Arsenal History 1986 – 1996: The George Graham Glory years but end in disgrace

Our History continued: 1986-1996 – including Tony Adams, Ian Wright and the era that brought us George Graham and the foundations he laid for the Club’s modern-day success!

Losing manager Don Howe in 1986 meant we were on the hunt for yet another manager.

Shortly after losing Howe, in May 1986, a century after we were founded, in came George Graham who was no doubt on the hunt for our first trophy in seven years… but would he be as successful a manager as he was a player?

Read on to find out…

If ever there was a person to turn to to become the latest manager of the club it would be a hero of the double winning side of 1970-71 wouldn’t it..

And so it was indeed George Graham who was incoming, and the Scotsman was at the helm of the club as we went looking for our first trophy in seven years after a low period for the club under Neill and Howe.

Losing the FA Cup and European Cup Final’s during their reign meant we would lose some of our most key players, which would see Liam Brady, who had been named Player of the Year three times running, sign for Juventus, and then Frank Stapleton moved on to Manchester United.

And so, without stepping foot in the club, Graham had a tough task ahead of him.

Graham came to the club off the back of having a successful managerial spell at then Third Division based Millwall, and after finishing in fourth place in his first season in charge, his young Arsenal side went on to win the 1987 League Cup, beating Liverpool 2–1. This would be our first silverware since the FA Cup in 1979.

We reached the Final the following year too, but were denied by Luton Town in a 3-2 loss.

Perhaps the “young” side was a measure of things to come as the future of Arsenal, their players and the philosophy, even to this day is the same. As we know we always give chances to the young players, none more so then the ones who come through the academy.

It could be said that Graham’s rein was notable mainly for the strict discipline put in place both on and off the pitch. But it was clear to see that he was a rather stubborn manager and instilled discipline and a strong work ethic within the team from day one.

He no doubt gave a refreshing feel to the club and revived them from their slumber though and this became apparent when you looked at the team, as defensively we were second to none.

Setting out to build a back four that would serve us well for over a decade they did just that.  Graham had the likes of centrepiece defender Tony Adams who played alongside Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Steve Bould and these players would go on to become the bedrock of our defence, all while playing behind the likes of young stars that Graham had brought through.

A talented generation of players such as David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Tony Adams as well as Paul Merson and striker Alan Smith would all go on to be and play a big part of the team and would go on to provide the attacking threat for the Gunners, and each player would etch themselves into our long and at times successful history.

It wouldn’t be until his third season in charge though, the one of the 1988-89 season, that Graham would really put his name in to the history books when it came to being our manager.

That season and more specifically the last day of the season would go down as the most dramatic title triumph in league history.

Although Graham didn’t kick a ball himself, his team selections that included the likes of Smith and none other than Thomas would gift us the title at Anfield in a 2-0 win that would forever be remembered as Anfield 89’. We needed to win by two goals and we did, in nothing short of dramatic fashion!

This would be our first league title since 1971, the year Graham was in the side as a player himself.

The iconic celebration of Thomas and his teammates, whenever I see and hear it will forever give me goose bumps and I wasn’t even there!

After our first Division One triumph for 18 years, expectations of the club and their achievements were high and we were expected to bring in a new period of dominance in English football.

However, it didn’t seem to be the case and the following season we had a period of inconsistencies yet again. This meant that all Graham’s men could achieve was a mere and at the time quite a disappointing fourth-placed finish in the 1989-90 season.

It became clear that on this run, reinforcements were going to be needed and so in came Swedish midfielder Anders Limpar and a Queens Park Rangers goalkeeper by the name of David Seaman who were both brought in immediately.

Ahhh Seaman…A name that is still on the lips of many Arsenal fans today as are most of the players from that era!

Well the two new recruits didn’t disappoint and both players proved vital to a title win.

In the 1990-91 season Arsenal won a second title and reached the FA Cup semi-finals, although they lost out to arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur, and this loss was to never be mentioned again as it was deemed irrelevant😉

Despite that loss to Sp*rs though we lost just one league game all season. This came in our 24th match of the league campaign against Chelsea on 2nd February.

And so we won the league that year though even though we had a two-point deduction for a mass brawl in a 1-0 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford but we managed to take that blow on the chin and went on to win the title by seven points, losing just one game while conceding only 18 goals. This all occurred with key man Adams in prison after he was given an eight-week sentence, but despite all of that we romped to the Division One crown.

