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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.
1993-94ish Expectations: a sideways view Today I want to take a different perspective, to take stock of where we were as Arsenal after the first year of the Premier League and through the second. Because Arsenal are different to all other English teams in many ways. How so? And was the Premier League likely to change that? Arsenal were innovators, led by the astonishing Herbert Chapman. Floodlights, physiotherapy, training techniques, the WM formation, European competition, an impressive stadium, and numbered shirts were all areas that he championed. Football always had its dodgy elements, but he believed in sporting values, the Arsenal way. He did have a reputation for subterfuge when it came to transfer dealings however, famously getting a rival board of directors drunk before finagling a deal in his favour. WM: Today's formations are just variants Arsenal equals class Footballers can always come back to Arsenal for medical treatment, for example and in general we have a good reputation regarding ex-players. Arsenal are classy, as was Mr Chapman, reflected in the famed marble halls that adorned the inside of the ground. In the period I have been writing about, though, they were also known as mean, reluctant to pay high wages or big transfers. And, as I pointed out here, this was reflected in our trophy cabinet until George Graham arrived. We were mostly pretty average from 1953 until now. Now, we had 2 league titles, 2 league cups and one FA cup between 1989 and 1993. Better than anyone else, even though we still weren’t splashing cash like crazy, George Graham had assembled a top team who were better drilled than any other. But the backpass rule change made its difference. Now, he would have to figure out a way around it. I figured he would but he was soon to blow up his time at Arsenal with the infamous bung scandal, however I will leave the details of that to a future blog. We didn't allow bungs I will say that bungs were normal in English football, with many famous managers collecting underhand payments from the transfer market. Only Arsenal, though, would never forgive, and George Graham will probably never get the statue he deserves. He had finally made us the best team in the land and it had all gone wrong. He had gone against Arsenal values and paid the price. And so to the Premier league. What was the difference here? Far bigger money for the big clubs, for sure. Manchester United, Spurs, Chelsea, Man City, Newcastle, Leeds and other big clubs had been relegated, sometimes more than once, in the time I have been writing about. Since then not so much. It is getting harder to see that happening except for Newcastle style bad administration. The balance had been tilted in favour of clubs with money and Arsenal had money. Would they now spend it? At this point, it was hard to say. Up to now Graham had splashed the cash for Ian Wright at 2.5 million but in general between buying and selling not a lot was spent. He was like Wenger, he had an idea of the player he wanted and didn’t like wasting money. We didn't like spending Manchester United and Liverpool were never afraid of spending money. Blackburn had come up from the championship and would pay big money to become competitive. I, and other Arsenal fans, feared that we could get left behind. We were 10th and poor in the league. 2 cup wins gave us hope but Irishman Eddie McGoldrick from Palace was our major signing and we sold Anders Limpar, so again, overall our spend wasn’t big. Eddie McGoldrick: our mercurial Irishman One major change was the size of the squads. This was the weapon to ensure that the big clubs could stay big. The wage bill jumped as they endeavoured to squeeze out the little guys. To give an example, in season 1993-94 27 players played competitive games for us. We had won the double with far less than half that in 1971. Were we now a major club? But we were Arsenal, we were a big club, undisputedly, from our history. Could we now take the stage on this new trophy, which looked like the old First division, but had morphed into a money making machine for big clubs? Were we really a big club now? Could we kick ass and send teams home crying? I wasn’t so confident. The bizarre thing is that David Dein, our vice chairman at the time, is generally credited with being the main driver of the Premier League. So who was he? He was the revolutionary force trying to make Arsenal the best team in the world. He kept putting money into Arsenal from 1983 onwards until he had a large shareholding of 42%. He pushed against the conservative values of the Hill-Woods and other long term board members. Outside of Dein, they had all been there for generations. David Dein had huge knowledge and networks David Dein He was different. He was a football man. He understood the international game in a way few else did. He spoke to all the players and was always willing to help them, advise them, and give them a boost. But he did have a tough job modernising the attitudes of the board. The rivers of money that was starting to flow into the Premier League and top level football generally, needed to flow Arsenal’s way as well. He was heavily involved behind the scenes in transfer activity and in representing Arsenal at the higher levels of English and world football. He was obviously trusted at such levels as he held positions for long times. The Premier League was a new way to do football and he was a key man. So surely he could make sure that Arsenal benefitted? For that first season we certainly didn’t. This season we finished fourth. We had an extraordinary number of draws but we got 71 points. We still couldn’t really score in the league with only 53 goals out of 42 matches. This was the worst in the top nine. Ian Wright managed 23 of these so he wasn’t the problem. We just weren’t the smooth machine of the pre backpass change. Graham needed to step up and fix it. So we needed Graham to sort things out on the pitch and Dein to sort things out at the owner level to ensure the Premier League would work for us. Next blog I will analyse what happened this season, the good and the bad, and see if there was reasons for optimism. Could we be Arsenal in the shiny new Premier League? A team to be feared? The first 2 seasons didn’t look so good. We needed to be better.