No, he didn't look like a football man.
Bruce Rioch was a disaster and his career never recovered. But there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that we knew nothing about. Stewart Houston was appointed temporary manager and again, it seemed like the typical cheap Arsenal way of doing things. As fans, we couldn’t understand why. Why not get a proven winner, with a team that had won many trophies in the recent past and was packed full of England regulars and Dennis Bergkamp? Even Alex Ferguson might have been possible if they were willing to splash the cash.
But Houston was told he would not get the job despite a pretty good start to the season, even hitting top. He resigned, presumably feeling he deserved his chance. He became manager of QPR and had a reasonable career as a manager without ever hitting the heights. Pat Rice then took over but even in those largely pre-internet days we knew he wasn’t going to be the man. Johan Cruyff was mentioned and even a return for George Graham but it instead went to Arsene Wenger and, as he revealed in his autobiography, he was keeping in touch from Japan and Grampus 8. And so we had 4 managers in 2 seasons, astonishing for Arsenal.
At least his name fitted
He was David Dein’s man for sure. But we didn’t have Google search and instant access to information and we didn’t really know what was going on until he turned up.
My reaction was no, I hadn’t heard of him and foreign managers had done little in British football up to then. The players reaction, I have learned since reading several biographies, was similar. He didn’t look like a football man, tall and skinny and with a schoolmaster feel. Of course he had managed England stalwarts Mark Hately and Glenn Hoddle at Monaco and they had got to a Euro final, so they couldn’t have been too ignorant of him as most seemed to claim. But I didn’t know of him and few English journalists seemed to know much either. It seemed another Arsenal stupidity but I was intrigued at his name, it fitted so well with Arsenal and I was always of the mindset that managers should be given a chance.
Vieira: Always falling into bookings
Favourites out, new ones in
The transfer market was busy, Remi Garde and Patrick Vieira was brought in, our old favourite John Lukic was brought back as cover but Irishman Eddie McGoldrick was out as was Bulgarian Paul Dickov both to Man City. There’s only one Johnny Hartson, David Hillier, Steve Morrow and Andy Linighan also moved on, all players who had different types of significance for Arsenal fans. But a young kid came in from Paris Saint Germain called Nicolas Anelka who we will never forget for both good and bad reasons. He didn’t get many chances that year but I will return to him in later blogs. He has a good story.
Anelka should have been an Arsenal great
Remi Garde didn’t play much but let me give you my impressions of Vieira. He was good, we could see that, but as soon as the pitches got muddy and heavy in the autumn and winter, he kept slipping and sliding all over the place, he got 12 bookings mostly by slipping into players. Somehow, he avoided a red card, but I despaired that he would ever be useful for us as he couldn’t keep his balance.
Grass was not for smoking
Grass technology was improving all the time and Wenger paid particular attention to this area with Highbury becoming the benchmark for all other teams on the planet. But it took time for others to catch up and unfortunately Vieira could not do it on a wet night in Stoke as the saying goes. He looked ungainly and awkward but as soon as spring started shining, he was back to himself. It was very hard for me to see the great superstar that he would become.
Pitches now look like video games
As for Wenger, it was hard to say, really, results improved when he came in, but not to a huge extent, although we went top in October and were still top until 7th December, but other teams had games in hand on us. It was a rare position for us in the Premier League so the fans were happy. It was mixed, though, overall, Man Utd beat us twice, although we took 4 points off the Spuds. We were beaten at home by Liverpool and Newcastle, who we ended up level on points at the end with 68, 7 points behind Man Utd. Joint second on points, 3rd in the table and our best Premier league. Bergkamp, Wright and yes, Vieira were showing signs that we could be good, that we could challenge.
What would Bertie Mee have done with 28 players?
We didn’t do much in the cups but it was the start of a pattern that we were soon to become familiar with, fringe players would play in them. We played 28 players that season and 12 scored. Considering that Arsenal won the double in 1971 with little more than 12 players you can see the difference, the one player who couldn’t guarantee his place was Charlie George and he was fighting all the time with Bertie Mee. Even George Graham’s last champions in 1991 only used 19 players in all competitions. Wenger saw the league as priority and never liked using any player in all matches. Only Nigel Winterburn could claim that distinction that season but he was never an England regular and that might have played a part in Wenger’s decision. Most other regulars were also first choice internationals.
My verdict was a bit yo-yo. We were challenging, up near the top all season. We struggled against the top teams but we conceded less than them. The football was more adventurous, the flair players were given their chance, but we were picking up lots of bookings and some red cards, mostly through petulance, arguing with the ref and shoving other players, presumably as retaliation. Ill discipline was a byword for the Wenger era and this season presaged that.
Was I optimistic? Yes, sort of, but Man Utd and Ferguson looked scary. He was building his second great team around the ‘92 youngsters and they fought and dragged results out even when not playing so well. Probably we needed more players. Were we going to get them? Read on next week and you will see.