Highbury, bribery and Gorgeous George

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George Graham Arsenal bung

George Graham was the handsome midfielder in Arsenal’s double-winning side of the early seventies. Sometimes known as ‘Stroller’ and sometimes referred to as ‘Gorgeous George’, he breezed through matches with hardly a hair out of place.

He won the League and FA Cup double with Arsenal as a player in 1971. He won the League Cup and FA Cup double as a manager with the club in 1993.

When he arrived at Highbury as the boss in March 1986, he found a club which had failed to build on their three FA Cup Final appearances at the end of the previous decade. Three years later their 18-year wait for another league title was over. Two years later they did it again.

He turned Arsenal back into a club competing for silverware in league and cup. The famous Arsenal back-four was down to him. With a tight defence, the phrase “one-nil to the Arsenal” was a tribute to him.

Handsome, suave, and well respected.

So, it came as some surprise he was accused of taking a bung. Perhaps more surprisingly, even after an inquiry, there weren’t others.

Of course, there may have been others, but they were never caught.

It was a shock, a huge shock. Graham seemed too smart, too clever, too disciplined, too calculated. His defence, usually water-tight on the pitch, now seemed to have a few holes.

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He accepted a suitcase full of cash from an agent. He didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong at the time. He gave it to the club as if to absolve himself of being seen to gain from it.

But it was too late. The acceptance is what condemned him.

There were calls for him to take the fall. There were those who had long believed this was rife throughout football. They felt if Graham was the only one the evidence could be found against, then he should take the hit for all the others.

Graham regretted his actions. In an interview with Hunter Davies of the Guardian, he was asked whether he did.

“Of course I do. I was wrong to accept the money. I concede that greed got the better of me. I should not have done it. But, really, is it any different from big business? It’s commonplace in the commercial world for such gifts to be given – and received.”

It was, and still is, commonplace for such gifts to be offered to players and their families. Tottenham famously bought a house for Paul Gascoigne’s parents, suggesting this is what prompted his move to White Hart Lane rather than Old Trafford where Alex Ferguson thought he had the player signed up.

As a player, Graham was all too aware of the ‘little extras’ which would suddenly appear on the table when a prospective new recruit showed any sign of uncertainty.

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He was pretty disappointed with the way his employers handled things. By the 1994-95 season, Graham was beginning to get frustrated with the board’s wage restrictions. He felt he was missing out on vital improvements he needed to make to the playing squad. Players were signing for other clubs when Arsenal wouldn’t compete on financial grounds. He also had problems to deal with amongst his existing staff as Paul Merson’s addiction issues had become public.

Privately he agreed with the board he would step down at the end of the season. Suddenly in late February they handed him his cards and told him to clear his desk.

Arsenal must’ve known what was going on. Graham, at the time, said he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. He just accepted a gift from a contact. Doesn’t everyone do that?

In his book “Broken Dreams”, Tom Bower discusses the murky relationship between clubs and agents. He has a whole chapter on Arsenal’s vice-chairman, David Dein. Dein is alleged to have had a close relationship with Jerome Anderson. So much so, Anderson represented eight players in the 2001 squad, more than any other agent. Commissions and bonuses have been common in the game, where agents can be paid by the club simply for negotiating a contract renewal. The lack of transparency makes it a feeding frenzy for any number of people to claim they’re owed by clubs for their connection to players.

Rune Hauge was an agent from Norway. Initially licenced by FIFA, he was suspended indefinitely from acting as an agent in 1995. This was later reduced to two years on appeal.

He has represented Norwegian players such as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Steffen Iversen and Eirik Bakke. He was also involved in Rio Ferdinand’s move from West Ham to Leeds

The transfers which caused all the fuss were those of Pal Lydersen and John Jensen to Arsenal. Norwegian Lydersen joined in 1991. Jensen arrived after scoring in Denmark’s famous Euro ’92 win.

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Graham allegedly received £425,000 from Hauge. Graham always claimed it was an ‘unsolicited gift’.

He had first met the agent in 1988, then again at an international match in April 1989. Hauge would give Graham the nod on Norwegians who might suit his club. Likewise, Graham would reciprocate with giving Hauge suggestions on which clubs may suit the players he had under his wing. For example, he recommended Andrei Kanchelskis and Peter Schmeichel to Alex Ferguson.

Graham received the money in two payments, which he said he never asked for. He claimed they were unsolicited gifts for the help he had given Hauge in finding English clubs for the players he represented. They were not linked to any of the players Arsenal bought.

Graham then gave the money, plus interest to Arsenal. The man and the club agreed on how they would part company at the end of the season.

However, in February Graham heard IK Start officials had made allegations he’d manufactured figures for the Lydersen deal. Graham utterly refuted these allegations.

Arsenal were told unless the board acted against the manager, the club would face charges. Relegation was a possible option.

Within days Graham was summoned to Highbury to meet Ken Friar, Peter Hill-Wood and David Dein. He was told they had advance information on the Premier League report. They then went on to tell him they had no alternative other than to terminate his contract with immediate effect. Meaning he would not get any compensation either.

He was instructed to leave the ground as soon as possible to avoid the inevitable media circus, as they were about to make a public statement.

After eight and a half successful years at Highbury, that was it.

The seeds of his demise were planted in August 1994 when Hauge told Graham he was being investigated by the Norwegian tax authorities as they’d found a slip of paper. It contained reference to a sum of money and Graham’s name was on it.

Arsenal maintained they had no choice other than to sack a man who was about to bring a whole load of unwanted scandal down on them. To defend him could suggest they condoned the activity, and possibly knew about it.

As far as Graham was concerned, they did know about it as he’d told them and they were going to part company at the end of the season. He felt he’d earned the right to a pay out after all he’d done for the club. This way he suffered the ignominy of a sacking with no compensation.

