Friday 12 August 2016

Arsenal scrapbook flashback: Bruce Rioch sacked and Arsene Wenger appointed

Anyone who thinks this summer has been a dispiriting close season for the Arsenal should reflect on what happened in 1996. It was a bizarre series of events – or lack of events - but a period which proved pivotal in the modern history of the Club.

Let me set the scene with the aid of my scrapbook collection (you can read about earlier entries from it here and here).

Note: click on all the images of the newspaper stories to enlarge them.

Bruce Rioch had started the 1995/96 campaign as the new Arsenal manager buoyed by the signing of two ‘statement of intent’ signings: Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. The season started pretty well and when Bergkamp scored the only goal of the game at home to Man U in November, Arsenal sat in third place in the league, seven points behind runaway leaders Newcastle United.

The Guardian, November 1995
From there though the team’s form fell away as they won only three of next 13 games leaving Arsenal eighth by early February. One of the most memorable moments from that period was a scrap between Rioch and Kevin Keegan, the Newcastle manager, in the League Cup quarter final at Highbury. Tempers flared mainly due to Lee Dixon and David Ginola’s personal feud which led to the Frenchman getting sent off for rising to Dixie’s bait. Keegan was unhappy with his man’s treatment and wasn’t afraid to share a frank exchange with Rioch.
Daily Telegraph, January 1996
Beyond the sideline melee, it was an impressive performance by the Arsenal against a team that went close to winning the league. But it was an isolated show of unity in what was a fractured dressing room. There were continuous rumours of Rioch wanting to clear away the old guard and the rumours of new arrivals were endless.

The biggest fall-out was between Rioch and Ian Wright – there had been speculation about their relationship from pre-season but things got worse in January when the pair had a classic ‘dressing room bust-up’.

News of the World, January 1996
And it wasn’t just the lack of love shared between manager and players that was stretched: the relationship between manager and Board was strained, as these stories just a couple of weeks after the Wright confrontation illustrate:

The Sun, January 1996
The Sun, January 1996
 Things reached a head in March 1996 when Wright handed in a transfer request, which was rejected.

News of the World, March 1996

Anyone who thinks the fights between the AKB and WOB fractions nowadays are a modern phenomena should read the story below - there were distinct camps in the Wright v Rioch debate back in 1996:

90 Minutes magazine, March 1996 (note the Myles Palmer byline - he was a real journalist!)
The team remained inconsistent for the rest of the campaign, with the League Cup run ending unfortunately in an away goals semi-final loss but enough being done to seal European football via a fifth place finish. It was achieved on the final day thanks to two late goals from the men who inspired so much hope at the start of the season: Platt and Bergkamp.

Daily Telegraph, May 1996
So despite the tension within the club, it entered the close season on a relative high and with a decent platform to improve the following campaign. But amid all the excitement generated by Euro 96 on home soil and the expectation of further stellar signings, Arsenal picked up just one player: John Lukic, for free. While the likes of Newcastle were embracing the renewed national passion for football by smashing the transfer record to sign Alan Shearer for £15m, the Arsenal mysteriously declined to get involved.

The mystery was solved on August 12th, 1996, when Rioch was sacked. It was a surprise at the time and I was angry that the board had got rid of him after doing a decent job, especially just five days before the new season kicked off. Not all of the players agreed with the decision either, with stories from Bergkamp and Paul Merson, for example, expressing disappointment bordering on anger. But the warning signs had been there during the season and as the coverage made clear, the Club was unhappy with Rioch’s transfer targets – deemed to be unrealistic – as well as the way he conducted himself, including that fracas with Kevin Keegan, a lack of communication and failing to sign a contract.

The Sun, August 1996
The Sun, August 1996

Meanwhile, Rioch himself had his say in an interview given the week prior but published the day after he was given the boot (check out the classic broken badge illustration).

