Following George Graham’s dismissal, Stewart Houston had guided Arsenal to mid-table and to a losing Cup Winners Cup final in Paris. When the board could not be persuaded by David Dein to appoint his first choice, they settled on Bruce Rioch. He was in many respects Graham-lite. As a player he was a combative midfielder who preferred the passing game. The sides he produced as a manager were in that ilk; fighters who thought of the ball as a friend, not the enemy. When the board give you Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt as presents, it is hard not to follow that path.
His season was an improvement on the previous one, domestically. With no European distractions, the team were in the top three by Christmas and facing a semi-final against Aston Villa in the League Cup. Indeed the first thirty minutes or so of the first leg were outstanding with Arsenal taking a two-goal lead. It went wrong very quickly. Villa pulled one back immediately after the second Arsenal goal, equalising midway through the second half.
The second leg at Villa Park was goalless so Arsenal exited the competition on away goals. It left Arsenal focussing on qualifying for Europe as they had been knocked out of the FA Cup at Bramall Lane.
It seemed as if Arsenal were imploding spectacularly having slumped to seventh before the League Cup run ended. They regrouped and lost just two of the final fourteen games. Matters became tight though, on the final day Arsenal were fifth level with Spurs and two points ahead of Everton and Blackburn Rovers.
Visitors to Highbury on that day were bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers. They had won just eight games all season, including the obligatory win over Arsenal. It is a failing of the club down the years that if there is an awful side in the division, Arsenal win contrive to lose to them.
And they very nearly derailed Rioch’s only season in charge. Spurs drew at Newcastle whilst Blackburn won at Chelsea. They had an inferior goal difference so they too could not overtake Arsenal. Everton though were a real threat; a superior goal difference and a win over Aston Villa meant that Arsenal had to win.
The relief that met Bergkamp’s was immense, Arsenal were out of the top six with less than ten minutes to go in the season. The match summed up the second half of the campaign in ninety minutes: oddly shambolic but coming good in the end.
Rioch did not last. He had fallen out with Ian Wright very publicly whilst was in conflict with the board over transfer funds, his contract terminated as David Dein persuaded the board to wait for a certain Frenchman to become free of a contract in Japan.
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