Highbury Hero: Arsenal’s Suave 007 “Stroller” George Graham

George Graham
It’s time to take the dust cover off the time machine and transport us back in time to the swinging sixties. When one of Bertie Mee’s earliest signings arrived at Highbury in September 1966, he came as a striker from Chelsea but ended up as a stylish midfielder at The Arsenal. It’s the man nicknamed Stroller. A Scotsman who was as immaculate on the pitch as he was off it. It’s George Graham.

His best assets were undoubtedly his subtle elegant passing. George always played in a stylish way with his head up. He also possessed a powerful shot and his other great attribute was his ability to spring off the ground with perfect timing to head the ball with both great power and precision.

He formed a tremendous triangle on the left with Bob McNab and Geordie Armstrong. Linking perfectly with each other, with George giving his panache to the Arsenal midfield. George’s biggest weakness was his lack of pace. But he more than made up for that with his outstanding artistry on the ball plus his ability in the air.

George could be inconsistent and a touch lazy at times and sometimes he’d be left out for a spell but he’d always come back strongly when he was put back into the side. Here’s what some of his team mates said about him.

Peter Simpson said “He needed reminding of his ability every now and again. He would play five or six terrific games and then he would start pondering on the ball. Occasionally he used to get dropped and then he would have another nine or ten games where he was excellent again. He would score goals, be buzzing around and then he would start getting lax again”.

George agreed with Simpson ‘s assessment. “I was very inconsistent. There is no question about that. I was day or night. I was outstanding or I was crap. I had to be good on the ball and when I was bad I was very bad. I look back and wonder if there was a way I could have become more consistent, but that’s just the way I was. I can understand Bertie thinking I’ll drop George because that will upset him and he will come back and play better. He dangled the carrot and I was the donkey and I went for it. I remembered things like that when I was a manager, not to let players get too confident or depressed”.

Jon Sammels said “George would arrive at the right time and prove you didn’t need to be covering every blade of grass. He didn’t give the ball away and he would arrive in his own time at the far post. He scored some incredible goals with his feet and his head. He was great in the air, had a great spring and scored a lot of goals at the far post. He didn’t have a threepenny bit head. It would always go where he directed it”.

There was no inkling of George later becoming the great manager he later proved to be. Bob McNab said “He had no interest in the game. No interest in football whatsoever. But necessity being the mother of invention, he couldn’t do anything else. We would do a cross-country and I would be out of the shower going to the the tea room before George had finished. And he was the laziest bloody defender you ever saw in your life. I used to scream at him. He used to throw himself into a tackle because he was tired. Instead of staying up in a crouching position and doing the work, he would hit the floor. I would be standing behind him shouting ‘George don’t dive’ and he would do it. You can’t kid players and I coated him. In fact, he once tried to butt me on the field and I put my head down just in time”.

Bob McNab also said this about George “One of the best headers towards goal I have ever seen – as long as there was no contact, because he was a bit too good looking. I never got a kick after George left Arsenal. He could deliver me a ball like it was a free-kick; it had almost stopped running as it reached me. He knew I didn’t have a Rivelino left foot, but I could deliver it alright. George could make me sing going forward and when they sold him it broke my heart. He would always pick up my runs”.

Eddie Kelly added “George had a lot of great players beside him who did the donkey work. He knew that as well, because he wasn’t a tackler and wasn’t aggressive. If he got the ball in a good position, he was likely to score a good goal. He was a man who could put his foot on the ball and slow the game down to his pace”.

Frank McLintock his captain and best mate at the club said “Despite our firm friendship, George and I often had explosive arguments – usually initiated by my frustration at his determination to retain his super-cool demeanour on the pitch – during one of which he said infuriatingly. Mind the face, Frank; I’m going out dancing tonight!”.

Frank goes on to say “George became a highly effective midfield player proficient in the wall pass, timing his runs to receive possession around the box, and mastering the trick of running with the ball towards the centre of the field to hit a beautifully disguised reverse pass to put McNab into space out wide. George’s sumptuous technique enabled him to hit the ball with the perfect weight and in four years McNab rarely had to break his stride to collect a pass.”

“George always had a quiet knowledge of the game but at that time preferred to emphasise the happy-go-lucky mischievous side of his nature – if you can catch his television appearances, you can still see it in his twinkling eyes. If I was banging on about the game in the bar afterwards he would always say ‘Put the ball away, Frank. Get me a vodka and coke’. He was never as voluble as Nabbers and me, but he had great ideas about the game if he ever condescended to talk about it”.

