Interview: George Graham on tough upbringing and spending £1000 on shoes

Gorgeous George and I are discussing clothes and his love for them. George Graham, who was also nicknamed Stroller, developed a taste for high-end tailoring having gone through childhood with the backside falling out of his short trousers. I mention the modelling he did for luxury labels like Aquascutum and ask what's the most he's ever spent on clobber '¨but he won't say, possibly out of not wanting to appear boastful.
George Graham after Arsenal's stunning 1989 title triumph.  Picture: Allsport/Getty ImagesGeorge Graham after Arsenal's stunning 1989 title triumph.  Picture: Allsport/Getty Images
George Graham after Arsenal's stunning 1989 title triumph. Picture: Allsport/Getty Images

Then later, towards the end of our chat, as he describes how his arthritis has required seven operations, how he won’t go to the football now because being this slow on his feet would mark him as a “nuisance” and how he can only play golf if he rides in a buggy, I’m thinking he might be favouring footwear that’s synthetically soft and utilitarian for those sore ankles and knees. Then he says: “I’ve just bought some new shoes. Really smart, they are – in fact I ended up getting two pairs. British leather but Italian design – it has to be Italian. A thousand quid.”

Standards must be maintained if you’re Gorgeous George. “I like to look smart, always have,” he adds. “If I’m taking my wife to a restaurant I’ll always put on a suit, shirt and tie and a nice silk handkerchief. But there will often be a bloke in jeans and possibly
trainers, too. The world has gone 
casual and it upsets me.”

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You can perfectly understand why 
the 73-year-old Graham, a Double-
winner with Arsenal who then bossed the Gunners to a sensational title before being sacked in disgrace, would end up going after the finer things in life when he tells you about his upbringing. Forty-seven years ago tonight Graham made his Scotland debut against Portugal. There were five new caps for that Euro Championships qualifier and all of them would have felt pride. But if his team-mates were to have contemplated how they’d got to Hampden from their respective starts in life – and if the side for tomorrow’s friendly against the Portuguese were to do the same – then few stories could match that of our man for struggle and sadness.

At first when I ask about it Graham thinks I mean simply that he had a working-class background – in his case in Bargeddie in North Lanarkshire – which, as he points out, would have been the status of just about every Scottish boy who dreamed of becoming a footballer. But I’m talking about the tragedy which befell his family on Christmas Day, 1944.

“My father died when I was three weeks old,” Graham explains, “so my mother was left with seven kids in a wee council house.” Robert, a steelworker, succumbed to tuberculosis, which would also claim Graham’s sister Mary. But there is little point probing him about feelings; his milieu was the west of Scotland in the immediate post-war years and not California in the 1970s. The family responded to the tragedy with stoicism and hard graft.

“I grew up without a father but I didn’t know any different,” he says. “You make the best of a bad job in those situations. Yes, life was tough but I would regard my childhood as happy. It was full of warmth.”

Graham’s mother Janet worked as a cleaner and in the fields round Bargeddie while supervising a rota of jobs for her children. “The big pot of soup my mother made had to last the whole family all week. We had to grow our own vegetables. We had to ensure the potatoes were properly stored in what we called ‘the hump’ – a layer of hay, soil then more hay – to last the whole winter. And we had to follow horses round the village collecting fertiliser!

“Obviously as the baby of the family I missed these tasks in the beginning but they came to me later. When my father died my eldest brother Andy left school to work on a farm in Ayrshire and he became the family’s breadwinner. He became the man of the house and, for me, a father-figure. That was how I always regarded him.

“It was some responsibility for a lad of 16. He went down the mines later which would have been gruelling. Eventually he got a family of his own and proved himself a great father for real. He died a few years ago but I speak to his widow Babs all the time. I never felt deprived because I didn’t know my actual father. I had Andy and that was brilliant. I hope my actual father would have been proud of me getting to play for Scotland but I know Andy was and that was enough. He was a great guy and my hero.”

