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One-Nil to the Arsenal: A Look Back at the George Graham Years

The rivalry between Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and Alex Ferguson's Manchester United was one that dominated the early years of this millennium. But, around fifteen years earlier, Alex Ferguson nearly ended up in charge of Arsenal. His success at Aberdeen had caught the eye of the North London club's directors, and if not for Jock Stein's death, and Scotland qualifying for the World Cup, the Highbury dressing room may have been subject to the Scot's infamous 'hairdryer treatment'. As it was, Arsenal hired a different Scot, George Graham, who was to go on to lead Arsenal to their first title in almost twenty years, and lay the foundations for the club's future success.When he took charge in 1986, Arsenal were in the doldrums. Younger fans of the club might have been shocked by last season's fifth placed finish, but when Graham took charge, Arsenal hadn't even managed a top five finish in any of the four previous seasons. A revamp of the squad was needed, and Graham quickly identified a young defender to build his team around, a tall twenty-year-old called Tony Adams. The following season, Graham made Adams captain, and built the famous rock-solid defense of Adams, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, and Nigel Winterburn, that was to be the foundation of the team's success in the late 80's and 1990's. Graham trained the defense rigorously, particularly focusing on their use of the offside trap. Whenever danger threatened, the four would step up as one, their knowledge of each other's positions was such that it was as if they were connected on the pitch by a rope.With this formidable wall behind them, Arsenal's forward talents, like Paul Merson and Alan Smith, led Arsenal to a final-day title showdown with Liverpool in George Graham's third season in charge of the club. With Liverpool having a better goal difference, Arsenal would have to get a two-nil win at Anfield in order to take home the title, a tough ask now, but one seen as almost impossible back in 1989. Alan Smith gave Arsenal the lead early in the second half, but the clock ticked away and it looked as though the title was going to Liverpool. But in injury time at the end of the game, Michael Thomas chipped the ball over an advancing Bruce Grobbelaar and into the Liverpool net. The game, immortalized in Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch, gave Arsenal their first title in almost twenty years, and was the beginning of the end of Liverpool's dominance of English football, the north-west side's title the following season would be their last right up until the present day.Graham's Arsenal would add a second league title in 1991, but after that the team started to become far more defensive. Teams were unable to get past Arsenal's unbreakable back four, and at the other end, Ian Wright would inevitably pop up to tap home the winner in the eightieth minute, leading fans to sing 'One-nil to the Arsenal.'In 1994, Arsenal would beat Italian club Parma by that famous one-nil scoreline to win the UEFA Cup-Winner's Cup, but it would be George Graham's final trophy with the Gunners. In the next season he was sacked following an illicit payments scandal.After half a season of Stewart Houston, and a season of Bruce Rioch, Arsenal would finally appoint Arsene Wenger, who would build on Graham's success. As for George Graham himself, he served out his ban from the game, then took charge of Leeds United, and later, controversially, Arsenal's arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, but neither of these sides would come close to matching his achievements with Arsenal in the late '80s and early '90s.