The Rioch Arsenal Years – 1995-2000
It started off with such positive feelings.
Welcome to my commemorative post, celebrating the five years Bruce Rioch had in charge of The Arsenal. I will attempt to faithfully look back at the pivotal moments of his five incident-packed seasons at our famous North London side:
1995-96. Rioch’s debut season at Arsenal, and of course he really announced his arrival at N5 with the club record signing of Dennis Bergkamp from Internazionale and the capture of the then current England captain David Platt from Sampdoria. After two disappointing domestic cup runs and a last minute squeak into the UEFA Cup places after finishing 5th in the league, Rioch’s tenure already looked shaky going into the next season.
1996-97. Mr and Mrs David Dein were disappointed to receive an R.S.V.P from a French manager based in Nagoya, Japan, coaching Grampus Eight; Arsene Wenger, saying he was sorry but that he couldn’t make their kind invite to their planned dinner party. David Dein, who had thought he’d found a kindred spirit, was disappointed but understood. After a rift with the Arsenal board threatened Rioch’s position after just a single season, the fall-out over transfer fees were resolved after want-away striker Ian Wright was sold to Newcastle United, to form up a tempestuous strike-force with English record signing Alan Shearer and Faustino Asprilla. This triumvirate fired Newcastle United to their first ever Premiership trophy. Arsenal, who had replaced Wright with the now-unwanted ‘Toon’ striker Les Ferdinand, and had added Alan Stubbs and unknown Welsh protégé Robbie Savage from Crewe Alexandra, to their squad, were struggling without Wright’s goals. Sadly, despite Paul Merson’s valiant attempts and Bergkamp’s master-class in playmaking, Arsenal just couldn’t make a success of the season. A humiliating defeat in Europe to Borussia Monchengladbach and cup exits to Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers finished The Gunners’ season early, in March. Rioch was under pressure to improve on his second successive 5th place finish in a row, but the UEFA Cup beckoned again and partially relieved the weight heaped upon him by disgruntled Gooners. And, as we know, Arsenal’s board are loathe to replace a manager without good reason. Meanwhile, in Munich, Bayern’s Giovanni Trapattoni, after failing to win the league, has been sacked and has left the club in disarray. The Bavarian board – wanting a clean-sweep-out of the old blood – hire relatively unknown French manager Arsene Wenger from Nagoya Grampus Eight. The multi-lingual coach charms the press during his first press-conference and sets about revamping the Munich club, starting at the players’ diet.
1997-98. Under pressure from both the board – who are worried that the club are missing matchday revenue due to Highbury’s small capacity, push the FA to ground-share Wembley Stadium with the England team. David Dein manages this strategic push and Rioch is under pressure to build a squad that has been decimated by exits. John Hartson leaves for Blackburn Rovers, Chris Kiwomya for Crystal Palace and Les Ferdinand returns to QPR. Bergkamp is making distinctly negative noises about wanting to win trophies and Merson’s nocturnal activities blight his pre-season. Rioch struggles to make an impression in the transfer market. Meanwhile, in Munich, the French Revolution is afoot, with little known Frenchmen Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Claude Puel joining Wenger in Munich. Wenger then smashes the German transfer record twice, signing Giovane Elber from Stuttgart and new French goal-scoring sensation Nicolas Anelka from PSG, as well as adding the young and highly rated Belgian defender Daniel van Buyton to his growing Bavarian side. Arsenal announce the signings of the quicksilver Darren Huckerby, Irish teen star Robbie Keane and most sensationally, Dutch international brothers Frank and Ronald De Boer. A frisson of excitement falls on N5. It just might be an Arsenal year!
It wasn’t. Despite a better than expected 3rd place finish, behind a flying Newcastle United, who win their second successive title and a Manchester United team who were just beaten to the league, Arsenal slumped when it mattered and not even the sight of Bayern Munich trouncing Manchester United in the Champions League Final could raise a smile. England were looking good for France ’98 however, with a Wright/Shearer partnership, supplemented by a young Michael Owen, firing them into the competition proper. But England didn’t count on Arsenal’s Dutch stars teaching them a footballing lesson and lost in the Quarter Finals. The Dutch team, aided and abetted by the De Boers, Liverpool’s new winger Marc Overmars and the peerless Bergkamp, were worthy winners against a poor Brazilian side. The surprise team were the host nation, France, who stumbled under the expectation of their home fans; with their French strike-force of young AS Monaco stars Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet embroiled in an ugly transfer wrangle with Bayern Munich and too distracted to inspire Les Bleus. Arsenal complete an early piece of transfer business by securing an unhappy Patrick Berger from Liverpool, who had lost his place to Marc Overmars.