It seemed as though every time we won a trophy the next season was not to be as successful as once again we were unable to build on our league success and yet again a fourth-place finish followed in 1992-93.

The league title continued to evade us in the following seasons but Graham’s Arsenal became cup specialists and in 1992–93 we became the first side to win the FA Cup and League Cup double, both times beating Sheffield Wednesday 2–1 in the League Cup Final and 2–1 in the FA Cup Final replay and this was a testament to the fact that we were a highly-efficient knock-out team and enjoyed the cup competitions no doubt.

But it was back in the autumn of 1991 that one of the most iconic, important and down to earth legends and players to grace our club would soon join.

Graham signed a striker who would break the club’s all-time top scoring records in years to come, when he signed none other than Ian Wright, who came over from Crystal Palace and by doing so led the club into our first entry in the European Cup for twenty years. However, the adventure was short-lived and we were knocked out by S.L. Benfica in the second round.

The 1991–92 season would bring about more disappointment though when we were knocked out yet again from the FA Cup in the third round by lower league opposition Wrexham. Although back in the league we finished in fourth.

After this season, Graham changed his tactics and he became more defensive while putting out far less attack-minded sides as we depended mainly on goals from Wright rather than the whole team.

Between 1986–87 and 1991–92, Arsenal averaged 66 League goals a season scoring 81 in 1991–92, but between 1992–93 and 1994–95 we only averaged 48, this included just 40 in 1992–93, when the club finished 10th in the inaugural season of the FA Premier League, scoring fewer than any other team in the division.

In the 1993-94 season we won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, our second European trophy. In the final we beat favourites and holders Parma 1–0 in Copenhagen, with a tight defensive performance and an Alan Smith 21st minute goal from a left foot volley.

This would be only our second silverware on the continent and this would prove to be Graham’s last trophy.

It was on 21st February 1995 that Graham, who had led Arsenal to six trophies in eight seasons, lost his job after a Premier League inquiry found he had accepted an illegal £425,000 payment from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge following Arsenal’s 1992 recruiting of John Jensen and Pål Lydersen, two of Hauge’s clients.

Graham was eventually banned for a year by the Football Association for his involvement in the scandal after he admitted he had received an “unsolicited gift” from Hauge.

At the time, Arsenal were struggling a little in the league, had lost a League Cup quarter final to Liverpool, been dumped out of the FA Cup after a third-round replay by Millwall, and as Cup Winners’ Cup holders had also lost the Super Cup to AC Milan.

And so his departure from Arsenal came 10 months after European glory bringing an end to a rather glittering nine-year spell at Highbury. It also marked the closing of a chapter in which we had made a name for ourselves as a team of spoilers, admired for our loyalty to a compact strategy.

Yet again we were on the hunt for a new manager and in came Graham’s replacement in the shape of Bruce Rioch who came in in the 1995-96 season and guided us to a UEFA Cup place as we finished fifth in the league. This was achieved on the last day of the season at the expense of EvertonBlackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal also reached the League Cup semi-finals, but lost on away goals to Aston Villa, and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round by First Division side Sheffield United under Rioch.

According to former Arsenal player Adrian Clarke, Rioch was known for his intensive training methods but unfortunately couldn’t put this to practice in winning trophies for the club.

After just one season in charge and just before the beginning of the 1996–97 season, Rioch was sacked, after a dispute with the club’s board of directors over transfer funds and his relationship with Vice-Chairman David Dein whom would be at the club from 1983 until 2007, worsened over time during his tenure..

The 1997-98 season would be the 100th year that we would play competitive football yet we were still in need of a permanent manager after appointing Stewart Houston and later Pat Rice in temporary charge of the first team in the 1996 season.

This all occurred while we searched for a full-time successor. Although Barcelona player and manager Johan Cruyff was favourite to take over, the board decided to look elsewhere, eventually backing Dein’s proposal to hire a man from Nagoya Grampus, someone who nobody had ever heard of before.

His appointment was delayed as he was still under contract with the Japanese club though and as he wasn’t there yet the Arsenal board continuously refused to confirm the identity of their next manager.

