In many ways the team that started the 92/93 season differed little from the previous season’s team, but in the manager’s eyes it would differ greatly.
In the eyes of most Arsenal fans there was little if anything wrong with the football that had been seen over the last few years. Two league titles under George Graham was enough to elevate him to God like status amongst the fans. On occasions where things didn’t appear to be going too well the chant or ‘Georgie, sort it out, Georgie Georgie sort it out’ would emanate from the terraces, with each joined voice 100% convinced that he could and would. And with good cause. Before the last few years of George Grahams reign are thought about, it must be remembered that here was a manager that had taken over a club that could quite easily have gone either way, and led it to two league titles in the previous four seasons.
But ‘Gorgeous’ wasn’t happy with dominating England, he wanted to pit his wits against the best Europe had to offer, and beat them. The defeat to Wrexham the previous season is often cited as a changing point in Grahams stewardship of our club, and whilst that may have been the final straw in some ways, the camels back problem stemmed from the defeat against Benfica. That was Europe, which was where Graham wanted to prove himself. A Kevin Campbell miss away from qualifying for the group stages that Arsenal were expected to excel in, our ‘go for it’ championship winning style left gaps in extra time and lost the tie. Winning the English title was one thing, but with European glory the aim things had to change.
There was little wrong with the team, but to succeed in Europe the team needed a ‘shielding’ midfielder to sit in front of the back four. The back four that was on the way to being quite possible the best unit ever assembled in English football needed help in some situations, and a (then) little known Dane was Grahams answer.
Denmark only played in Euro 92 because the political situation in (the then) Yugoslavia led to UEFA withdrawing their invitation shortly before the championship. The Danish players literally had to be called back from holiday to compete, and with no pressure on them proceeded to beat Germany in the final. And their defensive midfielder, John ‘Faxe’ Jensen (nicknamed after his favourite beer!) scored a screamer in the final.
Unfortunately when he was signed for around £1.5m shortly after the championships virtually the only image Arsenal fans had of him was the goal he scored in the final. And whilst he would often hit venomous shots at the goal in an Arsenal shirt, the ones that stayed in the ground tended to worry the fans more than the opposition keepers. The cries of ‘shoot’ that greeted his forays upfield became more ironic than hopeful. Mind you, it could have been worse. Graham also wanted to sign Geoff Thomas! Going the other way the much loved (and sadly missed) David Rocastle made a tearful exit to Leeds.
The previous season had ended too soon for most Arsenal fans. Playing free flowing attacking football in the last few months teams were being battered for fun and it was a widely held belief that if the season had lasted just one more month Graham would have been the first Arsenal manager to lead his team to three league titles. Expectation for the new season was high, but the expected continuation of the previous seasons form and style never came. The football we played had changed from the previous almost gung-ho approach where we played as though we could beat anyone, to a defensive safety first approach. The dynamism of the midfield was lost as the ball often by-passed it entirely, and we became very one-dimensional. The basic team plan appeared to be to stop then scoring and wait for Ian Wright to score the winner. It was a policy destined to fail misserably in the league, but succeed spectacularly in the cups.
Graham also appeared to be gradualy losing control of the squad as well. Stories of various forms of misbehaviour from players escalated, with the most graphic example probably Tony Adams playing the cup tie away at Ipswich with a head full of stitches after a drunken early morning tumble down a clubs steps. Mind you, being TA it didn’t stop him putting in a superb display, and scoring a header right off his ‘wound’. TA being TA it only added to his legend, and more worrying to the fans was Paul Merson’s slump in form, fitness, and confidence. His performance in most games appeared to depend on his first touch of the ball. If it was good he seemed to play well, but if not you could almost write him off for the game.
On the pitch success duly came in the cups. The unlikely scorer of the winner in the League Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday was Steve Morrow. Unfortunately he never got a chance to celebrate his success. In the post match celebrations Tony Adams hoisted him up to salute the crowd, but they overbalanced and Morrow fell to the ground. The scene lost all its amusement in seconds when it became obvious that Morrow was badly hurt. He had broken his collarbone and had to be stretchered off the pitch with an oxygen mask on. At the end of the season the same two teams would contest the FA Cup final after both had beaten their local rivals in Wembley semis. The forth meeting of the teams that season (and the third in just under a month) wasn’t much of a game, and ended in a draw. A few days later the two teams returned to play the replay in front of one of the lowest ever attendances for a cup final. 90 minutes couldn’t separate the teams, and as penalties loomed at the end of extra time we won a corner. The much-maligned Andy Linighan, his nose broken earlier in the game by a Mark Bright elbow, met the cross with a firm header that Chris Woods couldn’t prevent from going in. The season had brought two trophies (the first time a club had won both domestic cups in one season), and plenty of theatre, but very little football to remember.