In August 1995 the FA held a hearing.

There were three charges to consider.

  1. That Graham conspired with Hauge to make a personal profit from the Lydersen and Jensen deals.
  2. That the payments arose out of, or in connection with the transfer, and he knew that was the case when he received them.
  3. That the payments were connected to the transfers, but Graham did not realise this.

A three-man panel considered the case. Geoff Thompson, Chairman of the FA disciplinary committee, Gordon McKeag, the Football League President, and John Reames, chairman of Lincoln City. They took three hours to consider the evidence and give their verdict.

They said they were satisfied Graham had not asked for the money, or that he had negotiated the transfers for personal gain.

However, they believed he must have known the money was connected to the transfers when he received it.

Receiving the money construed misconduct, as far as they were concerned. The next day they announced his punishment.

Graham was banned for 12 months. FIFA then confirmed this would be worldwide.

He was shocked. He believed his legal team had pleaded his case to such an extent he would be found innocent. The IK Start officials’ testimony contradicted themselves as well.

By then Graham had not worked for five months, so to be given a 12-month ban meant 17 months out of the game for a man who would undoubtedly be in much demand.

Already angered by Arsenal’s treatment of him, his mood wasn’t improved when his successor, Bruce Rioch, was given money previously refused to Graham, for transfers. In came Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt.

In 1997, Hauge was again implicated in a transfer saga resulting in the abrupt resignation of a manager. In March 1997 Joe Royle resigned as Everton manager after a row with chairman, Peter Johnson over the attempted signing of Tore Andre Flo and Claus Eftevaag from Norwegian club, Brann.

Graham took the positives from the whole affair.

“What I did has made me grow up as a person.”, he told Davies.

“I could very well have collapsed. It’s how you conduct yourself after such things have happened, that’s what matters. I did not run away from it. I faced it, have overcome it, and like to think I am stronger by it.”

After his ban, he returned to the game. He took over a Leeds side struggling to maintain their Premier League status. He immediately instilled his defensive attitude to a team which subsequently became difficult to beat. In his second season, he got them into the UEFA Cup.

He arrived in September 1996 and two years later he was off. His assistant David O’Leary took over and lead the club into the Champions League. Graham then made the controversial decision to take over Arsenal’s bitter rivals, Tottenham. Within five months he brought the club their first trophy for eight seasons when they beat Leicester City in the League Cup Final.

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Graham remains a figure who divides opinion amongst Arsenal fans. Some cannot forgive him for the Hauge incident, and the embarrassment it brought the club. If they can forgive him that, they cannot sanction him taking on the job at White Hart Lane.

But others feel the glory years they witnessed at Highbury gave him enough ‘credit in the bank’ to allow him almost any sort of misdemeanour.

At the time there was much talk of a cleaning up of football. Over the years more evidence came into the public domain of money going missing from transfers. Managers of the calibre of Ferguson and Venables were both investigated by HMRC.

But the others were never found. There were rumours and accusations levelled at Brian Clough during his time as manager at Nottingham Forest.

According to former Premier League chief executive, Rick Parry, who led an investigation into the man;

“On the balance of the evidence, we felt he was guilty of taking bungs. The evidence was pretty strong.”

The case against Clough was dropped due to his ill health.

However his assistant, Ronnie Fenton, was banned from football because of his role. Like Graham, Fenton had been heavily involved with Hauge. He later admitted picking up £45,000 from a fishing trawler in Hull as part of a kickback from the sale of Toddy Orlygsson.

In 1994 Ferguson received an unsolicited gift of £40,000 from an unregistered Russian agent. It was lodged in a safe and handed back to the agent when he appeared again a year later.

Interestingly enough, in one of his books, Ferguson is pretty gushing in his respect for Hauge.

“While I am not on terms of close friendship with Rune. I have never had any hesitation in dealing with him. He is a brilliant judge of a player.”

Hauge was the man who recommended Andrei Kanchelskis to Ferguson. Three other agents helped get him out of Shakhtar Donetsk, and over to Old Trafford in 1991. Three years later one of them, Gregori Essaoulenko, handed United’s boss the package of cash.

Whatever the truth, it’s all very murky.

The Premier League had been running an investigation into where money went from transfers. Once Graham was convicted and they decided to drop the Clough investigation, it all seemed to fizzle out.

Graham remains the only high-profile manager to face consequences. There remains plenty of opportunity to accuse others of dodgy behaviour. For years Harry Redknapp seemed to consistently sign people like Peter Crouch and Niko Kranjcar for whichever club he ended up at. Redknapp’s not alone in this regard, and of course it could simply have been a matter of him trusting those players above any others.

However, if your theory is he was benefiting financially from these deals then there’s enough evidence to back this up. Yet it may just be circumstantial. It is certainly yet to be proven in court.

In 2006 Luton Town manager, Mike Newell claimed corruption was rife in transfer deals. He said he had plenty of evidence he’d been offered bungs by football agents and agreed to name names to the FA.

An enquiry was launched, headed by former Met Police commissioner, Lord Stevens. When Stevens presented his report, it was decided the level of corruption was not as bad as first feared so nothing more was done.

We’re not aware of how bad they had feared the corruption was. We’re just assured when they looked into it, they were pleasantly surprised, or relieved, it wasn’t as bad as that.

So that’s all good then.

Looking back now it seems Graham’s punishment was over the top, given no one else has been charged. I guess the lack of transparency and the fact sweeteners are common throughout the game, make it far too easy keep quiet. Football appeared keen to clean itself at one stage. But the whole investigation took so long to get anywhere, many lost interest.

With the amount of money sloshing about in the game, it seems all too inevitable some form of corruption would be possible. But as with every investigation, you can really only go with the evidence available.