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  1. Walcott, Wilshire or Wright? On the surface this is an easy question, the answer is Wright, right? But today I will take a look at 2 players who almost became Arsenal legends and one who did. Jack Wilshire, Theo Walcott and Ian Wright and show up some surprises along the way, I hope. Wrightly so - A true legend I reckon most of you are saying there is no comparison. In the list of 50 top players voted by Arsenal fans, Wright was number 4, and Walcott and Wilshire are nowhere to be found. https://www.arsenal.com/history/gunners-greatest-50-players All suffered bad luck Strangely enough, though, one area where they correlate is bad luck. Injuries curtailed and derailed Wiltshire and Walcott’s careers and Wright’s difficult upbringing, his inability to attract a top team when young, and strikers considered better than him for England, all conspired to make his career a long battle. Walcott - exciting at his best Both Walcott and Wilshire had better achievements for England. They had more caps, Walcott 47 and Wilshire 34 to Wright’s 33. Wright never made it to a major championship, the others did. Wright rarely played competitive matches, the others did. Both played underage international football, Wright didn’t. Wright, even at his best, was the backup for England. Even after their injuries, England managers were trying to put Wilshire and Walcott back in. 2 wunderkids For Arsenal, Walcott and Wilshire were among the youngest players to make competitive debuts, Wright didn’t get there until he was almost 27. They were hailed as wunderkids, Wright was unknown as a teenager. Walcott still managed far more games for Arsenal than Wright, 397 to 288. Wilshire a respectable 197. Could Wilshire have been as good as Vieira? The one big difference, of course, between the legend and the nearly men, was injuries. We can all accept that both Wilshire and Walcott would have been Arsenal and England superstars without the injuries. They were truly superb, playing in big matches for the 2 sides and receiving huge acclaim. Walcott would surely have scored lots more goals and maybe even secured that striker role he so wanted. At 33, he could have surpassed Henry and still firing more in for Arsenal and England right now. Wilshire could have become the midfield maestro, dominating teams to this day while being accepted as a great in the Vieira mould. Both could be challenging Henry and Bergkamp for that top two position in the Arsenal great list. At their best they were supreme If you have watched these two at their best and most of you reading have, you know I am not talking nonsense. Injuries diminished their power, whether mentally or physically, or both, I am not sure. And so they are nearly men. It must be tragic for them to know that they were doing everything right, their careers progressing in an amazing way at a young age, making the step up to the big teams and having a huge impact, and then it all goes wrong through something they hadn’t got control of. Injuries can be the cruellest event in a footballer’s life. In fairness to both, they never stopped trying, and nor did Ian Wright. Poor Ian never got a real chance at England If Wilshire and Walcott’s hardest battles were with injuries, Wright’s were with life and football itself. He had to constantly pick himself off the floor to get his life back on track, from having a young baby as a teenager, to going to prison, to not making it at football trials, to being a black footballer when all they received was horrendous abuse, to being overlooked for England when he desperately wanted a real chance, to be used when it mattered. Yin and yang But perhaps his biggest piece of good fortune came, as in life it often does, in a mixture of good and bad luck. Bruce Rioch was appointed after George Graham’s meltdown with the bung scandal. He didn’t seem to like Wright and the feeling soon became mutual. He banished him to the wing and often didn’t play him. Now despite the perception that Rioch was a disaster, he actually improved Arsenal from 12th to 5th. In normal circumstances, he would never have been fired. But himself and David Dein (maybe deliberately so) didn’t get on, Arsene Wenger had already been lined up, and of course, David Dein was a big fan of Ian Wright. Arsene Wenger came in, Wright was restored, his career and trophies came back on track, and he even got 8 caps in 1997 and 4 goals, but again mostly in friendlies. 47 is a lot of caps for an injury prone footballer If Rioch hadn’t been fired, I reckon he would have sold Wright that summer of 1996. He was almost 31, and other than Man Utd, all teams were downward for him. He would not have become quite the Arsenal legend, finished anywhere near 4th in our all time list and, like Walcott and Wilshire, maybe not even make an appearance there at all. And that could so easily have happened. So the bad luck at having Bruce Rioch brought in was followed immediately by Wenger, and the extraordinary improvements he made to the careers of the old pros he inherited. Wenger was so important to all three Wenger was crucial to the careers of Walcott and Wilshire. Walcott was bought in at 16 for big money for such a young player but had to spend some time in the academy, being helped along by Liam Brady and Wenger. The same with Wilshire, who was already in the academy. He gave both their chance very young and they were teenage prodigies. Their career could have been stratospheric if they had just normal injuries to contend with. They still managed good careers, lots of England caps, crucial Champions league matches and playing at the very top of football. Ian Wright must look at such players breaking through as kids and say, I had to do everything in football the hard way, they had their career mapped out for them, given help at every step, I just had to never give up on my dream or I would never have made it. Fight till you die Credit must be given to Walcott and Wilshire though, because they never gave up, Walcott is still playing, and if someone offered Wilshire a chance, he would probably take it, as he has that never say die spirit. Coaching the Arsenal kids is a great job for him, as he can see every scenario in front of them, from rejection to huge acclaim, and he knows that the most important thing, is, like Ian Wright, belief in your ability. You must never give up. Could Wilshire somehow conjure one last comeback for Arsenal? Ian Wright overcome his mental struggles. For Walcott and Wilshire, maybe it was the injuries themselves that took the edge off their football abilities. I don’t believe it was their attitude. They have never stopped believing in themselves. I would love to see them have a last fling at the top with Arsenal. Possible? I doubt it, but in football you never know. Wilshire is there and seemingly in training he is amazing still. An injury crisis to midfielders and strikers, Wilshire gets thrown in, Walcott is brought back on loan, they fire Arsenal to the top and the fairytale is complete. For me, I would be nearly as happy as they would be. Ian Wright, Jack Wilshire and Theo Walcott have brought me many ecstatic days. All will feel that they could have achieved more. Wright, if Arsenal had come when he was a teenager and England had seen his potential, and Walcott and Wilshire had not had their cruel injuries. But let’s celebrate 3 heroes of the Arsenal – the three W’s. They deserve a statue for their sheer grit and belief in themselves.
  2. 1995-96 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 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 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. 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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