The FA Cup win brought with it entry into the 1993/94 European Cup Winners Cup and Graham relished the chance of again pitting his wits against some of the best in Europe. Often the Cup Winners Cup was devalued in some peoples by the lack of big teams, but this year was different. The quarter final line up alone was Arsenal, Ajax, Bayer Leverkausen, Benfica, PSG, Parma, Real Madrid and Torino. And in the final we faced the holders Parma at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. By the day of the match Copenhagen was a sea of red and white, with barely an Italian in sight. Unlike some of the away trips we experienced that season and the next the local police were very low key, and surprisingly helpful, which led to an unforgettable atmosphere around the city. It probably did no harm that John Jensen was a hero in his hometown, and all the locals were Gooners for the day!
The match itself encapsulated Graham’s game plan. It didn’t matter that we were playing a technically superior team. It didn’t matter that our goal scoring talisman Ian Wright banned for the match. It didn’t even matter that we would be robbed through injury of Jensen, Martin Keown (who not being able yet to break the Adams/Bould axis at centre half had been employed by Graham as a man marker of the opposition dangerman, a role he excelled at), and David Hillier. Nothing mattered except having 11 men out there in red and white shirts, each knowing their job and sticking to it. And then nicking a goal. The chant of ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ hadn’t become so popular so quickly without good cause!
The youthful and largely inexperienced central midfield consisted of Ian Selley, and Steve Morrow employed in a totally defensive role. And how they stuck to it. Alongside them Paul Davis used all his guile and experience to hold everything together. And when that line was breached the back four was in the kind of mood where they seemed quite willing to have played all night without conceding. And to encapsulate the feeling, behind them was David Seaman playing with padding to protect broken ribs, and needing pain killing injections before the match and at half-time. In ‘attack’ goal scorer Alan Smith played the game of his life. Every time we were under pressure he was available, and able to hold the ball to provide respite. And having to mainly ignore their attacking instincts to help the cause Paul Merson and Kevin Campbell played admirably. In fact, possibly, in Grahams mind the only thing the team did wrong was scoring too early and allowing the opposition too much time to try to equalise!
Any fans that were hopeful that European success would be transformed into a challenge for the league the next season were to be sadly disappointed. The football was even worse than previously. Team spirit appeared non-existent, and Arsenal stumbled along in mid table, with only another ECWC run to ‘excite’ the fans. In January Graham spent nearly £5m on promising Luton centre forward John Hartson, and in what appeared to be nothing more than panic, Chris Kiwomya. Another couple of million went in February on Dutch winger Glenn Helder, but by the time he made his debut Graham was gone.
Graham had already accepted he’d lost the team and that it was time to go, and an agreement had been made with the board (in secret) that he should resign at the end of the season. Events, however, denied him the opportunity of stepping down in this way, and on the 21st of February he was sacked by Arsenal due to off-field matters.
The Premier league had long been running an investigation into what was happening to monies from transfer fees, and many famous managers appeared to be in the firing line. In the end the Premier League seemed more interested in having a high profile ‘conviction’ than cleaning up football in any way. Despite evidence (which later came into the public domain) of money missing from transfers involving the likes of Ferguson and Venables (both of which led to investigations and action by the Inland Revenue) Graham was the only man charged. And in a strange way it was his willingness to be honest about what had happened that led to his downfall.
A cash sweetener to enable transfer deals is as old as professional football itself. The number of cases of managers meeting in motorway service stations and the like over the years to exchange bundles of cash can’t be counted, and within football it was, whilst not generally talked about, accepted. But with football awash with money the figures had suddenly spiralled, and the ubiquitous agents were in on the game. Grahams problems came from a Scandinavian agent called Rune Hauge, who was the agent involved in Jensens signing, and also that of Pal Lydersen.
