A look of bemusement spreads across Chris Hughton’s face. He hesitates before asking the question.
‘Thatch, have you been on the sauce?’
The uncertainty of the query is easy to understand: Hughton is looking at a man lifting weights with the kind of zeal he usually reserves for two-footed tackles, but sweating in a way more in keeping with an afternoon involving eight double vodka and oranges.
‘You wouldn’t think so, would you?!’
Thatcher puts down the dumb bells, staggers towards the gym’s exit and heads to George Graham’s office.
George Graham is a man that values order. At the start of his autobiography, ‘The Glory and The Grief’, Graham draws an analogy between his immaculate garden and the sound structure of a successful football team.
‘Gardening for me, is like managing a football team…look there at the shallow trenches I have dug for the planting of next year’s roses. Note the perfect symmetry which means my roses will grow in a disciplined and decorative formation.’
From Gross to Graham
Unfortunately for Graham, Tottenham’s horticultural alter-ego in the late 1990s bore a closer resemblance to Del Trotter’s allotment. The earlier story of Ben Thatcher’s histrionics, taken from Darren Anderton’s autobiography ‘Takenote!’, is symptomatic of the chaos that swamped the club during the reigns of Gerry Francis, Christian Gross and Graham himself.
On the pitch, results were mediocre, with Spurs finishing no higher than 10th in the Premier League between 1996 and 2001. The football during this period was often turgid, exemplified by the run of four consecutive goalless draws which Graham – who many fans championed negativity – presided over in 2001.
Behind the scenes at White Hart Lane, disorder was commonplace. David Pleat, nominally the club’s Director of Football, was seemingly installed as caretaker manager on a bi-annual basis, plugging gaps that followed the short-lived reigns of Gross and Graham.
The club’s transfer policy was similarly haphazard, veering between panicked investment in ageing stars such as Nicola Berti, and relative parsimony, with only Chris Perry, Willem Korsten and Oyvind Leonhardsen joining in the summer which followed the 1999 League Cup win.
The treatment room, meanwhile, represented something of a sanctuary from this turbulence. Anderton openly suggests that players ‘might have been exaggerating problems’ to stay away from the training pitch, although this perhaps didn’t apply to Alan Nielsen, injured during a pre-match warm-up held by Gross in a Cockfosters hotel car park.
Arsenal: success, despair and THAT defence
Whilst Graham was faced with a seemingly unenviable task when appointed, the chaos wasn’t unfamiliar to the former Millwall manager, who had also coached an Arsenal squad containing a young Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Charlie Nicholas.
If Graham was unruffled by the haphazard nature of Spurs’ setup, there’s little doubt that he was slighted by his exit from Highbury. In one of the numerous metaphors that punctuate his autobiography, Graham again turns to his garden to describe the perceived back stabbing that characterised his sacking, revealing a Partridge-esque turn of phrase in going after his adversaries on the Arsenal board.
‘February, 1995: A good time of year to apply worm killing preparation to my lawn. While worms in the cultivated parts of the garden can aerate the soil and be beneficial, they should be eradicated from the lawn because they produce slippery casts that can spoil the appearance of well-manicured turf. Get rid of the worms!’
If it seems as though Tottenham were employing the Premier League’s answer to David Brent, it’s worth remembering that Graham was a widely-respected coach at the time.
His ability to instil defensive solidity within a team is well-documented, but the success of the approach during the early 1990s is worth dwelling on. Graham twice won the League Championship, FA Cup and League Cup during his time at Arsenal, with the side conceding only 18 goals in the 1990-91 season. He also lifted the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994, beating a succession of excellent teams, including a Parma side featuring Faustino Asprilla, Thomas Brolin and Gianfranco Zola.
The rigour of his methods is legendary. In Amy Lawrence’s excellent article for The Athletic, Lee Dixon recalls being trained to the point that players almost looked like they were being pulled across by teammates holding rope, whilst Nigel Winterburn sounds faintly traumatised when describing sessions under Graham.
‘Every position that he went into, we would have to move individually and collectively to stay as a back four. We’d do it for half an hour, 45 minutes. The ball would not even be on the floor’, says Winterburn.
However, labelling Graham as a footballing dinosaur is lazy stereotyping. He describes his approach to pressing during a passage written almost 25 years ago, but which more than stands-up to current scrutiny.
