George Graham – The First Steps to Glory

Former Arsenal manager George GrahamAs one of England’s three premier domestic competitions, the League Cup has been a cherished prize for many a manager in its 50-year history. For some new bosses, League Cup glory has helped to kickstart a new era of success at a new club. In this series, FootballFanCast looks at a few managers who first tasted glory in their new jobs as a League Cup winner, and what they’ve gone on to achieve.

Believe it or not, Arsenal nearly appointed Alex Ferguson (as he was then) as their new manager when they relieved Don Howe of his duties in March 1986, looking to add then-Millwall boss George Graham as assistant manager. Ferguson had forged a great reputation for himself after leading Aberdeen to European glory and for stepping in to manage Scotland after the death of his mentor Jock Stein, but he wasn’t ready to take the job before the World Cup ended. Not inclined to wait, Arsenal instead offered the job to Graham, who promptly accepted.

42-year-old Graham had had significant success at Millwall, his first job in management. The club had been bottom of the old Third Division when the Scot was appointed in 1982, but he avoided the drop and within two years had secured promotion to the Second Division. Such was the extent of the turnaround that Graham had engineered, his successor John Docherty was able to lead the Lions into the First Division two years after Graham had left.

When he arrived at Highbury, former Arsenal forward/midfielder Graham might not have recognised the club where he was a double-winner in the 1970-71 season and for whom he made over 300 appearances. Arsenal were on a seven-year trophy drought (sound familiar?) when Graham took over and had fallen behind the league’s top sides. Graham, however, was intent on reviving the fortunes of Arsenal just as he had at Millwall, and put an end to the winless streak in his first season with League Cup triumph.

Arsenal’s early rounds were relatively straightforward; a 2-0 home win over Huddersfield Town in the first leg of the second round was followed by a 1-1 away draw. The Gunners then had too much for Manchester City in the third round, winning 3-1, before another two home fixtures helped them ease past Charlton and Nottingham Forest to reach the semi-finals, where Graham’s men lost the first leg at home before a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane forced a replay. Another 2-1 away win set Arsenal up for a Wembley date with Liverpool in the final.

Liverpool scored first, through legendary striker Ian Rush, but Charlie Nicholas equalised for Arsenal just seven minutes later, on the half-hour mark. The scores remained deadlocked until Nicholas struck again seven minutes from time, handing Arsenal their first trophy since the 1979 FA Cup.

The following season, Graham oversaw one of the most surprising results in the history of the League Cup, losing the final 3-2 to Third Division outfit Luton Town, but in the 1988-9 season he steered the club to its first league title in almost 20 years. He went on to taste more league success in 1991, and in the 1992-3 season secured a Cup double for Arsenal , winning both the League and FA Cups. His time with the Gunners would end ignominiously, however, as Graham was fired in 1994 after evidence emerged that he had received illegal payments from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge in exchange for hiring Hauge’s clients, Pal Lydersen and John Jensen.

Graham’s managerial career resumed briefly, with spells at Leeds and Tottenham between 1996 and 2001. The Scot did pick up one more trophy before what now appears to have been the end of his managerial career – and, somewhat fittingly, it was the League Cup again, Spurs beating Leicester City 1-0 in the 1998-9 final to give Graham his third triumph in the competition. Only two men have won the trophy more times in its history than Graham: Brian Clough, and Sir Alex Ferguson.

The big question is, who will add to that tally in this year’s Capital One Cup? You’d be foolish to bet against Ferguson adding another trophy to his cabinet but there are plenty of other teams and managers yet to taste Capital One Cup success who will do everything in their power to be victorious. We’ll have to wait and see as the fourth round of the Capital One Cup approaches.