“If you’d taken George at face value you would have been baffled to see the change in him when he became a manager, but he’d always had that intelligence and toughness. The old George was very much a poser. He always dressed immaculately and groomed himself meticulously. The word suave would describe him perfectly and I like to think that he saw himself as James Bond. On a post-season tour to Malta, he had me enthralled with tales of his prowess as a diver. He admitted that he was not a good swimmer but, if I threw him a life belt after each dive, he would be happy to put on a display from some rocks jutting out above the Mediterranean. Six times he did it, doing flips and somersaults as he grew more confident – I gave him high marks for each dive and provided a running commentary”.

“There’s some dispute about what happened on his seventh dive. George says I didn’t throw the buoy out to him. I maintain that I did but that I wasn’t as accurate as the previous attempts and it landed several yards away from him. As he flapped out to reach it, he kept pushing it further away and he started to panic. George, from speculating just moments before that he would be Scotland’s first Olympic gold medal diver, turned into George the flailing frog. I was so helpless with laughter that I couldn’t rescue him but a couple of the lads hauled him out. Spluttering and with his drenched hair giving him the air of Max Wall, his 007 pretensions never recovered”.

George Graham was born on 30th November 1944, which appropriately for a Scotsman was St Andrews Day, in a village called Bargeddie about eight miles from Glasgow. George was just 25 days old when his father Robert passed away on Christmas Day from Tuberculosis. George’s mother Janet was left with seven children to bring up. It was incredibly hard for her. She worked at local farms doing back breaking eight hour shifts picking potatoes out the ground and filling wire baskets for two bob for each one she filled. But somehow she managed to feed her seven children and they never went without a meal.

The Graham family photo George with his mother and his six siblingsThe Graham family photo George with his mother and his six siblings

The Graham family photo George with his mother and his six siblings

George being the youngest of the four boys would have to go to school in hand me downs that had been worn by his older brothers Andy, Tom and Robert, before finally after a lot of skilful needlework they would be worn by George. This is the reason why George is always immaculately turned out now in made-to-measure suits, hand made shirts with expensive ties and shoes.

Football was in George’s blood. His father had played a few times for Albion Rovers and his dads brother had played for West Ham. George honed his skill playing endless games of street football in Bargeddie. George was inspired to become a player when aged fifteen, he was one of the 128,000 fans who crammed into Hampden Park to watch the famous 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt, which ended 7-3 to the Spanish giants. George was enthralled by watching di Stefano and Puskas. He thought it was like watching football from another planet.

George played for and scored for Scotland Schoolboys in a 5-3 defeat at Wembley against their English counterparts in front of a crowd of 70,000 and plenty of clubs were beginning to take an interest in young George Graham. His eldest brother Andy wisely advised George not to commit himself to the first offer he got and to weigh up every offer carefully.

George wearing the Scotland schoolboy cap he won against England in 1959

George wearing the Scotland schoolboy cap he won against England in 1959

Rangers manager Scot Symon was the first to try to convince George to sign for them. Standing in the middle of the pitch at Ibrox Park. “This, laddie” he said with a sweep of his hand, “is the greatest place on earth. Once ye pull on a blue Rangers shirt and run out here on tae this pitch ye will know no feeling like it. We want ye tae come here, bring yer heart and soul and ye’ll never regret it. There is nae other club like it in the whole wide world”. That sales pitch had worked on so many young players but George thanked him for showing him around but he wouldn’t want to make a decision right now as he wanted to think about it. Mr Symon could not disguise the look of disbelief on his face!

George then spent a month each with both Chelsea and Newcastle United. Chelsea’s manager was Arsenal legend Ted Drake and he put together a fine young talented side nicknamed “Drake’s Ducklings” Ted said in his Hampshire burr “London is the place you need to be son and Chelsea is the heart of London. As you can see from my team, I believe in giving youngsters a fair crack. There will be no hanging around in the reserves here. Show me you can do the business and you will be playing in the First Division before you know it”. George turned Chelsea down thinking London was just too fast and big at that stage for a boy from Bargeddie.

While at Newcastle he was even included in the club’s pre-season photograph. There were about 60 people in the picture, including future Arsenal star George Eastham. George decided that there were just too many players for him to make his mark and would just be another face in the crowd, so he turned down Newcastle manager Charlie Mitten as well. Next up were Huddersfield Town and their manager made a big impression. It was none other than Bill Shankly. “If ye join me, sonny ah’ll personally take ye under my wing. Ye’ll learn not only how tae become a fitballer but how tae become a mon” Shanks left Huddersfield soon after to manage Liverpool and he had another crack to try and sign George. But both Huddersfield and Liverpool were Second Division clubs at the time and George’s brother Andy advised him against signing for them.

