Bruce’s bonus….or not? A story of the 1995/1996 season…..Bergkamp and Beyond

Bruce Rioch. Arsenal manager 1995-1996. A short and undistinguished tenure? Or the sign of things to come?

 

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Bruce Rioch was our manager for the 1995/96 season, which in many ways was a watershed for modern Arsenal. It did, in some measure, lay the foundations for Wenger’s illustrious tenure. Rioch was hired from Bolton Wanderers, after an impressive run culminating in promotion to the Premier League. This also included an FA Cup win vs. us in 1994, when we were the holders no less.

This piece was inspired by Gary Lawrence’s excellent series on George Graham, a man who is rightly an Arsenal legend in the most thorough of senses. However, Rioch whilst not in Graham or Wenger levels of iconic status, his reign was a formative one in my football understanding and Arsenal supporting life. It also was important for the club overall, since the seeds of the Arsenal we know today were sown then. Not much is said of it, and understandably so given Wenger’s successes, and the triumphs under Graham. Nonetheless, it was significant in its own way.

It was the birth, though to a limited degree, of big players, sexy football, and an Arsenal looking after some years to compete at the higher end of the table. It also saw the arrival of arguably our best ever player, Dennis Bergkamp.

And of course, old stalwarts remained strong, such as Seaman, Adams, Merson, and Wright.

David Platt, the England captain at the time (along with Adams as it was shared somewhat), joined from Sampdoria, and it overall demonstrated a new path and vision for the club, after staidness under latter Graham years.

But to understand the Rioch season, and possibly the hiring of Arsene Wenger, one must note the state of the club in the latter Graham seasons. The genesis of Arsenal since 1996, and to 2018, stems from there:

– Boring football

 

It’s unfair, in my mind at least, to say Graham was boring. The Thomas winner in 1989 in itself was not boring, and never could be. We had flair players like Thomas, the late, great Rocky Rocastle, Limpar, Davis, Merson, Marwood, etc. in both 1989 and 1991 teams. We also scored many goals and beat teams pretty handsomely.

Boring, boring Arsenal only came into play, in my opinion, once the PL set in. Wright was our chief scorer, and we had very few flair players. This naturally created a negative image for the club, though this was mitigated by the Cup wins (FA Cup, League Cup and Cup-Winners Cup).

However, it was time for a change, and the poor league finish of 94/95 took the comeback of “at least we win!” away.

 

– Need for flair

This melds with the first point above, but then we lacked the flair of previous years. Even pre-Graham, we had Nicholas, Brady, Woodcock, as players who could play a bit.

With respect to those in the latter Graham years, Jensen, Hillier, Selley, and Morrow, were not players who could light things up. Jensen lit things up for his country before he joined, but not so much after that.

The team had in the PL era become workmanlike under Graham, and our midfield for one lacked the flair and grit of Keane, Ince, Barnes, Lee, etc. It was perhaps one reason why the team didn’t truly challenge for the league until the 96/97 season and Wenger’s first as manager.

A football team always requires a balance of qualities, in all areas. And we had grit, determination, and a winning attitude. However, the flair, guile, and spark were lacking. And without this, we didn’t shine in the league

– New tactics and new ideas

Graham pushed the envelope via the development of the back four. He also was tactically strong, but this started to wane, especially as Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Kenny Dalglish (with a recent knighthood of course), and Kevin Keegan, started to rise with Man U, Blackburn, and Newcastle respectively. All had top players and were playing good football.

The one-time innovator was starting to be left behind. Sounds telling of recent times, doesn’t it?

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We needed new ideas, refreshment and new blood (wow, maybe history does repeat itself after all….)

Graham himself said that he was not getting the best from the players, and he wished to resign at the end of the 1994/95 season. He had run the course, and had he not been sacked due to the bung, he may have resigned.

Graham and Wenger have both shown key similarities in their latter years, and the club has generally needed a shake-out period to get us back on track.

– Big names

The landscape had changed from 1986 to 1995. Sky brought in much higher revenues, and this allowed clubs to develop stadiums, buy top foreigners, and essentially kick-start the modern footballing experience. This also included names like Cantona and Klinsmann in the early PL years, and unlike today, many players from 1992 to 1996 were English, or British at best (accounting for all four home countries).

To compete we needed to get big names.

However, at the end of the 1994/95 season, we had a strong nucleus, albeit an ageing one. Wright, Seaman, Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, and Bould were all top quality, though Parlour was a then undeveloped young talent. The Merse was there, naturally, but demons in his gambling and drinking woes.

John Hartson

But this team needed real quality. In early 1995, just before Graham got the sack, he bought in Hartson, Kiwomya, and Helder, to add more attacking purpose.

Hartson was decent and went on to make a good name for himself at West Ham and Wimbledon. Kiwomya’s level was at Ipswich in the lower divisions, and Helder whilst getting some good assists in his time (Bergkamp’s first goal) was in a way like a 1990s Gervinho. Some fleeting promise, but not much substance. United, Leeds, Liverpool, and dare I say it Spurs, had signed big/well-known players from 1992-1995. Arsenal was not prone to this, but then it was imperative we joined the party.

– Purification

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Graham’s autobiography was released after his ban expired.

At that point, Graham was our most successful manager. He had taken us from an average team under Don Howe and Terry Neill, to a team winning titles in grand style, and competing and winning in Europe. To paraphrase somebody who at that time was just a business mogul “he made Arsenal great again”.

However, due to some dealings in the early 1990s, the board sacked Graham for accepting a bung or unsolicited gift. The club had no choice, given the scope of the acts, but it tarnished Graham’s legacy somewhat (bar managing the Scum…) and Arsenal’s image as a club that does things in the right and decent way.

So we needed some better PR and big time. Moreover, the addiction revelations of Merson didn’t help things either. We needed a catalyst for change, which sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

It’s actually telling how there are parallels between this mid-90s period and what is happening now in 2018. I guess in some ways, one can imagine the club in latter Wenger and later Graham and see that we needed a jolt in both eras. The circumstances were different, but the need for change and progression was key in both times.

In 1995, Rioch was the answer to this.

In part 2, I will discuss how exactly he fared if we actually did attain progression.

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