That Portugal game was the first of Tommy Docherty’s tenure as manager following a glum couple of years for the national team. The other new caps were Martin Buchan, Alex Cropley, Eddie Colquhoun and Graham’s Arsenal team-mate Bob Wilson as goalkeeper. Reporting on the 2-1 win, The Scotsman’s John Rafferty applauded a performance of “intelligence, fire and good order”. The Hampden Roar had returned, Rafferty said, because “the crowd had found a manager and he had made a team”, with Graham being “impressively studious” in the midfield. “That’s very polite,” he laughs.

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“Portugal were a fabulous team back then and I was thrilled to have been a small part in the victory. I was an Anglo, and sometimes guys who played their football in England had to try a bit harder to impress, but I don’t think there are too many folk who leave Scotland who aren’t proud to still be called Scottish and who don’t have that lovely desire to do well in the world. I’d like to think I had it.”

In Bargeddie, football was the big – and only – passion. Nothing else distracted Graham; he’s not even sure there was a wireless in the house. Come Christmas, a poignant time, he hoped for a leather football, every boy’s desire, but never got one. “Maybe some other lad did and he became king of the street. We’d all wanted to be his best friend. I did get boots one year, the kind with the rock-hard toecaps. You stood in a bowl of hot water for a couple of hours every night to try and soften them. We played football all day and every day, under the streetlights which became our floodlights, and we honed our skills. Scots were famous for being ball artists, weren’t they? They weren’t physically strong but they were better than the English at dribbling.”

If Anglos really had to audition before a tough Hampden crowd then Graham in ’71 was at least able to present a more than respectable cv: the old English First Division and the FA Cup, both having been won five months previously. Scotland saw little live football on TV back then but we were permitted the cup final’s extra-time when a Scot, Frank McLintock, hoisted the trophy for Arsenal and two more bickered over a goal. “Eddie Kelly has always claimed it but I still maintain I got the last touch,” says Graham.

By then he was left-half having started out as a centre-forward, being signed as such by Aston Villa then Chelsea, the latter managed by the same Tommy Doc. Oh to be swanning along the King’s Road during the Swinging Sixties – Graham did this. And when he walked through the front door at Stamford Bridge, aged 19, new team-mate John Hollins was so impressed by the shimmering suit and its wearer’s confident stride that he thought the club had signed a model.

Graham chuckles at this. “Well, I was determined to make an impact. I promised myself I’d buy some nice clothes when I could afford them because I always had hand-me-downs in Bargeddie. School uniforms would be passed from Andy to Tom then to Robert and when I got them the jackets were always heavily patched.

“Was I confident? Well, I was determined to get on. That came from Bargeddie, my upbringing. If I was going to do something with my life then, given my start, I was going to have to put everything into it and work hard. So hard work always came first for me.”

We definitely associate the Arsenal team he managed with hard work. Think of the mean defence he assembled, sparking the jibes of “Boring Arsenal”, which in turn inspired Highbury’s North Bank to chant: “One-nil to the Ars-en-al”. Think, too, of Anders Limpar’s assessment of Graham’s iron rule: “Like living in Iraq under Saddam [Hussein].”

Ah, but hard work having got him to London when it was the centre of the pop-cultural universe, Graham slowed up. At Chelsea he had a groovy time away from the pitch and there’s an old quote which goes: “I wasn’t exactly a keen trainer. I was more interested in finishing and going off for a vodka and coke, or chasing the lassies.” With another team-mate, Terry Venables, Graham opened a gents outfitters. “It was in Soho and Norman Wisdom helped promote it. A lovely guy, but because he always wore too-tight jackets and trousers at half-mast in his films, he might not have done us much good!” Graham’s fellow Blues soon coined another nickname for him: Big Fry, after the square-jawed fellow with girls at his feet in chocolate commercials of the time, played by George Lazenby. So that’s three different monikers over the course of his career – four if you count Saddam.

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Stroller suited him fine. “I was never a great athlete,” he admits. “I couldn’t sprint and I wasn’t the best at winning the ball back or anything physical. But I’d like to think I used what talent I had. I was good on the ball, the Scottish trait, and I could score with a header. I used to tell the lads at Arsenal: ‘There’s only one guy better in the air than me and that’s Douglas Bader’!”