Daily Mirror, May 1996: note the list of players who had apparently been on Rioch's shopping list 
Whatever the reasons, time never stands still in football so the focus was as much on who would replace Rioch as it was on why he was fired. The Dutch legend Johan Cruyff led much of the initial reporting:

The Sun, August 1996

Daily Telegraph, August 1996

It would have been an incredible coup to have got Cruyff and having seen Arsenal break with its conservative image by buying Bergkamp the previous year, it felt plausible. It was with huge regret at the time, then, that the Club appeared to be reverting to type and picking an unknown, un-exciting option in the shape of some bloke called Arsene Wenger.

The Sun, August 1996

I remember seeing that back page and being struck by how unusual Wenger looked compared to most football managers. It was a theme of much media coverage as well, with some going so far to question – like the players it later transpired – who this angular, glasses-wearing Frenchman dare think he was to consider taking over at Highbury.

Daily Mirror, August 1996
But there was also an intriguing undercurrent of wholehearted approval, like this gushing tribute from his former player at Monaco, Mark Hateley:

The Sun, August 1996
It didn’t take long for journalists and supporters to be won over too. As negotiations continued to hasten his departure from Negoya Grampus, one of his new signings by the name of Patrick Vieira impressed on his debut  against Sheffield Wednesday and his words at his unveiling added further reassurance.

The Sun, September 1996
The cultural difference that he was stepping into was significant, as this brilliant story about him introducing an 'amazing' restriction on the players drinking alcohol made clear:

The Sun, September 1996
But regardless of his new rules, the players didn’t appear to want to revolt too strongly as an impressive win in Wenger’s first match in the dugout proved:

The Guardian, October 1996
Whatever you think of Wenger today, his recruitment was almost as exciting as that of Bergkamp almost 12 months earlier. The Dutchman was a known quantity, a global superstar that you could normally only dream of signing, but Wenger had something about him that suggested there could be some special times ahead. How special, nobody could have imagined.

Monday 2 May 2016

Time for change should have been 2011

Expectation levels are relative among every set of football supporters: what counts as success and failure depends on what you hoped was realistic at the start of each season and the history which precedes it.

Success and failure lies in the eyes of the beholder and as supporters are the lifeblood of the game, it is their right to form their own view.

For that reason I was saddened to see the criticism of the protest organised by a group of Arsenal supporters this weekend.

Regardless of whether you agree or not with their ‘Time for Change’ call, the right for every supporter to have a view should not be denied. Debate about the validity of the argument is healthy, but much of the opposition has focused on whether Arsenal supporters, as people who follow one of the wealthiest and traditionally successful Clubs in British football, should be allowed to complain at all.

Why should disagreement about what is happening at a football club be confined to Clubs that perennially struggle or have a history of mismanagement? Every supporter should be allowed to have their say in whatever way they want to do it – though personally I think the definition of a ‘supporter’ is somebody who backs the 11 players on the pitch during the 90 minutes of a game.

Change what?
So while defending the right to protest, the meat of the matter is whether you agree with what they are saying.

The reason the protest failed to resonate is the hole at the centre of the argument: change what? The difficulty is nobody seems willing to put their finger on exactly what should change or how it should be changed but I'll have a go.

Kroenke - best of a bad bunch
Let’s start with Stan Kroenke. Here is a someone who chooses to make money through sport(s). As well as being incredibly wealthy from his real estate background and ability to tap into the Walmart empire through his wife, he is a professional sports club owner who wants to manage the value of his his assets as much as, if not more, than seeking glory on the field of play.

If the two things happen simultaneously it will be a happy coincidence but make no mistake, this is no stereotypical sugar daddy of yesteryear who, having made his money, was now happy to throw a hefty chunk of it towards making their favourite team better. Indeed, this one is much more likely take money out of it than putting it in.

But is his concern for the bottom line inherently a bad thing? Couldn't be a useful check and balance among the emotion of the game to have an owner who is unwilling to sacrifice good business sense in the pursuit of glory?