The Jensen signing wasn’t the first time Graham dealt with Hauer. They had first met when Hauer had been involved in commercial discussions with David Dein, and he had brokered the signing of Anders Limpar. The crux of the matter is that after the Jensen transfer Hauge regularly offered players to Graham (including the likes of Schmichael and Kanchelskis). He passed on them all for various reasons (except Lydersen) but did advise the agent of clubs that might be interested in the players. Then at two separate meetings in the rather indiscreet setting of the lounge bar of the Park Lane Hotel, Hauge handed Graham £425k in cash. This hotel was and is regularly used by Arsenal as it is part owned by two Arsenal directors, Richard and Clive Carr. Not exactly the sort of place a clandestine meeting would have been planned for. To avoid tax Graham placed the money in an offshore account. When the taxman started investigating Graham admitted what had happened to the club and ‘returned’ the money to Arsenal with interest (this is thought to have been one of the reasons Graham agreed to go at the end of the season). Grahams argument was that the agent would not give anyone nearly 2/3’s of his fees and that the money was in effect for the advice he’d given. To the enquiry Graham returning the money was a tacit agreement of guilt, and Arsenal were informed that unless the board acted against the manager the club would be charged with wrong doing, with relegation a potential sanction. Although in effect Graham had been sacked for ripping the club off, the fans showed their feelings on the matter at Paul Merson’s testimonial a year later. When the ’71 double team came onto the pitch at half-time, it was Graham who was cheered longest and loudest.
Ironically it was too late to change the programme for that nights match and Grahams notes started "Rumours of my impending resignation have been proved somewhat premature". Oops.
The team stumbled through the rest of the season under the stewardship of Stewart ‘Coneman’ Houston, flirting with relegation without ever quite getting dragged into the dogfight, and reaching a second ECWC final after an enthralling semi against Sampdoria was won on penalties after a 5-5 aggregate draw. Another trophy wasn’t to be though, as seconds before penalties were due in the final Nayim (which I’m told translates as ‘the fortunate one’) hoofed the ball goalwards and it floated slowly over Seaman. Rather an ironic end to the campaign when you consider it was a last minute goal that won the FA Cup in ’93 and started the run.
The 95/96 season started with a non-Arsenal man in charge. With no outstanding candidates with an Arsenal connection the board were split as to whom to appoint. David Dein was firmly behind a little known (in this country anyway) Frenchman called Arsène Wenger that he’d become friends with, but with the only experience of a foreigner managing a major club being Dr Venglos’ terrible spell in charge of Villa the rest of the board wouldn’t sanction the risk, preferring someone they felt could steady the club. Unfortunately the promising Bruce Rioch was appointed.
Some managers are suited to big players and big clubs, and some are not. Rioch proved to be a not. Things started well with the summer signings of David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp, although Dein signed the latter without Rioch’s knowledge on the recommendation of… Arsène Wenger.
On the pitch things changed for the better. Rioch’s solution to who to pick out of Adams, Bould and Keown to fill the two centre half slots was to change the teams formation to 5 at the back, allowing him to play them all. Whilst never threatening to win the title, the team played well enough to qualify for the UEFA Cup by winning the last game of the season, but off the pitch things still weren’t going well. Rioch’s Sgt-Major approach didn’t work with top players, and his relationship with them never gelled. In the spring Ian Wright was so unhappy that he needed to be talked out of leaving by Dein.
Whilst player power can’t be allowed to usurp the manager, there was more to it with Rioch. The board wasn’t happy with their appointment. After the problems with money under Graham the new arrangement was for Rioch to identify the players he wanted, and Dein to endeavour to sign them. Unfortunately, as Dein later said, the players Rioch wanted were simply not available. The matter dragged on through the summer until the board lost its patience shortly before the new season started and he was terminated. Technically it was because he had never signed his contract so he wasn’t actually sacked, but the club paid him up on his ‘contract’ anyway, and Houston began his second spell as caretaker manager.
It would be a shorter spell than the first. Virtually on the eve of the new season he was offered and accepted the managers job at QPR. Houston had never been popular with the fans and knew he had no chance of the main job at Arsenal, so no one really blamed him, but the timing was bad for Arsenal and the press had a field day. They were handed another angle when whilst Pat Rice was appointed Arsenals caretaker manager Houston was busy appointing Rioch as his assistant.
The season was about to start, we had no manager, and then the only new arrivals on the player side appeared. They consisted of two unknown Frenchmen, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira.