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    1995-96

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    Bruce Rioch showed us a dark side to Arsenal

    The Dark season

    Bruce Rioch came in as manager. I can’t remember any fans being happy. He had done reasonably well in the lower divisions but nothing about him suggested he was a top flight manager. Ian Wright famously wrote in his autobiography that they didn’t get on. He didn’t like his dictatorial ways and Rioch also didn’t exactly play Wright too much and he only got 23 goals on all competitions, which was poor by his standards.

    But he did bring in David Platt who was superb and could score goals as an attacking midfielder. He added to Arsenal’s England regulars as well. He game had improved in Italy where he had come from Sampdoria, Juventus and Bari. Honestly, at the time, it seemed a great buy as he was at the top of his game.

    The brightness at the start

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    All good here for Bruce Rioch

    But the real coup was Dennis Bergkamp, who in my opinion was the best ball player I have ever seen at Arsenal, eclipsing Liam Brady and Thierry Henry in pure footballing ability. He was a genius. You may never see goals like his again. The ball would stick to his foot like glue and he could do everything, left foot, right foot and his head. He was unbelievable for free kicks and brought a huge touch of class to the premiership. David Dein was instrumental in both buys and it seems Arsene Wenger was consulted about both.

    This was the strange part of the situation. David Dein had wanted Wenger, but foreign managers had never worked before in English football, all had failed to a greater or lesser extent, and the board prevailed this time.

    Soon turns dark

    I would love to know whether many fans were happy with the appointment of Rioch as I never heard or spoke to any. It seems it didn’t take long for dissent to show in the dressing room as Wright was consigned to the wing and was very unhappy. Dein was close to all the players and always knew what was going on behind the scenes.

    Rioch was following George Graham, our best manager in my lifetime up to then. No easy act to follow. But he had a team full of eminent internationals, a leading stadium, and was heavily supported in the transfer market. Platt and Bergkamp were top notch, a real joy for a manager to be given.

    The light kept going on and off

    So what happened on the pitch?  We had 3 draws and 4 wins in our first 7 so not too bad. Then a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea. We were ok but not really challenging and this was reflected in our mid season position of 7th. We improved a bit to 5th at the end but almost 20 points behind Manchester United on top. We were definitely underachieving since the Premier League appeared. We should never have been out of the top 3 with the team we had, but Graham struggled with the backpass rule and couldn’t get the players to perform at their best, and neither could Rioch despite the obvious strengthening with top players.

    Rioch was strict and had intensive training sessions which the players didn’t seem to like. Brian Clough, in contrast, believed that he wanted players to run on the pitch, not on the training ground and he believed the ball was an integral part of training. Clough’s achievements are legendary with small teams, Rioch would never come close to anything like it. Wright, and others believed in practicing with the ball, improving their skills at all times. Wright often stayed there all day, practicing free kicks, scoring, left foot, right foot, head.

    Bergkamp improved all the players

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    The most magical of footballers

    He credits Dennis Bergkamp, however, for showing him a better way to train, in improving his skills, aiming always for improvement. Wright came late to top class football and always wanted to get up to the level of those around him. I guess he had a little of the imposter syndrome about him, that he would need to get better in case they realise he shouldn’t really be there. And this was the crux with Rioch, he didn’t seem to rate Ian Wright and he put in a transfer request. Wright needed the manager to believe in him and while he did have the skillset to play on the wing, it was never his best position and effected his belief system.

    Rioch had only one chance, really. The team needed to win. They didn’t. Not enough. A defeat and a draw to the Spuds didn’t help. Going out in the 3rd round of the cup to our old friends Sheffield Utd after a replay didn’t help and we didn’t have a Euro trophy to compete in. The League Cup was better but we were beaten by Aston Villa over 2 legs in the semis. By February, the only thing we had to play for was a spot in the Uefa Cup. He did get that in 5th although it was because Liverpool qualified for the Cupwinners cup and gave up their spot in the Uefa cup to Arsenal. There wasn’t lots of spots in European trophies in those days.

    Thrown into darkness

    So he had a transfer row with the board at the end of the season and was pushed out. He was probably the most unpopular manager in my time. One year for an Arsenal manager is unusual and those who have read all my columns up to now will know that I like that about Arsenal, we don’t fire managers quickly. We give them a chance. Rioch didn’t do all that badly, but a combination of Dein wanting Arsene Wenger in and the players revolting against Rioch meant Dein had his chance to get his man.

    Was Rioch given a fair chance? I guess not. But he didn’t achieve much in his later career and it was hard to see that he could achieve anything with Arsenal. Probably too big of a job for him but we will never know for sure. His legacy is Bergkamp, though, and that signing alone propelled us into a higher sphere. But he joins the ranks of managers who were given their one big chance but couldn’t take it. Sam Allardyce knows all about that with England and one day I might do a blog about managers that self-destructed. My final word is that Bruce Rioch would have felt that Arsenal would have given him enough time. He was wrong.

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    Rioch got this one Wrong, not Wright

    Were Arsenal wrong? They had a new man waiting in the wings and next week I will talk about that new man and try to reflect how I felt at the time. Talk next week so.


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