However, we did make some signings public and in would come French midfielders Patrick Vieira and Rémi Garde.

So, this era gave us Anfield 89’, George Graham, Michael Thomas, Ian Wright, a number of trophies, a number of stars and Rioch at the helm for one season only!

Yet from later on in 1996 one of the best if not the best managers was about to come next!

To be continued….

Shenel Osman


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  1. Shenel
    i loved GG but my words did we become predicable and boring to watch by the end of his reign. loved the 1-0 to the arsenal but that was cup games and in the league we ran out of ideas by the end
    when your last throw of the dice in bringing in players to spice up the squad and i might need a hand here as this is from memory and not the internet so facts might be off
    John Hartson from Luton, Chris Kiwonga from Ipswich and heders from a dutch team
    never ubderstood why we got rid of our flare players such as rocky, thomas , limpar and we get players like jensen ect
    really thought he was harshly treated with being caught with his hand in the cookie jar and no other manager was sanctioned after him considering we had Ferguson, Venables, possibly clough as well as host of others who we suspected of doing the same thing and then it all being swept under the carpet.
    will always love you George for 1. being a player for us – stroller and 2. bringing back those glory days to us in the late eighties and start of the nineties and before that we were dross .
    in my opinion GG started our success, AW brought it to another level and now we wait for the next chapter of our history – is MA good enough to get us challenging again for titles? , which is what we all crave for

    1. allanball08, you are so right about George Graham being the only manager unlucky enough to get caught taking a “bung.” Doesn’t make it right, but many others turned their heads away hiding in the shadows hoping the target didnt fall on them. The acrimony Graham received was over the top as well as being sanctimoniousand hypoctitical in many instances.
      Mikel Arteta could do worse than bring GG back (even at his age) as a defensive consultant/ coach.
      As stated some of the transfers of “flair” players like David Rocastle were hard to understand, then and now.

    2. Good and bad post Alan! Sensible thoughts until you thought stealing and being sacked for it was “a little harsh”. TAKING A BUNG IS STEALING AND CLEARLY SO.

      Whether or not others were also doing it is besides the point. Stealing is ALWAYS wrong.

      He was lucky not to have been prosecuted for it, IMO.

  2. Graham’s early success’s were with some exciting young London & Home Counties born players that you could actually relate to. Surprised that you gave no mention to the wonderfully skilful midfielder Paul Davis Shenel. Also missing from your excellent article is one of our most iconic defenders, Martin Keown.

  3. Nice article thanks.
    These were my favourite Arsenal Days and what a legend GG is (despite his big mistake).

    HARD to beat, uncompromising, con cojones;); full of goals, well disciplined, clear system of play, die for you and quality players, 1 short of invincible, trophies and characters to boot.

    All setting up the foundations for Le Prof.

  4. Why no mention of Ricoh signing one of the best ever players to wear the Arsenal shirt, DB10, aka Dennis Bergkamp?

      1. Ah yeh! Good year that!
        And What a player.

        Now, Will Odegard ever get anywhere near Dennis in ability and impact? I think no personally.., that talent is not taught/learnt but natural. Yes hard work and drive gets you a long way but there is no replacing inbuilt genius/instinct imho.

      2. Yes AdPat, but even though Dein is credited with the signing, Rioch was manager at that time. And yes of course, DB10 really blossomed in the Wenger era.

    1. It is widely thought among clued up Gooners that signing Bergkamp was down to Dein rather than Rioch, despite him being manager when it happened.

  5. What a great start to his managerial career at The Arsenal the 86/87 season was. 3 times at the Swamp (sorry if that upsets some people) we were losing 1-0 and then came back to win 2-1. Even after losing to them in the home leg of the semi final I still thought we would go through. The stadium announcer in the replay would’ve done George’s team talk for him when announcing how and when the vermin could get their tickets for the final. First Ian Allison and then the late Rocky Rocastle put paid to that.

    Then on to the final against Liverpool. Rush scored and they never lose when he scores. Up pops Charlie with 2 goals and that record of Rush is consigned to the bin.

    🎼1 nil down, 2-1up, we f***ed Rushies record up🎼

  6. GG will always be remembered by me for the 1-0 to The Arsenal and, even today, that chant is synonymous with our club

    George, as a player, was the total opposite of his managerial style, his nickname was Stroller and (this will upset some!!) played like Mesut Ozil.

