Believe it or not, there was a time when Arsenal were a defensively organised, ruthlessly efficient winning machine.
No, really. It wasn’t always like this.
We refer, of course, to the reign of George Graham. An occasionally vituperative Scot who, despite having the physical demeanour of a 17th-century serf who’s just been asked to clean out the master’s privy following an outbreak of dysentery in the big house, Graham had been something of a fancy dan as a player at Highbury in the 1960s.
Which is a slightly incongruous reality, considering he ended up managing some of the most infamously dull teams in the history of British football. Still, those sides won trophies – and regularly.
As pointed out by Simon Hart of the Independent in 2015, Graham’s Arsenal “may have delivered the most exciting climax to a league season when Michael Thomas’s injury-time goal at title rivals Liverpool won the Scot his first championship in 1989, but they are best remembered for a defensive game that made ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ a terrace anthem.”
This was a side that knew how to defend, and did so with the unbridled schadenfreude of a Tory Prime Minister slashing an NHS budget in order to subsidise foxhunting jamborees. Graham built his success on a back four that perfected the offside trap to such a degree that they must have practiced thrusting one arm skyward for several hours each day. Dixon-Adams-Bould-Winterburn became as iconic a defensive unit as has been seen in the English top tier.
Arsenal supporters embraced the purported dullness, rejoicing in the hatred their team generated among opposing fans.
It was easy to do so when there was silverware to be polished: Graham and his clean-sheet masters delivered a First Division title in 1989 and 1991, as well as League Cups in 1987 and 1993, and an FA Cup in 1993. There was also a Cup Winners’ Cup victory in 1994, which remains the Gunners’ only continental title in the Premier League era.
Graham and Arsenal became synonymous. But it all came crashing down with a bit of a bung. And no, that’s not a typo.
Seemingly out of the blue in February 1995, then-chairman Peter Hill-Wood announced to the world that his club had parted ways with their emblematic head coach. Writing on this day 23 years ago, Trevor Haylett of the Indo noted that, “Arsenal’s board responded to the findings of a Premiership inquiry that their manager had pocketed a slice of the transfer fee paid to the Danish club, Brondby, for John Jensen in August 1992 and that there was no defence for his actions.”
According to the BBC, “Graham insisted that he had received ‘unsolicited gifts’ and not an illegal bung from [Rune] Hauge [a Norwegian agent] – an assertion he later repeated in his autobiography.”
But in the eyes of the authorities, it wasn’t enough.
Five months later Gorgeous George was found guilty of misconduct by the FA. He was slapped with a one-year ban from football, eventually returning to take charge of Leeds United in 1996, followed by a spell as Spurs boss from 1998-2001.
His departure from Arsenal marked the closing of a chapter in which the Gunners had made a name for themselves as a team of spoilers, despised and admired in the same breath for their stolid adherence to a defensive strategy. Within 18 months, the club had appointed Arsène Wenger, ushering in a new age of football that was almost diametrically opposed to the Graham years.