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1996-97 No, he didn't look like a football man. Arsene who? 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. Yo-yo Wenger? Up 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. and down 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.
All Change at Highbury 1985-86 The Irish Connection dwindles I am from Rathfarnham in Dublin and it borders on Walkinstown, where Niall Quinn grew up. I met him once or twice and he married a girl who lived quite close to me, Gillian Roe. I knew the family. Lots of good looking girls, who were successful in their own right. Gillian was a model and the family were very nice. He made his debut this season, scoring against Liverpool. He didn’t set the world alight, though, and didn’t get many games or goals after that, that season. He was very raw, gangly and young looking, and didn’t really look like a footballer on the pitch in his early days. Although he never quite made it with Arsenal, he worked enormously hard on his game and carved out a very decent career for himself. His achievements are testament to being dedicated, and learning and learning until it’s not just your size and heading ability you have to offer, but good football skills as well. I should have mentioned he was tall, very tall, at the time one of the tallest in the division. Niall Quinn, very tall and awkward at the start Pat Jennings had retired in the close season as John Lukic had finally secured his place so only David O’Leary was left of the massive Irish connection of the seventies. So, at that time I was really hoping Quinn could make it, but he didn’t really look the part. Pat Jennings had been massive for Arsenal but he was 40, and had seen off all competition for his place since he had come from the Spuds, but time caught up with him, as it does with us all. One of the few heroes for both sides and strangely, he went back to the Spuds as a reserve goalie because he still wanted to play the next year in the World Cup for Northern Ireland in Mexico. He did, and became the oldest player at the time to play in a World Cup finals. I say he strangely went to Spurs because they never seem to forgive anyone going to Arsenal, but that was Pat, he was an exception in every way. He will always be welcome at both clubs and he was loved by both sides of Ireland. David Rocastle appeared this season as well and increased the black contingent at the Arsenal. He was to become a legend and get his own song, which is still sung to this day. He wasn’t Irish, but he always looked class on the pitch, he had an elegance about his play. Maybe some of that rubbed off on Quinny as the time went on. The Great Coach had to drive away But the story was Don Howe. Could we do anything under him finally? Unfortunately for him, we couldn’t. We were up and down all season, but never looked like challenging, really. A 6-1 defeat by Everton was a lowlight as was a 3-0 beating by Southampton. We again had Hereford in the League cup this time, and again took 2 matches to dispatch them, this time 2-1, although it was 2 legs. We were knocked out in the fifth round by Villa 2-1 after a replay. The Fa cup was little better, as we were also sent home crying by Luton 3-0 after a replay in the 5th round. Don Howe didn’t survive much longer after that. He resigned on March 22nd, although I supposed he was pushed. I mean, he wasn’t doing a bad job, we weren’t too far off the top, but we just weren’t challenging for anything. I suspect it was after a chat with Peter Hill-Wood that he reckoned it was time to go. We were Going to Spend Big, Big, Big? Steve Burtenshaw took over as caretaker but he didn’t inspire us to any great heights, lowlights being 3-0 defeats to Watford and Oxford. We ended up 7th, below West Ham in 3rd and Chelsea in 6th. Our days of being kings of London seemed in the past. Surely never a flash Spud for us? All the talk was of a new manager and the strongest whispers were Terry Venables coming over from Barcelona where he was successful. I have to say, at the time I couldn’t see it. He was a Spud and a Pensioner and a QP Ranger and a Palace head. Plus he would be bloody expensive! Peter Hill-Wood would have a heart attack spending that much. No, I couldn’t see it at all. But the whispers kept coming. Alex Ferguson who was doing wonders with Aberdeen, was also a strong whisper. Seemingly the plan was to pair him with George Graham as his assistant. The story went that he wanted to lead Scotland in that same World Cup that Pat Jennings decamped to Spurs for, so he turned us down as we wouldn’t wait. So we got George Graham, who was doing superb with Millwall in the lower divisions, on his own. Ferguson went to Man Utd eventually. Personally, I figure they were always going to go for the cheap option all the time, but put the whispers out to make it look like they were willing to buy big. Ferguson had won titles and a European trophy with Aberdeen. He wouldn’t have been cheap, nor Venables. We got an unproven manager but a Gooner. Fergie Time for Arsenal? What would that have been, Ferguson in charge? He always liked attacking football, and he didn’t like a drinking culture, so Tony Adams and Niall Quinn, for example, would have had to ship up or ship out early in their careers. I feel that George Graham got the zeitgeist right at the time, a heavily organized defensive team was the way to topple Liverpool, whereas Ferguson’s attacking style took a very long time to gel in Manchester. But still, if we had persisted in our pursuit, could we have become the dominant force in English football? I am not so sure. We don’t like spending money, Ferguson does. He insisted on a higher salary than any player, so he was delighted when star players demand bigger money, it means more for him. Does anyone remember that pantomime with Rooney, when he was classed a traitor for looking for more money or a transfer? He got all the heat, and Ferguson copped the rewards, a wily Scottish bugger. He may not have suited us. Also he had a tolerance for cheating and diving that I didn’t like, intimidating refs and suchlike, anything for an advantage. He would never have replayed against Sheffield United. But, if he had got the results, fans will tolerate anything, look at the Spuds with Mourinho. But he might have got us this, would it have been worth it? Anyway, did we get the right man? I figure you all, even the very young ones, know the answer to that. Next week I will look at George Graham’s first season. And could we be Arsenal again?