Former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein has revealed that he made the case to his then boardroom colleagues to appoint Alex Ferguson when the Gunners were on the hunt for a new manager in 1986.
In his newly-released autobiography, Calling the Shots: How to Win in Football and Life, Dein recalled how he favoured the appointment of then Aberdeen boss Ferguson but eventually “went along” with the decision to appoint George Graham instead.
However, that was only after he made the case for recruiting both, Ferguson as manager, Graham as his assistant.
“I had this idea to get Alex Ferguson, while another board member suggested George Graham,” Dein writes. “George did tick a lot of the boxes. He looked the part and, as a former player from the 1971 double team, he knew the Arsenal values. That held a lot of sway with the board.
“Some notably bigger names were mooted including Terry Venables and Johan Cruyff but in the end it was really between Alex and George.
“The board thought George could do the job . He was young, he was aspiring, he was hungry. He was elegant and always well turned out. He started lower down to learn the ropes of management. He knew a lot of the lower-division players, which was an asset in England, to try and mould something with smart recruitment.” Dein, though, had his doubts as Ferguson had a far stronger CV, demonstrated most notably by leading Aberdeen to a famous victory over Real Madrid in the European Cup Winners' Cup final of 1983. By contrast, Graham lacked top-level managerial experience.
“While George had the Arsenal connection, he had yet to cut his teeth in the big time,” Dein writes. “He was at Millwall in the lower divisions and that was his first managerial job. I thought it might be a risk. Alex, on the other hand, had more experience and more success. His Aberdeen team had been a revelation and won impressively, including in Europe.
“So I floated the idea of a double act – that we bring Alex in as number one with George to be his number two. The combination could be a dream ticket, the two Scotsmen combining a lot of qualities with the potential to be even more ambitious in the top division of English football. I knew Alex and I knew the chairman of Aberdeen, Dick Donald. I sounded him out delicately to see if Alex would be interested.” However, with other members of the board preferring Graham and chairman Peter Hill-Wood keen to get a unanimous agreement on a new manager, Dein eventually backed down.
“In the end, I went along with the decision to appoint George. To Peter’s credit, we always tried to get a unanimous decision on contentious issues. George wanted more money than we were offering. I remember him saying: ‘This is not what I was looking for but if I am successful, then I won’t come cheap!’ True to his word he would come to the office the day after winning a trophy to remind us.” Graham would make an instant impact at Arsenal, winning the League Cup in his first season in charge before snatching the league in sensational circumstances at Anfield in 1989 and regaining the title in 1991.
Having swapped Aberdeen for Manchester United, Ferguson’s early years at Old Trafford were far less successful but when they ended a 26-year championship drought in 1993, it was the start of a golden era that ran right up until his retirement in 2013.
Dein’s revelation raises some fascinating questions. Had he got his way, would Ferguson have survived at Arsenal if his early years had been as fraught as they were at United? Had he done so, would he have scaled the same sensational heights at the Gunners as he ultimately did at Old Trafford? Could United have become the powerhouse they became under a different manager? And what of Ferguson’s most famous managerial rival? Would Arsene Wenger, Dein’s greatest recruit, ever have managed Arsenal?
As for Graham, his time in charge at Arsenal would end in ignominy when he was sacked over a bung scandal in 1995. While Dein writes that Graham “let us all down badly”, he also argues that he was the victim of a culture that he believes was “rife” at that time.
“When all was said and done, there was a feeling in football that it could have been any manager caught up in that situation. He was the one that got caught.”