsenal’s midfield

When I joined Arsenal in 1966 – the same day as Bob McNab, I think – they were not doing great at all. Arsenal were certainly not up there with the top clubs. I’d just left Chelsea, who back then had a very exciting side under Tommy Docherty. Dave Sexton had moved to Arsenal as coach and I was happy to join because of him. Dave was a fantastic coach who was pretty much respected and liked by everyone.

I’d been leading scorer at Chelsea and I came to Highbury as a centre forward. But there became a period when I wasn’t scoring and the decision was made for me to drop back into midfield.

I seem to remember it was around the time that we played Sheffield Wednesday away [on March 1, 1969] and we scored five in that game. To be honest, I was just happy to be playing so the position was not too important, but after I moved back I actually started scoring goals again.

Why did that happen? Who knows why? I certainly couldn’t tell you – but I didn’t look back and my career at Arsenal really took off, going from strength to strength.


George Graham signs for Arsenal

George Graham signs for Arsenal



I was always a good header of the ball – I used to joke to Alan Smith that the only person better than me in the air was Douglas Bader! – and could finish on the floor too, as well as set up others. Being in midfield just suited me.

We had a really outstanding backroom team, people like Don Howe who took over after Dave Sexton and was every bit as good. Then we had Bertie Mee, the manager, who was disciplined and demanded the highest standards.

He got the coaches coaching and he did the other stuff. We won the Fairs Cup and the ‘double’ and they really were the most wonderful times.

#2 A cold blow from the south...

I don’t think a club like Arsenal will ever take a manager from a club like Millwall again. That’s a shame, but that’s the reality of football in 2015.

I had a lot of success at the Den, winning promotion and having some good cup runs, but, to me, it wasn’t a total surprise that I ended up returning to Arsenal as manager.

Like 20 years previously when I signed as a player, Arsenal were not having the best of times. The only way was up so, in many ways, the pressure was off. Somebody said the best time to join a club is when they are not doing well. There was a good chance I was going to improve things. And I did. It was the start of a fantastic few years for me and for Arsenal Football Club.

#3 May 26, 1989

When I joined I gave myself three years to win the title and said as much to the press. I knew I needed that time to shape my own team.

A lot of players left and I went about bringing in new ones. But – and this cannot be stressed enough – the youth set up was absolutely outstanding when I arrived.


George Graham signs for Arsenal as manager

George Graham signs for Arsenal as manager



David Rocastle, Tony Adams, Paul Merson, Niall Quinn, Michael Thomas, Kevin Campbell, these lads, and many more, were already at the club. I just brought them into the first team and kept them there. I was very fortunate and so much credit must go to people like Steve Burtenshaw.

I had great knowledge of the lower leagues from my time at Millwall so I brought in Nigel Winterburn from Wimbledon, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon from Stoke, Kevin Richardson – a great ‘spoiler’ with a tremendous attitude – from Watford.

Anfield was the culmination of all our work from the previous three seasons. Actually there was an argument that Liverpool were the better side over the course of the season. But on the night I did believe we would win.

I played three centre halves – my players were really flexible – so I could change the tactics. Everybody thought we should attack but I told my lads they just needed to go in at half time with a clean sheet and the chances would then come.

"It was possibly my greatest night as a manager"

George Graham

I believed that 100 per cent – absolutely adamant – and so it was proved. The holy grail, of course, is a great defence and great attack. But a solid defence is a very good starting point.

There is a myth that English players – in particular defenders – are not intelligent. But they are. Believe me, there is a lot of intelligence in defending but we don’t see it too often these days and that is why our clubs don’t do as well as they could – and should – in Europe.

Anyway, at Anfield it all came together perfectly. And, for me, it was possibly my greatest night as a manager.

#4 Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

We had no Ian Wright – suspended. Martin Keown failed a fitness test. Our midfield was Paul Davis with Ian Selley and Steve Morrow either side of him. And we were up against a Parma side with half the Italian national team and a front three of Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin and Faustino Asprilla.

But we defended brilliantly and scored a great winner. In fact, 21 years on, I still cannot praise my players highly enough.

Three years previously we had lost 3-1 at home to Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Benfica in the European Cup. I learned so much that night – the seeds of our success in Copenhagen can be traced back to then.

What I learned more than anything is that in Europe you cannot concede time and space in the midfield. If you do, you will be dominated. So from then on I would play 4-4-2 in the Premier League and switch
to 4-3-3 in Europe in midweek.

Paul Merson and Kevin Campbell, who could both play centre forward, would instead play on the wing and when we lost possession they would tuck in to defend the fullbacks and allow us to plug up the midfield.

As I said before, English players do not get the credit they deserve tactically but my players were absolutely magnificent – especially as they had to change their formation from one game to the next.

That night in the Parken Stadium typified it so much and I am so proud of them all.


George Graham celebrates

George Graham celebrates


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