In May 1986, Millwall manager George Graham, a former Arsenal player, was appointed as Howe’s long-term replacement, and it was the beginning of a new era of success at Highbury. Graham gradually sold off most of the older players and replaced them with new signings and players promoted from the youth team, while imposing much stricter discipline than his predecessors, both in the dressing room and on the pitch. Arsenal’s form immediately improved, so much so that the club were top of the League at Christmas 1986.
Players like Kenny Sansom, Steve Williams, Tommy Caton, Charlie Nicholas and Gus Caesar were gradually discarded and a new-look Arsenal side featured players including Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, David Rocastle, Alan Smith and Paul Merson.
Though Arsenal finished fourth in Graham’s first season in charge, Arsenal did win the League Cup, in a campaign marked by comebacks. Arsenal faced Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals; after losing 1–0 at Highbury in the first leg and conceding a second goal in the first half of the second leg at White Hart Lane, Arsenal scored twice through Viv Anderson and Niall Quinn to draw 2–2 on aggregate and force a replay; in the replay Spurs went 1–0 up, only for Arsenal to come back again with late goals from Ian Allinson and David Rocastle to win. The final against Liverpool was a repeat performance; after Arsenal had gone 1–0 down to an Ian Rush goal, two Charlie Nicholas goals brought Arsenal their first League Cup triumph and their first major trophy for eight years. However, UEFA voted to continue the ban on English clubs in European competitions that was imposed in the wake of the Heysel disaster in 1985 for a third season, and this meant that Arsenal were unable to compete in the 1987–88 UEFA Cup.
While Arsenal lost the League Cup final the following year in a shock 3–2 defeat to Luton Town, their League form steadily improved. Graham’s side featured tight defensive discipline, embodied by his young captain Tony Adams, who along with Lee Dixon, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn, formed the basis of the club’s defence for over a decade. However, during this time Graham’s Arsenal were not a purely defensive side; Graham also employed capable midfielders such as David Rocastle, Michael Thomas and Paul Merson, and striker Alan Smith, whose prolific goalscoring regularly brought him more than 20 goals in most of the eight seasons he spent at the club.
At the end of Graham’s third season (1988–89), the club won their first League title since 1971, in highly dramatic fashion. Having led the League since Christmas, Arsenal were overtaken by Liverpool after losing to Derby County and drawing at home to Wimbledon in May. Arsenal had seemingly thrown away the title, but the final game of the season, on 26 May, was against Liverpool at Anfield; Arsenal needed to win by two goals to take the title; Liverpool had already won the FA Cup and were favourites to complete the Double. Alan Smith scored for Arsenal early in the second half to make it 1–0, but as time ticked by Arsenal struggled to get a second, and with 90 minutes gone on the clock, Arsenal still needed another goal. With only seconds to go, a Smith flick-on found Michael Thomas surging through the Liverpool defence; the young midfielder lifted the ball over Bruce Grobbelaar and into the net, giving Arsenal the title.
Arsenal did not retain the title the following season; they finished fourth in 1989–90 and fell behind champions Liverpool, runners-up Aston Villa and third-placed Tottenham Hotspur in the title challenge. They also failed to make their mark in the cups, and the post-Heysel ban on English clubs in European competition was still in force at that time, so Arsenal were unable to represent England in the European Cup. The ban was lifted at the end of the season, though Liverpool (the team present at the Heysel disaster) had to serve an extra year.
Graham sought to improve his side and signed goalkeeper David Seaman and Swedish winger Anders Limpar in the close season; both players proved vital as Arsenal retook the title in 1990–91, despite two major setbacks. Arsenal had two points deducted in October 1990 after ten of their players were involved in a brawl with Manchester United players in a match at Old Trafford, and captain Tony Adams was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for drink driving in December. Despite these setbacks, Arsenal lost only one league match all season and finished seven points clear. They also reached the FA Cup semi-finals, where they faced Tottenham Hotspur; Paul Gascoigne scored with a free kick from 30 yards after just five minutes and Tottenham ran home 3–1 winners, dashing hopes of a second Double.
In September 1991, Arsenal paid a club record of £2.5million for Crystal Palace striker Ian Wright, who would go on to spend seven years at the club and become their all-time leading goalscorer in the process. The 1991–92 season saw the club’s first entry in the European Cup for 20 years. The European venture went badly; Arsenal were knocked out by SL Benfica in the second round and failed to make the lucrative group stage. The season went from bad to worse when the Gunners were knocked out of the FA Cup by lowly Wrexham, though Arsenal recovered to finish fourth in the League. The ban on English clubs in European competitions had been lifted two years earlier, but Arsenal missed out on a UEFA Cup place as English clubs were gradually being phased back into European competitions and at this stage only the second and third placed teams were qualifying for the UEFA Cup.
During the 1992 close season the club acquired Danish midfielder John Jensen, who had just won Euro 92 with Denmark, scoring a goal in their victory over Germany in the final. Jensen’s arrival coincided with the departure of fellow midfielder David Rocastle to Leeds United, the defending league champions. Around this point, Graham altered his tactics; he became more defensive and turned out far less attack-minded sides, which 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 they 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, though they had briefly topped the table in November.
They were founder members of the FA Premier League on its launch for the 1992–93 season. They lost their first ever Premiership game 4-2 after taking a 2–0 lead over underdogs Norwich City at Highbury; Norwich, among the pre-season relegation favourites, were actively involved in the title race and finished third, whereas Arsenal (among the pre-season title favourites) finished 10th.
Arsenal’s form in the cups was much better than in the league, and in 1992–93 they became the first side to win the FA Cup and League Cup double. In the League Cup final, Arsenal faced Sheffield Wednesday; a Merson-inspired Arsenal side came from 1–0 down to win 2–1 thanks to a Steve Morrow goal. In the FA Cup, Arsenal beat Spurs 1–0 in the semi-finals (avenging their defeat of 1991), and played Sheffield Wednesday in the final, just as they had done in the League Cup final a few weeks earlier. The game ended 1–1 and went to a replay; Wright opened the scoring for Arsenal but Chris Waddleequalised. Extra time came, and still no goal broke the deadlock until the 120th minute, when Andy Linighan powered home a header from a corner to win the match and the cup double for Arsenal.
In 1993–94, Arsenal won their second European trophy; a side missing key players (John Jensen and Martin Keown were injured, while Ian Wright was suspended, beat favourites and holders Parma 1–0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in Copenhagen, with a tight defensive performance and Alan Smith’s 21st minute goal from a left foot volley. The 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup proved to be George Graham’s last trophy at the club; the following February the Scot was sacked after nearly nine years in charge, after it was discovered he had accepted an illegal £425,000 payment from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge following Arsenal’s 1992 acquisition of John Jensen, one of Hauge’s clients.
In the weeks before Graham was sacked, he made three major signings for Arsenal. Glenn Helder, a Dutch winger signed from Vitesse Arnhem, was a regular first team player for more than a year after joining the club but was then loaned to Benfica of Portugal before permanently departing in October 1997 to join NAC Breda back in his homeland. Chris Kiwomya, an attacking midfielder signed from Ipswich Town, scored three goals in 17 games before the end of the season but never played for the club again, finally departing in 1998 to sign for Queens Park Rangers. John Hartson, a 19-year-old Welsh striker, was signed from Luton Town and occupied the first team place vacated by the injury-hit Alan Smith, who retired from playing months later.
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