It was another Arsenal legend that won the battle for George’s signature. George’s mum was bowled over by the natural charm, gentlemanly manners and sincerity of genial Joe Mercer. He left her and his brother Andy in no doubt that George would be looked after at Aston Villa with proper due care and attention.

For a few weeks George struggled to understand the Brummie people and they couldn’t understand his thick Scottish accent either. But George settled in and came to terms with the language barrier. George had to clean Derek Dougan’s boots and he took a shine to George. Doog was a larger than life character and once turned up for training with a Yul Brynner look having shaved all his hair off. Dear old Joe Mercer did a double take and said “We’ll have to get some billiard chalk in the dressing-room on match days. I don’t want you miscueing when you’re heading for goal!”

George in his Aston Villa days

George in his Aston Villa days

Eighteen year old George had a memorable debut for Aston Villa in their last home game of the 1962-63 season scoring the first goal and setting up the second in a two nil victory against Liverpool. But over the next year George only played about 8 times. Doog had moved on and Tony Hateley had arrived as his replacement and the club felt that he and George were too similar as players. Eventually Villa decided George wasn’t right for them and alerted clubs that George was up for sale at £6,000. He almost signed for Southampton but yet another former Arsenal star, Chelsea manager Tommy Docherty phoned George and asked how much Southampton were going to pay him. George told him £25 a week to which the Doc said he’d pay him £30. George said he was flying out to Spain for a holiday and promised he’d be in touch when he returned. But as George was checking in at Gatwick Airport the Doc turned up with a pen and contract in his hand. He wasn’t taking any chances and George signed there and then in July 1964 to become a Chelsea player.

George had a very successful time at Chelsea scoring 35 goals in 72 games and was Chelsea’s leading scorer for the two seasons he was at Stamford Bridge. it was the swinging sixties and George was never seen without being dressed to the nines with an attractive dolly bird on his arm walking down the Kings Road. The “Beau Brummell of Bargeddie” was how George described himself. Around this time some girls who followed Chelsea home and away even set up a fan club dedicated to him and called it “Gorgeous George”. George’s suave good looks made him very popular with the ladies and he was having the time of his life!

George in action for Chelsea

George in action for Chelsea

But things turned sour at Chelsea and the players fell out with Tommy Docherty when the players broke an 11 o’clock curfew while the team were on a week’s training break at Blackpool. The eight players including George escaped from their hotel by going down the hotel fire escape and ended up in a bowling alley with a small bar, where the players got chatting with a couple of local girls. The Doc was waiting for them when they returned to the hotel. The players George, Terry Venables, John Hollins, Eddie McCredie, Marvin Hinton, Bert Murray, Barry Bridges and Joe Fascione were all sent home the following morning. Three days later Docherty played a reserve side against Burnley at Turf Moor and they got beat 6-2. It became known in the newspapers as “The Blackpool Affair” though the players knew they’d done wrong they felt that Docherty had overreacted. They thought a verbal rocket and a heavy fine would have been enough and avoided all the adverse publicity and made up innuendo that the newspapers had fabricated.

There was a rift between the players and Docherty after that. It was never the same and when Docherty sold George’s best mate Terry Venables to Tottenham. George knew the Doc was breaking up the side and after refusing two transfer requests from George, Docherty agreed to sell him to The Arsenal for £50,000 plus Tommy Baldwin going the other way in September 1966.

George with Bertie Mee on his first day at The Arsenal

George with Bertie Mee on his first day at The Arsenal

It was Dave Sexton then Arsenal’s first-team coach who persuaded Bertie Mee to sign George. Dave knew George well from his time at Chelsea and knew he would be right for The Arsenal. George found life a lot different at Highbury than at Chelsea. George said “From the moment I stepped inside the Marble Halls it felt the same as when I first put on a good tailor-made suit. It felt right, and walking around as an Arsenal player I got a new sense of pride. This may sound corny to anybody who does not understand football history and tradition, but you can almost reach out and feel the past at Highbury. Villa Park also had this aura, but at Arsenal I found it at times almost overpowering”.