    To this day, I believe he still claims it was him and not Eddie Kelly, who equalised against liverpool in the fa cup final.

    He was so unlucky not to become the first Arsenal manager to have an Invincible squad, but there is something else that Shenel didn’t really cover, that needs to be said.

    His authoritasm at the club was such that he controlled everything (as a manager should of course) and did not tolerate individual talent.
    So much so, that we saw such wonderful players as David Rocastle and Charlie Nicholas sold – both players devastated by being sold, along with Ian Wright, who considered Rocky as his brother.

    There was no other manager convicted of taking a bung…. simply because there was no proof that anybody else did.

    The other thing to point out, is the drinking and gambling culture that was prevalant under GG’s time at the club.
    Something that saw the likes of Adams and Merson succumb to these horrible addictive diseases.
    George never tackled this and it was left to others to rid the club of this culture.

    Imagine, however, if we could take GG’s defensive game and AW’s attacking philosophy – Pep would still be learning the game from them!!!

    For me, George remains an inigma – why did he take a backhander – why did he sell creative players – why did he let such an awful culture bloom at the club – why didn’t he get rewarded with the title of Invincible manager, as he really did deserve it – how did he create such a wonderful defence, as he was such a “lazy” individual player himself – he will always be represented at the club when we chant 1-0 to The Arsenal…. such a great record as our manager, but his lasting legacy will be a negative one… especially as he then went on to manage the spuds!!

    Good article Shenel – can’t wait for the next one!!!

    1. Ken, I was gutted when Charlie and then Rocky were sold, but it was for the benefit of the team. Charlie didn’t fit into the way George wanted the team to play. Rocky had an operation on his knee and George was told that the opposition wasn’t 100% successful and that Rocky would never be able to play a full season.

      The drinking and gambling culture was prevalent in all clubs, not just ours. The only people who can really sort out their addictions are the addicts, which is what Tony Adams did before pre-season training in ’96.

      Yes George should’ve been our first Invincible, I couldn’t understand when Bould went off injured at Stamford Bridge why he played Hillier at CB instead of Thomas, considering Thomas had started his career as a defender.

      1. I agree that DR and CN didn’t fit into George’s style of play, but therein lies another topic!!
        Under GG, we played effective but predictable football, with no flair.
        That’s why, when AW came, the difference was so evident.

        Rocky did go on with his career however and, like Cazorla, proved the experts wrong.

        The drinking culture?
        I don’t know enough about other clubs, but it was up to George to handle his players and he didn’t, allowing one of our greatest ever players to sink into depression.
        I’m sure you have read Tony’s autobiographies, how that man escaped from this and what he went through needs to be understood.

        Hillier was a CB I believe, but as I always maintain, no manager was / is perfect.

        Thanks for adding some more meat to the bone as the saying goes.

    2. The problem with any artIcle based entirely on research and not memory – as I very much doubt Shenel was even born when Graham first managed us – is that important facts that need saying and also STRESSING, so often fail to make the cut, as it were , UNLESS THE WRITER WAS THERE!

    3. As Jon said Rocky had a serious knee injury and was never the same player. Charlie Nicholas divided opinion in my area of the clockend. Loved for regularly scoring against the Tiny Totts but he could drift in and out of games and his work rate was questionable. The 90/91 team was a brilliant team it had an attacking threat as well as defensive solidarity.In his last season, I felt even before the Bung scandal he had lost his way and should of gone. Some very poor signings Mcgoldrick, Jimmy Carter, etc.Awful Long ball football where the tactic was to boot it long to Wrighty. The much-maligned Rioch at least tried to get the team to play it on the floor. His legacy as you say is tainted by his greed and the Spud Job but for me, it was bringing the pride back to Arsenal. After years of low expectations when I attended home and away and I really gave up any hope of us ever winning the title along came the team of 89 and for that, I will forever be grateful.As Don Howe did for him he set the foundation for Wenger to build on. In the early years of Wenger with GG defensive discipline instilled in the club and Wenger’s freedom of expression attacking football it really was perfect football.

