25 years ago today, on the 21st February 1995, Arsenal sacked George Graham.
With scandal threatening to overwhelm the board, as George put it himself, nine years of his life were ripped apart in two minutes.
Those nine years had seen George turn around a club on a one way road to nowhere.
He did so by bringing in the likes of David Rocastle and Paul Merson from the youth team, he made Tony Adams captain and we all went screaming in Lunar Park (let me know in the comments if you need that reference explained).
He brought in a couple of defenders from, of all places, Stoke, a centre forward from Leicester and with that he had the core of a team who would scale heights not reached since the 1930’s.
Two league championships in three seasons, one domestic cup double, the Cup Winner’s Cup and, to kick it all off, 1987’s defeat of the almighty Liverpool in the League Cup final- all in just eight years.
So, why did Arsenal sack George Graham?
For all the success, Arsenal were a fading force in the league.
A 4th place finish in 1994 was a marked improvement on the previous season’s 10th but still miles behind a brilliant Manchester United side.
This may have been forgiven by the fans if Arsenal were not so dull to watch.
There was Paul Merson, just back from a spell in rehab.
Not that we knew it at the time, but the skipper, the big T A, was an alcoholic.
Then there was the bung scandal.
Arsenal were sick, there could be no denying it.
The board may have been relaxed about the “style” of play George was inflicting on Arsenal, but a manager taking money from the club and presiding over a shambles on the pitch?
Off with his head!
So it came to pass that on a February half-term day, I got in from a kick-around in the park to be greeted with news so surreal that it barely seemed believable.
It was like finding out Arsenal had lost 2-1 to Wrexham a few years earlier.
The great George Graham, the man who had restored Arsenal to the top table of English football, was gone.
It certainly made the prospect of that evening’s journey to Highbury for our match with Nottingham Forest a lot more interesting.
I travelled up on the Piccadilly Line with my cousin Matthew, curious as to what the mood round the ground would be like.
Emerging onto Gillespie Road, we walked into a scene that could have come from 28 Days Later, as pockets of Arsenal fans roamed the streets.
Rather than moaning for blood, they wanted George back.
“One Georgie Graham, there’s only one Georgie Graham!”
This plaintive cry would be repeated a few times as the evening progressed/
Obviously, the programme for that night had been printed before the sacking, so not only was the front cover a picture of George smiling away with new signing Glenn Helder, but we were also treated to the last words of a condemned man,
“Rumours of my impending resignation have proved somewhat premature!”
You could almost hear the grin, but you could bet he wasn’t grinning now.
The Arsenal team that took the field for that match comprised:
Seaman, Dixon, Linighan, Bould, Winterburn, Jensen, Schwarz, McGoldrick, Helder, Merson, Kiwomya Subs: Morrow, Dickov, Bartram (thank you Arseweb).
It might surprise the younger Arsenal fan, a fan who has grown up on a diet of world class talent- as well as the occasional Mikael Silvestre- to know that a few of these Arsenal players weren’t any good.
Look at that midfield!
In fact, only four of that night’s first team would still be part of it when Arsenal embarked on the glorious 97-98 Double season*.
What did surprise on the night was the performance of Helder, the £2.2m signing from Vitesse Arhem.
Helder had arrived after paper talk of Arsenal signing Marc Overmars had proven fanciful- Arsenal? Sign Overmars? As if!
Helder was pacy, tricky and skilful. In short, he was a revelation.
He looked like Lionel Ritchie, but he also as if he might be the saviour of Arsenal Football Club.
Unfortunately for the Dutchman, he would turn out to be a bit more John the Baptist than our Messiah.
The true Messiah would arrive in the form of another Dutchman a few months later.
If it was David Dein who persuaded Dennis Bergkamp to sign for a club who had finished just six points off the relegation zone in the summer of 1995, then he should have been given a job for life.
Nobody at the Forest match could have imagined, even watching a vibrant Arsenal performance that night, that we were just six months away from the beginning of a revolution.
How could we have known?
This was the ‘1-0 to the Arsenal‘, the ‘we’ll strangle the life out of you, then Ian Wright will score a goal and we will win‘ team.
It’s funny to note now that the very same tactics that George Graham was once pilloried for saw Jose Mourinho greeted as if he was some kind of footballing Einstein, although I should point out that we hadn’t been very successful at winning games at home that season, the win against Forest being the first in four months.
Not being very successful at winning games at home that season, the 1-0 win against Forest was the first in four months and it was Chris Kiwomya- yes, Chris Kiwomya, not Ian Wright, who scored the winning goal.
It was one of only three goals the £1.25m man would score for us before leaving on a free transfer in the summer of 1998.
People have a tendency to romanticise George and rightly so.
He made Arsenal count again, paving the way for what was to come with Arsène Wenger but this was 1995 and George went and spent over a million quid on Kiwomya, a player who was never going to be good enough.
To put it into perspective, Arsène would spend just £500,000 to purchase Nicolas Anelka two years later.
We can look back on that night now as a lancing of the boil.
It was a night when Arsenal put all their recent troubles behind them and began to look to the future.
I don’t think anybody could have imagined just how bright that future would be, or that we could almost come full circle again to find another boil in the form of the (not corrupt) Unai Emery.
*In fairness, it should be noted that, on this night, Tony Adams was down the pub and Ian Wright was suspended for battering the entire Tottenham bench after they called him names**
**This is only partly true.