The ‘Time for Change’ question on Kroenke boils down to what kind of disgustingly rich owner do you want to change him for. An oligarch with links to oppressive Russian presidents? A Middle Eastern sheik with connections to regimes with a disregard for human rights? It is a shallow well in which to search and sadly the American sports mogul might be the best of a bad bunch.

Wenger - culture starts not quite at the top
And so to Wenger. In some ways, the same points can be made of him. On one hand we want a manager who refuses to countenance anything other than winning a league as success – something at least publically Wenger does not appear to sign up to given the emphasis he places on finishing fourth as the first priority – but on the other we want a steady leader who can build a team as much through developing players as they do through the chequebook.

Add two FA Cup wins in the past two years, plus the wonderful Highbury years, into consideration and the verdict on Wenger becomes even more complex to reach. There is also a lack of viable alternatives who would be a clear upgrade. Without doing any calculations to check whether the cliché is true, it feels like we live in an age when managers’ shelf-life is shorter than ever and managers have less time to build the CV wanted for such a high profile job. That could explain why the shortlist for potential replacements for Wenger is so small, especially when two of the better alternatives – Guardiola and Ancelotti – will start jobs with new employers next season (both could come in the future but Guardiola seems less likely having made Man City his choice of all his options but the Ancelotti, whose Chelsea connections seem a distant memory, is 10 years younger than Wenger so has time on his side).

So you can understand why there is a reluctance to have phrased ‘Time for Change’ as ‘Time to change the manager’ despite it being a clearer message.

But I think it would have been a valid one, possibly more so than ‘Time for a new owner’. One reason is just how much influence Wenger has on the football strategy of the Club – far, far beyond the first team remit of most modern managers – and it being this part of the Club which is arguably underperforming the most. People highlight how the culture of the club needs to be overhauled and that this stems from the top, from Kroenke. I agree to an extent but any check on Kroenke’s track record shows how he and his people leave the football – or the basketball, or the ice hockey – to the sporting experts and they focus on ‘winning off the field’, to borrow a phrase from another NFL executive.

I tweeted recently that Kroenke deserves his share of criticism given the issue about culture but on reflection it is set by Wenger. Football managers, particular high profile and successful ones, have an almost unique ability to set the tone for the organisation, far more than a chief executive, chairman or owner, especially one so long in post as Wenger. The back office takes its lead from the dugout and the flaccid atmosphere found at home games could be switched in a season with a different man at the helm.

The second reason is the inability over almost a decade to end the same mistakes being made, and address flaws shown, on the pitch.

During much of that time the argument could be justifiably made that our financial position was holding us back, though I didn’t really fully accept it at the time and I still don't: the mis-judgements made to allow so many sub-par players like Almunia, Eboue and Silvestre to have extended Arsenal careers completely undermine the idea that lack of money was our biggest problem.

But today – especially with Leicester City and Sperz topping the league table – that argument holds even less water and Wenger is left exposed to the same criticisms: lack of leadership, lack of impetus, lack of defensive nous when it matters most, lack of willingness to invest in better players.

The end of an era is (still) never pretty...
Some of the supporters’ criticism of Wenger has been disrespectful, and sadly some of it offensive. But to dismiss the protests as the work of a bunch of spoilt brats who feel entitled to see their club win everything, or how one set of supporters’ ire is less genuine than another’s, is as nonsensical as it is insulting.

I concluded a blog entry in April 2011 entitled ‘The end of an era is never pretty’ with these words: “The criticism of the team and Wenger continues to increase and more and more of even his most steadfast advocates are beginning to believe things will never improve until he is replaced. It might be different if our problems and faults were not so familiar, bordering on pathological. The end of an era is rarely pretty but we can only hope the atmosphere surrounding this one is not allowed to get so bitter that it spoils the joy of what came earlier.”

How times change...

We could, maybe should, have started protesting at that point. The five years since have seen two FA Cup wins, yes, but Arsenal have not moved closer to becoming the best team in England or Europe which is the measure by which we define our success. That isn’t supporters’ fault but we are the people left waiting for the one change that will make it happen.