George posing for the cameraGeorge posing for the camera

George posing for the camera

I remember being at Highbury for a pre-season friendly against Maccabi Select from Israel. There were only 6,335 in attendance and my cousin sprinted onto the pitch at the final whistle to pick up George’s discarded tie-up’s. Knowing George they were probably Armani! On 16th September 1967 George got married and his best man was Terry Venables. Four hours later they were playing against each other in the North London Derby in front of 62,836 at Highbury. Arsenal hammered Tottenham 4-0, with George scoring one of the goals. As the fourth goal went in George strolled over to Venables and said “It’s me who should be saving myself for tonight, not you!”

George with his wife and best man Terry Venables

George with his wife and best man Terry Venables

In George’s first two seasons at Arsenal as a striker he was top scorer with eleven in the League in his first season and sixteen in his second. He was part of the side that lost the 1968 League Cup Final 1-0 against Leeds United to a disputed goal when Jim Furnell was fouled by Jack Charlton from the corner that led to Terry Cooper’s goal. But he didn’t really come into his own till he became a midfield player.

Frank McLintock said “When Raddy used to play alongside George, he thought he was a lazy bastard because he didn’t like the running. George wasn’t a very energetic player, he was a very skilful player. Raddy and him didn’t quite see eye to eye. Raddy would come short, play it off, spin and make runs, whereas George was a more stable player, a touch player rather than a runner, so he went into midfield. The move definitely suited his game much more. He was facing the play rather than having his back to goal all the time”.

Just before the League Cup Final against Swindon Town Frank McLintock was injured and Don Howe said to George “We’re going to play you on the left side of midfield”. Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday away 5-0 and George had a brilliant game. Frank returned to the side for the 3-1 debacle against Swindon in the Final with George coming off the bench that awful day. But George’s performance in midfield against Sheffield Wednesday had given Bertie Mee and Don Howe food for thought.

During the 1969-70 season it was all change at The Arsenal. On Chief Scout Gordon Clark’s suggestion Frank McLintock became a centre-back and Don Howe converted George into a midfield player and Frank was quick to give his advice to the new midfielder. “I would slaughter George a lot, even though he was my best mate and we roomed together. He was slightly on the lazy side, he was more artistic. If he lost his man I would go up to him at half time and tell him, ‘I’m trying to cover my centre-forward and your midfield player is making runs through the middle so fucking pick him up’. But George was a terrific technician and he didn’t score many scruffy goals. There was nothing scruffy about him, everything was immaculate. His passing was classy and he had a good football brain. The bigger the game, the better George played”.

George acclimatised well into his new midfield role and finished the season with 14 goals in all competitions. The season culminated with Arsenal winning their first trophy for 17 long years, it was also Arsenal’s first European trophy. George played his part in that fantastic 3-0 second leg at Highbury, linking up well with Bob McNab who crossed for John Radford to power home Arsenal’s second goal. It also acted as a springboard for even greater success the following season.

The Double season saw yet another positional change when Pat Rice came in at Right Back allowing Peter Storey to be unleashed as our midfield enforcer. This benefitted George as Peter excelled in a lot of the things that George didn’t like doing, such as work rate, tracking midfield runners and putting in a few heavy tackles when needed and giving the midfield some real physical presence. This allowed George artistic licence to show his full range of skills. This piece of film footage below shows George’s subtle passing and a fantastic header against Crystal Palace in a 2-0 win at Selhurst Park.

George scoring a great goal against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park

Along with the rest of the side George had a fine season notching another 14 goals from midfield, although he did get left out a few times. On one of those occasions he came off the bench to turn the game when he played a lovely one-two with Jon Sammels, then hit a beautiful volley to score in a 2-0 victory over Liverpool at Highbury.

George doing the business against Liverpool at Highbury

George also scored the crucial opening goal in the 1971 FA Cup Semi-Final replay at Villa Park with another of his trademark powerful headers before Ray Kennedy added a second goal in a 2-0 victory that took Arsenal to Wembley.

George opens the scoring in the semi-final replay against Stoke City at Villa Park in 1971

In the final week of the season the Double came down to the last two matches. George was part of the Arsenal side that went to White Hart Lane where only a win or a 0-0 draw would clinch the title. 1-1 would have handed the title to Leeds United on goal average. Ray Kennedy’s goal on an incredible night ensured Arsenal were crowned Champions and the Double was on as we went to Wembley five days later for the FA Cup Final.

Arsenal dug deep after going behind to Liverpool in extra time on a scorching hot day at Wembley. But George Graham touched home the equaliser, or so we thought. But the next day replays showed that it was in fact Eddie Kelly that scored, although George still maintains to this day that he got a touch! But George did pick up the Man of the Match award. He was superb that day as Charlie George hammered home the winner to secure the Double.

