It was all of 60 years ago but he remembers the feeling as the train pulled out of the station. ‘It was very traumatic. It was very difficult to step on that train,’ says George Graham, at 75, recalling without prompting his emotions as a 15-year-old boy as work, fame, fortune and a singular scandal awaited far down the line.
The teenager from Bargeddie was heading back to England. Graham, who plundered trophies as a player and a manager, who represented his country, who became the fashionable Stroller of the King’s Road and beyond, made the journey from Lanarkshire with some unease.
‘As I say, a big trauma,’ he says. ‘I was with Aston Villa and I would go home once a month to see my family but getting back on the train again was a struggle. We all knew it was an opportunity but that doesn’t mean it was easy.’
George Graham plundered trophies as both a player and a manager in England’s top-flight
He was scouted by several clubs before moving to England and joining Aston Villa
The ‘we’ encompassed a family of seven children with a widowed mother. Graham’s father died on Christmas Day 1944 when he was just three weeks old.
‘I was the youngest of the seven,’ he adds. ‘I didn’t have it as hard as them. My childhood memories are of football, playing at Wembley for the Scottish schoolboys against England in front of 82,000, playing in the park near our home.’
He concedes, though, that this is all relative. ‘You don’t miss what you don’t have,’ he says.
However, it would not take a chartered psychologist to see that early deprivation marked Graham’s later life. It fuelled his determination to succeed, it was conspicuous in his taste for fine clothes and it surely played a part in the scandal that blighted his career.
In 1995, he was sacked by Arsenal and banned for a year by the FA for taking a £425,000 improper payment from a Norwegian agent following the purchase of two players.
In 1995, he was sacked by Arsenal and banned by the FA for taking a £425,000 payment
The money was handed back, with interest. He would manage again but now never talks about that episode, although he has consistently accepted culpability.
The reality, of course, is that ‘bungs’ were part of the game and Graham’s early poverty may have made him susceptible to huge sums. This is not an excuse but it may be a partial explanation.
All this, and more, was far in front of that slim teenager who would travel to Birmingham after a break in Bargeddie. ‘The reason I was at Aston Villa was pretty simple,’ he explains.
He was scouted by several clubs and had discussions with Scot Symon at Rangers with his oldest brother, Andy, who had taken over the parental role.
‘The problem with clubs in Scotland was that they didn’t have a youth policy, says Graham. ‘If I had gone to Rangers, then they would have farmed me out to a Junior side. I would have been a boy playing against men.’
Graham believes the lack of youth policy for clubs in Scotland was a problem in his day
He wanted to develop as a player and Aston Villa seemed the best option after talks with other English clubs. ‘I stayed in digs with four other boys with a nice family, a family of Villa supporters,’ he recalls.
It was a traditional experience for schoolboys then, with life as a lodger being followed by football training and chores around the stadium.
He quickly graduated, however, and moved to Chelsea at 19, then went on to have huge success at Arsenal before joining Manchester United in 1972.
Graham downplays his career but he won the League Cup at Chelsea, the League and FA Cup Double in 1971 and the Fairs Cup in 1970 with Arsenal.
‘I read once,’ he says, ‘that Kenny (Dalglish) and I are the only people to have won the three English trophies as a manager and player.
‘Kenny is the greatest Scots player ever. I played with Denis (Law) and all of the Scottish greats at that time — but Kenny was the best.
Graham downplays the League and FA Cup Double in 1971 and the Fairs Cup with Arsenal
‘He was the sharpest mentally, spinning to do something almost before the ball reached him.’
‘Stroller’ Graham was a different beast. But his languorous appearance on the pitch belied a temperament that was tough and unyielding. ‘I played with a very strong Arsenal team,’ he says.
It was marked with the grace of such as Charlie George but was infused by the will and strength of Peter Storey, Pat Rice, Bob McNab and his friend — and now golfing partner — fellow Scot Frank McLintock. Graham took these traits into a managerial career that encompassed most famously Arsenal, Leeds and Spurs.
It was at Highbury, though, that he instituted a revolution that made the Gunners a relentless, obdurate and ultimately successful team.
His tenure resonates to myths and legends. His man-management style was such that he was described as a dictator, an appellation that worries him little.
His training methods were said to have involved bonding the back four together with a rope. ‘This is true,’ he says. ‘But it didn’t start at Arsenal. I used this when I was coaching at Crystal Palace and QPR, usually with the younger boys.’
At Highbury, though, he instituted a revolution that made the Gunners a relentless force
It was long-time friend Terry Venables who brought Graham into coaching and the Scot moved to manage Millwall before he found himself appointed as Arsenal boss in 1986. He then made immediate changes there to personnel and attitude.
