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.