    4. Ken, in the 1990/91 winning season Arsenal’s results were:
      P. W. D. L. F. A. GD
      38. 24. 24. 13. 74. 18. +56

      74 goals in a season and George Graham’s Arsenal was accused of being boring. A goal difference of +56 shows that Arsenal scored on average more than 1.5 goals per game on average more than the opposition. So much for “1-0 to the Arsenal”; it should have been “1.5-0 to the Arsenal”.
      One hopes we live long enough to see Arsenal score 74 goals in a season again, let alone see a defense that only concedes 18!
      George Graham and his teams are greatly underrated.

      1. By the way Ken, Arsenal under Arsene Wenger only scoted more than 74 goals in one of his winning seasons:
        1997/98 GF 68 GA 33 GD +35
        2001/02 GF 79 GA 36 GD +43
        2003/04 GF 73 GA 26 GD +47 (“Invincibles”)
        5 goals more for (79 versus 74) yet George Graham’s sides are termed “boring” and Arsene Wenger’s sides wer scoring machines? Never got near George Graham’s goal difference of +56.

  7. Ken, there wasnt the money paid to football managers in those days (why take a “bung”?) and GG had to make a living. Funny how its alright for Willie Young, Pat Jennings and Sol Campbell to go the other way?

    1. Of course it is OG, I’m an Arsenal supporter and will welcome any spud that sees the light and transfers over – just feel sorry for those that chose the dark side!!!

  8. Regarding the ‘bungs’, somethings have always puzzled me about it.

    Why haggle down the fee for Jensen, as that means there’s less money to be taken ?

    Why go to a bar that is co-owned by one of the Directors of The Arsenal and was frequented by officials of the club ? Surely somewhere private would’ve been better ?

    Why was Steve Coppell, who held a grudge over the transfer of Ian Wright to The Arsenal, allowed to head the 3 man panel inquiry, especially has he had said in the press that he knew George was guilty before the hearing commenced ?

  9. I think the whole episode is puzzling, but the fact is, it happened.
    George even gave the money back.
    Such a shame, as he pulled us out of the mediocrity of previous years.
    Still, whenever the chant 1-0 to the Arsenal starts up, it’s all down to GG

    1. That chant was started at half time in Paris in the first leg of the semi final in the CWC, as the Go West by the Pet Shop Boys was being played. Truly fitting for us and sung loud and proud in Copenhagen the following month.

          1. Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. PSBs had been around quite a while in ’93 and did a decent revival of the song. I’d completely forgotten that.
            Can confirm Hillier was a DM.

      1. Still sung loud and proud reminding me of GG, like the 49 chant links me to AW and “Good old Arsenal” takes me back to BM.

  10. Shenel, Ian Wright never played in the European Cup as he was signed to late to play against Benfica. In those days players had to be signed before the draw was made.

  11. I agree that DR and CN didn’t fit into George’s style of play, but therein lies another topic!!
    Under GG, we played effective but predictable football, with no flair.
    That’s why, when AW came, the difference was so evident.

    Rocky did go on with his career however and, like Cazorla, proved the experts wrong.

    The drinking culture?
    I don’t know enough about other clubs, but it was up to George to handle his players and he didn’t, allowing one of our greatest ever players to sink into depression.
    I’m sure you have read Tony’s autobiographies, how that man escaped from this and what he went through needs to be understood.

    Hillier was a CB I believe, but as I always maintain, no manager was / is perfect.

    Thanks for adding some more meat to the bone as the saying goes.

  12. Rocky never played a full season after leaving us.

    I beg to differ over the the football that was played under George. It all changed after the defeat to Benfica in ’91. Before that we played good football.

    Maybe George could’ve helped Tony with his addiction and depression, but then so could Fergie with McGarth and Gillespie, and Clough and Houllier with Collymore. I dare say that there was other managers to who had players they could’ve helped, but in those days men never really talked about it.

    Hillier was a Central Midfielder, never a CB.

    Anyway, Happy St Michael’s of Thomas Day 👍

      1. HD, 75 gosls for and a goal difference of +56 in 1990/91 strongly supports your argument.
        This is supported by the fact that Arsene Wenger’ s teams top scoring season 2001/02 totalled 79 goals only 5 more, with a significantly worse goal difference of +43.
        See my response to Ken above.

  13. Totally agree with what you wrote Ozziegunner 👍.

    The end of George’s reign at The Arsenal the football was a bit boring, but before then, no.

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