George is man of the match in the 1971 FA Cup Final

Tommy Docherty gave George his full international debut for Scotland in 1971, along with clubmate Bob Wilson against Portugal at Hampden Park in the European Nations Cup in a 2-1 victory for the Scots. Tommy Docherty once said “If Martin Peters is ten years ahead of his time then George Graham is fifteen”. George went on to win 12 caps for his country and scored three goals. His last appearance was in 1973 when he came on a a substitute against the World Champions Brazil, who had Rivelino and Jairzinho in their line-up.

George in his Scotland kit

George in his Scotland kit

In 1971-72 Arsenal’s attempt at winning the European Cup ended when George scored an own goal from a header against Ajax in the second leg of the quarter final at Highbury which cost us the tie. The team were having a pop at George after in the dressing room. George looked at Bob Wilson with a straight face and said “It was your fault, Willow, not mine”. “What d’you mean” said an indignant Bob. George replied “Well, you know how great I am in the box. You should have been prepared to save it!” Which lightened the mood but deep down George was mortified by his mistake. Halfway through the season Arsenal had signed Alan Ball for a British record of £220,000. It was Ballie’s arrival which would eventually lead to George’s departure about a year later. Although George did play in the narrow 1-0 loss to Leeds United in the 1972 FA Cup Final.

George in action in the 1972 FA Cup Final at Wembley

George in action in the 1972 FA Cup Final at Wembley

George Graham’s last goal for Arsenal was when he came on for Ray Kennedy and scored the winner in a 1-0 victory at Highbury against Southampton on 30th September 1972. George’s last game in the famous red and white shirt was against Coventry City at Highbury, in a 2-0 defeat on 4th November 1972, when Stroller came on as a substitute for Eddie Kelly. George played 308 times for The Gunners and scored 77 goals.

A brilliant compilation of George’s goals for The Arsenal

In December 1972 George was sold to Manchester United for a fee of £120,000, where George teamed up again with his old boss at Chelsea Tommy Docherty, becoming Docherty’s first signing for United. He made George captain taking over from Bobby Charlton. But all was not well at United. On George’s debut they got beat 3-1 by The Arsenal at Highbury. George never showed his best form at Old Trafford. Denis Law and Bobby Charlton were past their peak and George Best was beginning to go AWOL. United flirted with relegation in George’s first season and in his second season at United they were relegated, with a Denis Law back heel for Manchester City in the Derby sending United down to the Second Division.

George leads out Manchester United

George leads out Manchester United

George was frozen out the team by Docherty for four months playing reserve team football and forced to train with the youth squad. The Doc wanted George to ask for a transfer which would mean George losing a lot of money and George was determined not to buckle. But it wasn’t until November 1974 that Ian St John signed George for Portsmouth, in a swap deal with Ron Davies going the other way. Portsmouth were bottom of the Second Division but George helped to keep them up, along with his old Arsenal team mate Peter Marinello. Portsmouth went down to the Third Division though the following season.

George’s best mate Terry Venables signed him for Crystal Palace in 1976 and that season he helped Palace to promotion from the Third Division, along with a promising young full back Kenny Sansom. The next season 1977-78 was George’s last as a player winding up his playing career with a final season in the Second Division at Selhurst Park before hanging up his boots.

George in Crystal Palace colours

George in Crystal Palace colours

But that wasn’t the end of George’s career in football by a long chalk. George Graham the manager will feature next in this two part Highbury Hero. As always thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it.

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2 Responses to Highbury Hero: Arsenal’s Suave 007 “Stroller” George Graham

  1. Nige May 1, 2018 at 10:16 am #

    Always loved George. And I’ll forever be grateful to him for ’89. Why did you rip us off, George? You could have been an Arsenal legend.

  2. Victor Thompson May 1, 2018 at 12:48 pm #

    Gary, I am so grateful to you for having revived wonderful memories of my favourite players. At the same time that he played for Scotland, they had a left back of the same ilk as George. He was `slim Jim Baxter` and it was uncanny that they were both brilliant ball players and had the same persona on and off the field. Baxter was more of a defensive player than George, but only because he did most of his work in midfield whereas George was closer to being an inside forward.

    They were both loved by the fans and they were tall and suave. Both could conjure up moments of magic without appearing to break sweat. Dennis Berkamp was probably the nearest to him in recent memory but even he was not as smooth in the way he carried himself. A better player, yes but mostly because Dennis put himself about whereas George came off the pitch as immaculate as he was going onto it.

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