‘Rinus Michels, mastermind of the exceptional Ajax team of the 1970s, was one of the pioneers of what I call ‘the pressing game’. Put simply, it meant that if the opposition has the ball our nearest player would press down on the man in possession while his teammates pressed any opponent who might be in a position to receive a pass.
‘When we had the ball, our players pressed forward to find the space where they could receive a pass. If we lost the ball, it was imperative that we try to win it back as early as possible, and, ideally, in the opponents’ half.’
4-4-2 (with David Ginola)
This tactical acumen was exactly what Spurs required when Graham took over, even if a central midfield pairing of Tim Sherwood and Steffen Freund hardly set pluses racing.
Between Graham’s arrival in October and the start of April 1999, Tottenham won the Worthington Cup, the club’s first trophy in eight years, reached the semi-final of the FA Cup and lost only five of 25 league games.
Whilst the foundations of this early success were built on a core of established players who had previously baulked at Christian Gross’ Tube ticket-inspired communications strategy, the star of the show was undoubtedly David Ginola.
The Frenchman was an exceptionally gifted player, who had been close to joining Barcelona before signing for Newcastle, from where he left to join Spurs at the start of the 1997/1998 season. Ginola displayed glimpses of magic during his first campaign at Tottenham, scoring memorable goals against Everton and Liverpool, but really flourished under Graham’s stewardship.
Operating predominantly on the left-hand side of a midfield four, anchored by Sherwood and Freund and given width on the right wing by Darren Anderton, the Frenchman weighed in with seven goals and ten league assists during the 1998/1999 season.
Ginola’s ability to cross and shoot with either foot, together with a change of pace which would start to diminish towards the end of Graham’s time at Tottenham, made it difficult for opposition full backs to curtail his influence on games.
Show him outside and he was able to provide crosses for anyone of Steffen Iversen, Chris Armstrong or Les Ferdinand, as he did to great effect in the Worthington Cup win against Manchester United. Funnel him inside and he was able to shoot or dribble incisively, a route which saw him score a sensational goal against Barnsley in the FA Cup.
With Sol Campbell arguably at the peak of his powers and able to marshal a back four which regularly featured Stephen Carr, Ramon Vega and Justin Edinburgh, Ginola’s brilliance was largely backed-up by a defence that conceded 24 goals in Graham’s first 25 matches in charge, a tally which compared favourably to the team’s record under Gross.
Booth, Rebrov and the end of the road
If Graham’s first season in charge was an unmitigated success, his second campaign proved that this early upturn in fortunes had not reversed the club’s long-term decline. Underwhelming summer signings, limited to the aforementioned Perry, Leonhardsen and Korsten, forced to retire only two years after joining Spurs following a succession of hip injuries, did little to address the lack of squad depth disguised by the previous season’s cup runs.
Cracks were also beginning to appear in the relationship between Graham and Ginola, with the latter left out of a UEFA Cup second-leg tie against Kaiserslautern, which Tottenham lost. This defeat proved particularly significant to the team’s fortunes, with Ginola calling out deep-rooted attitude problems in his autobiography ‘Le Maginifique’, saying ‘the season ended for many players that night early in November’. Indeed, despite a brief upturn in form following the loss in Germany, Spurs went onto win only four of the next 13 league games and finished the season in 10th place.
Graham’s final campaign was notable perhaps only for a brief descent into self-parody at the start of 2001, when a succession of injuries forced him to sign former Sheffield Wednesday striker Andy Booth, who would play alongside Sergei Rebrov in the midst of a spell of four consecutive goalless draws. One can draw their own conclusions as to the state of Rebrov’s internal monologue during this period: the previous season had seen the Ukrainian partner Andriy Shevchenko.
By this point, Ginola had been sold to Aston Villa, swapping Graham’s man-management skills for John Gregory. The transfer worked out poorly for both parties: Spurs desperately lacked creativity following the Frenchman’s departure, whilst Ginola’s most memorable contribution during the 2000/2001 season was arguably his bare-chested celebration against Manchester City.
Graham was dismissed following ENIC’s acquisition of Tottenham, replaced by Glenn Hoddle, who would experience similarly limited success during his spell in charge. The failure of both managers to engineer a league finish higher than ninth place illustrated the entrenched nature of the club’s problems. Whilst some commentators have compared Jose Mourinho’s arrival to Graham’s appointment, it’s unlikely that the Portuguese manager will have encountered a drunk Ben Thatcher in Spurs’ now state-of-the-art training complex. More’s the pity, Graham might say.