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The Grandmaster Makes his Moves
I always believed that George Graham was a chess player as a manager. I reckon he felt that if he can have an equal team, then he can make them work to win. So today, I am not going to talk so much about the matches as about his manoeuvering players into the positions that he wanted. He had a top goalkeeper in John Lukic, (although even he was eventually displaced by David Seaman), but he was eclipsed by Peter Shilton for England. Nigel Winterburn came for Viv Anderson and Lee Dixon and Steve Bould came before the end of the season. He already had his king at the back, Tony Adams and he was to make him captain later that season, a position he never relinquished. With David O’Leary coming to the end of his career and increasingly more of a cover and tactical player, the magical back four was created.
Michael Thomas cemented his place, as did Paul Merson. Alan Smith, who was to lead the line for many years, was brought in from Leicester. Brian Marwood came from Sheffield Wednesday, and immediately struck up a great partnership with Alan Smith, throwing in crosses for him to cause mayhem. Marwood was another of these Arsenal players whereby injury or tragedy curtailed their career, and that is another series I will embark on when I finish this one. Add in David Rocastle, Paul Davis and to a lesser extent, Kevin Richardson, and the pieces were in place to challenge Liverpool.
The Graham Manoeuvre
We were strong in every position and had plenty of top class cover. Niall Quinn was a good deputy for Smith. O’Leary at the back if there was an injury or when we switched to a back five with him as sweeper. O’Leary was a good footballer and could pass the ball so that role suited him. The wonderful Perry Groves to come on to great effect. Gus Caesar, Martin Hayes, and others could all come in and do a job. We were tough, we were getting better organized, and Graham made sure everyone knew their job.
As I say, I believe that Graham’s main aim was to put all the pieces in place before he was happy, and if you look at how settled his teams were, who he brought in later, Seaman, Keown, Wright, Limpar, etc., you can see he knew what he wanted, and only had his eyes on improvement. And he accepted that he had to do it the Arsenal way, without spending huge money.
And there were players he didn’t seem to fancy. Charlie Nicholas was a hard one for us as we loved him but he was deemed not to be a king, queen, knight, rook or bishop or even a pawn and he was shipped back to Scotland. Steve Williams was also moved on. Presumably, he felt that the players had to be able to do it his way.
So how did we do? We were looking for improvement on last year’s 4th and winning the League Cup. I should mention I was living in London at this time and went to as many matches as I could. One early highlight was Arsenal thrashing Portsmouth 6-0 in our second home game of the season. Our own Alan Ball had brought them up from the second division but they went straight back down. Lots of their supporters went at half time as they were 5-0 down. I felt sorry for him and their supporters as they really looked poor that day but you shouldn’t desert your team at half time. After that we drew with Luton and then won 11 in a row to go top. The chessmaster had got it right, we are the Arsenal and we were back. Except it all went a bit up and down from then on and we finished 6th on 66 points below QPR in 5th on 67. We really struggled to be kings of London in the 80’s.
Kings in the Cups?
The Fa Cup? Not too bad I suppose as we beat Man Utd 2-1 in the fifth round and who were starting to play well under Ferguson but we were knocked out by Brian Clough’s Forest in the 6th round by the same score.
The League Cup. As defending champions we gave it a good go and we got to the final against Luton. We were quite comfortable in our march to the final winning through easily enough even against Everton in the semis. So we could surely put away Luton? Eh, no, Brian Stein scored early after a goalmouth scramble from a free kick. Our defence was at sixes and sevens and I am sure George Graham was having a fit on the bench. It stayed that way till half time and Arsenal started to dominate the second half and Martin Hayes scored, this time it was our turn to have a free kick and a goalmouth scramble to score. Then our top scorer for the season, Alan Smith popped up to score and that was that. 2 league cups in a row. Except no, Luton didn’t read that script. Anyway, Rocky Rocastle got tripped in the box and it was a penalty to seal it for us. Nigel Winterburn stepped up to take it…and missed!
Another goalmouth scramble and Luton scored through Danny Wilson. 2-2! Then Brian Stein scored in the last minute to send us home crying. No shiny cup for us.
Were we ready for the next battle?
So a bit disappointing. The promise George Graham showed in his first season evaporated. We went backwards. However, I mentioned that George was maneuvering players into position and by the end of the season I feel he had got the team a lot closer to what he wanted. Next week we will look at how well he succeeded in putting the pieces into position to make a top charge and finally give us what we had been waiting for, for so long, to become champions of England once again. Could we make that big jump? Maybe only George knew that answer. For me, having got into the atmosphere at Highbury on a more regular basis, I was starting to feel it, we were fitter, we were faster, we were stronger, and we were for sure more organized.
Oh and by the way, eight 1-0 to the Arsenal. The number was increasing.
Well, after our thrilling win against the Spuds, we can still get 71 points. Enough for Champions league? Maybe. Definitely enough for Europa League. We have Brighton, Palace, Chelsea, West Brom, Newcastle, Everton, Fulham, Sheffield United and Liverpool in reverse order after we play West Ham on March 21st. Some banana skins there but if we play all our matches for 90 minutes like we did against Spurs, we do have a chance. We have to stamp on the six weaker teams though, and that seems to be difficult for us. So, even the 64 that I postulated at halfway is a challenge but we can win all if we are Arsenal for these ten matches and make a serious challenge for Champions League.