1998-99. Disaster. Following Holland’s stunning triumph, Bergkamp breaks Arsenal hearts by joining fellow countryman Patrick Kluivert in Barcelona, who have also managed to lure Johan Cruyff back into the manager’s hot-seat. Arsenal move fast and replace the Dutch maestro with up and coming England player Frank Lampard from West Ham and rescue the hit and miss Stan Collymore from his Aston Villa misery. Rioch states that despite losing his Dutch master, Lampard, Berger and Collymore can fire Arsenal to the league title. No one believes him and he already looks to be on shaky ground. Bayern Munich fans however are delighted with their lot as Wenger adds young Swedish stars Zlatan Ibramimovic and Freddie Ljungberg to their bulging, yet youthful squad, as well as their third club record signing; Zinedine Zidane, who leaves Juventus after a torrid World Cup campaign. Bayern’s distinctly French flavour and Scandinavian grit, added to German Teutonic might, looks irresistible. Dein successfully lobbies with the FA to use Wembley as Arsenal’s new stadium from 1999-00, with Highbury sold to supermarket chain Tesco to re-develop the non-heritage-listed areas of the site. Arsenal’s season falls apart as Tony Adams and David Seaman leave in the New Year to join Newcastle United’s millions. Rioch manages the side over the line to 7th and is given an ultimatum; finish the season in the top two with a Wembley crowd behind us, or be prepared to leave. Nike, disappointed by Arsenal’s poor form, ditch the London the side and little-known Spanish sportswear firm Kelme decide to take over the club’s shirt supplier’s contract. This gives many fans ‘paws’ for thought. Manchester United wrestle the title off of Newcastle United in a thrilling end of day finish. Bayern Munich batter Juventus in a thrilling Champions League final, with the young Swedish maverick Ibrahimovic scoring two and the imperious Zidane adding a late coup de grace.
1999-00. As footballing pundits gasp as the behemoths of Barcelona and Bayern Munich steamroll their way into a Champions League Final, this season, Wembley proves to only inspire Arsenal’s European opponents to up-their-game against them. An aged David Platt, bravely schooling Lampard and Savage in Arsenal’s midfield, cannot do anymore to help the team get over their crippling player losses. Ronald De Boer, Collymore and Huckerby, aided by Keane and Berger, just cannot replace Bergkamp’s goals. Fate sees Les Ferdinand return twice to play Arsenal with QPR, his goals knock Arsenal out of both cups. Seaman and Adams’ replacements; Italian legend Gianluca Pagliuca and Dutchman Winston Bogarde, fail to impress. Arsenal scrape into 9th place and Rioch is fired by the end of May in the new Millenium. Newcastle United narrowly loses out on the title to a resurgent Liverpool side, fired by the lightning fast pair of Overmars and Owen. Disposed champions Manchester United win a cup double. Barcelona and Bayern Munich meet in a dream-team final where Cruyff’s side capitalises on Bayern’s defensive lapses, a recent trait that had also cost them a domestic double. Trezeguet and especially Henry fail to ignite in the final for their Munich club and miss several presentable opportunities. In the end, Wenger’s German team has to make do with a solitary league title. In the summer, Holland romp home in their joint-hosted European Championships tournament, beating a lacklustre Portuguese side in the final, Bergkamp bowing out of international football with a bang.
Arsenal rapidly search for a manager who can offer something different and replace the now thoroughly spent Bruce Rioch and Stewart Houston with recently-sacked-by-Lazio Sven-Goran Eriksson and his faithful right-hand-man, Tord Grip. The Swedish pair are handed a huge transfer ‘war-chest’ and swoop quickly to bring the Chilean striker Marcelo Salas and the Argentinian midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron with them from the Rome side for English transfer record-breaking fees, mostly funded by the Wembley home crowds, as well as the Brazilian winger Denilson, who has had a rotten time at Real Betis and a young hulking Italian centre-back called Giorgio Chiellini from Livorno…David Platt, delighted by the arrivals of his old Serie A colleagues, stays on as a player/coach but Collymore, Huckerby and Savage are moved on to a grateful Tottenham Hotspur…The De Boers leave London to join the Dutch movement in Barcelona. After a relatively poor season, when compared to his glorious Champions League winning year at Bayern Munich, Arsene Wenger confounds everyone by jetting east again to re-take the helm at Nagoya Grampus Eight. As Wenger departs the German giants for the Far East, as do several of his Bayern Munich stars; Ibrahimovic and Vieira join Real Madrid, Zidane shocks by returning to boyhood club Olympique Marseille and Ljungberg scores a massive contract by joining a buoyant, free-spending Glasgow Rangers in a move that cannot possibly go wrong…
Change is happening at N5. And it is Swedish-flavoured; IKEA announce a shirt sponsorship deal after the Arsenal board rejects a “daft offer from SEGA” and their new console, the ‘Dreamcast.’ Arsenal’s now aging board were clearly more comfortable with mahogany than microchips.
By 1999, the pressure was building far too high…
Thanks for reading.
Be grateful for Arsene Wenger, eh?! Let us see what his 1,000th game in charge brings and just think ‘what could have been.’
Let us hope that Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game finally breaks the hoodoo that Jose Mourinho holds over him, as well as his ridiculous home record at Stamford Bridge. Records are there to be broken! Do that and the title that seemed all but lost after Stoke City would be back in Arsenal’s sights.