The Gunners were rewarded with two titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup in his nine-year spell.
‘I tried to buy players with hunger and passion,’ he admits. ‘I knew the lower divisions and players who I thought had been perhaps overlooked, so I brought in (Nigel) Winterburn, (Lee) Dixon and (Steve) Bould.
‘I inherited good players at Arsenal but I felt I had to revitalise the club — and hunger plays a major part in that.’
His philosophy has been demonised in the chant of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ but it was more sophisticated than just having a back four who were joined by a rope and held their hands up for offside.
He brought in players like Lee Dixon at Arsenal who he believed at hunger and passion
Graham insists: ‘I learned from good coaches. I picked up an awful lot from Dave Sexton and I hung about with the West Ham boys who went on to become managers. Malcolm Allison was a bit of a character.’
This is said with a chuckle but serious foundations were laid.
‘I was also fortunate as I played in teams that were well structured, particularly in what you did with and without the ball. I was well educated,’ he says. ‘It’s about the training pitch. We used the rope trick for structure when we did not have the ball. When we had it, we demanded that full-backs should be released.’
Dixon and Winterburn were two of the most attacking full-backs in the division.
Graham maintains his greatest debt is to Venables.
‘Terry is an outstanding coach. He kept me in the game after I retired from playing. I watched and learned,’ he says.
Graham maintains the next five years are going to be tough for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal
His hopes for a resurgence in his former team rest in the belief that Arsenal’s new manager, Mikel Arteta, may have had a similar education under Pep Guardiola.
‘First, the next five years are going to be tough for Arsenal,’ says Graham. ‘They have to rebuild. They had a great side for a number of years and the first half of the (Arsene) Wenger era was brilliant.
‘He brought in players who weren’t recognised and they soared. He built Arsenal but then it tailed off. They have to start again at a lower level.’
Can they ever reach the very top again? ‘It depends on the manager,’ he adds. ‘You have to hope Arteta is a good learner and has taken something from Guardiola.
But Graham hopes his former club can emulate Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in buying well
‘But recruitment is obviously crucial. Liverpool have been great at that. But it is expensive.
‘Jurgen Klopp paid record prices for a goalkeeper and a centre-half but he will hardly regret that. Arsenal have good youngsters but they need to buy.’
Graham still watches football avidly and is enthusiastic about the level of the game in England’s Premier League, adding: ‘It’s not just the top teams like Liverpool and Manchester City but look at Wolves and Leicester.
‘They play with a marvellous energy, technique and pace. I love English football.’
Graham admits he also enjoys watching the likes of Leicester City in the Premier League
He believes Liverpool could dominate for a spell but is reminded that he once punctured the aspirations of a great Reds side in 1989.
In the previous ten years, Liverpool had won the championship seven times. Graham took an Arsenal side to Anfield knowing that his team had to win 2-0 to lift the title. They did.
‘That was the pinnacle,’ he declares . ‘That was another level. I knew I had started at the bottom. That was the top.’
He acknowledges that there has been a severe drop in players and managers from Scotland thriving in England’s top division. But he is clear-eyed about the reasons:
The dearth of Scottish players in England has seen Graham applaud Andy Robertson
‘Yes, we may not be producing the players anymore, certainly in the last decade,’ he says.
‘We used to say you need to have three Scots in the team to win anything in England and history shows that is not far off the mark.
‘Just look at the great Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest, teams packed with Scots.
‘But English clubs now have the resources, financial and otherwise, to recruit across the world, players and managers.
‘It is tough to get a job in the Premier League whether you are a player or a manager.
‘It is why I take my hat off to Andy Robertson. He and his pal (Trent Alexander-Arnold) are terrific full-backs.
‘Robertson has succeeded in a top-class league and I hope Kieran Tierney can do the same at Arsenal once his injures lift.’
Graham is hopeful Kieran Tierney can become a success at Arsenal once his injures lift
However, he says there is one upside to the dearth of Scots at the highest level.
‘They don’t have to come down here at an early age now,’ he says. ‘Teams in Scotland have excellent academies.
‘Youngsters can stay there and learn the game with good coaches and facilities.
‘So, as a young boy, why not go to Celtic or Rangers or wherever and learn the game? Don’t be in a hurry to come down here.’
He adds: ‘If you have that passion and hunger, you can make the best of yourself and who knows where it will lead?’
For George Graham, it led to a train to England and, ironically for the character known as Stroller, a life in the fastest of lanes.