The move across London to Highbury happened not long after a wild night in Blackpool for eight Chelsea high-rollers, Graham included. Challenging for the title, the team faced three games in quick succession in England’s north-west and decided to set up camp in the seaside resort but the players were gasping for a bevvy and broke a curfew. The Doc waited up for them like a comic-strip battleaxe. He may not have brandished a rolling pin but he definitely sent the Blackpool Eight home and a side made up of second-stringers were thrashed in the next match. “A silly mistake,” says Graham, and unfortunately it wouldn’t be his last.

As a player at Arsenal, where he also won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Graham appeared to undergo a kind of spiritual conversion. “I came to realise the importance of discipline. Arsenal have always had great standards and that was driven into me from the moment I arrived at the club.” With that reformed outlook it’s perhaps surprising that he didn’t have management in mind when he stopped strolling and hung up his boots. He was pulling pints in McLintock’s pub, thinking he might get one of his own, when Venables, manager at Crystal Palace, asked if he’d like to run the youth team.

“I loved coaching right away, couldn’t get enough of it.” His first manager’s job was Millwall and in 1986 he took over at Arsenal, much to McLintock’s amusement, especially given the hard-line demeanour he’d adopt there. “Frank likes to say: ‘George Graham, the manager, would never have picked George Graham, the footballer, for his team.’ It’s true, I wouldn’t.” Arsenal became a force in the game again.

“I was lucky. Like Sir Alex [Ferguson] at Manchester United I inherited a group of outstanding young players: [Tony] Adams, [Martin] Keown, [David] Rocastle, [Paul] Davis, [Niall] Quinn. Then I was able to add the best of the lower leagues, [Lee] Dixon, [Steve] Bould and [Nigel] Winterburn, because every Monday I had those green and pink sports finals from the English cities brought to my desk and I knew that scene well. Hungry guys and young talent made for a great combination. I was full of confidence but [managing the team] was an easy job because they all wanted to learn. I was a teacher and they couldn’t get enough information, they loved it. I didn’t mind the sergeant-major reputation. Saddam? That made me laugh.” Nor was he bothered by criticism of his tactics. “I used to say that I planted my bulbs in the garden in a strong defensive line. That was a joke, as was the one about having the Arsenal crest on the bottom of my swimming pool.” He’d just taken over as manager of Spurs and had been asked if he thought the fans would accept a man from the North London rivals.

Graham’s Gunners lifted six trophies in nine years and none more dramatic than the 1988-89 championship when Liverpool only needed to avoid losing by two goals at home, but Arsenal pulled off the seemingly impossible. Graham decided the team would head north on the day of the match, a decision based on his reading of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape (“The stuff about fighting for territory was fascinating”) and also the hostility experienced on previous trips to Merseyside: “Hotel staff were quite derogatory, telling us to get back to London.”

But Graham’s Highbury reign would come crashing down in 1995 when he was sacked by the club and banned for a year by the FA for taking a £425,000 bung from a Norwegian agent following the purchase of two players. The money was handed back, with interest, and he would eventually return to management, but the damage had been done. He accepts his reputation has been tarnished and with it the memory of these redoubtable achievements. “I don’t like to talk about what happened but I know I made a big mistake.”

Graham blamed the all-consuming football life for the break-up of his first marriage but, remaining close to his two children, he now lives contentedly in London’s Hampstead with second wife Susan. Another reason he doesn’t go to matches any more is that there are too many old soldiers hanging around the game already. “They must get in the way. I’ve had my time.”

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His time as a Scotland player ended with his 12th cap. By then he’d left Arsenal for Man U, the wrong move which ended in relegation. “Yes, I was disappointed not to play more for my country but one thing about me is I’ve never been a dreamer. I’m a realist and while I thought I was a good player, I knew I wasn’t special. I was happy being on the periphery and thrilled to make the team, even just a few times.”

The boy from Bargeddie did all right, as I’m sure his dad would agree. Both of them.