By Tony Attwood.
This article continues the series on past pre-seasons, this time dealing with the summer of 1996.
None of us knows, of course, what happened when Bruce Rioch left and Arsene Wenger arrived. We know that Rioch finished the previous season of 1995/6 in a bit of style, but had a dreadful 1996 pre-season. Was it the pre-season that finished him off?
But we also know that David Dein had met Arsene Wenger long before, and been impressed by him.
So was the club trying to get Mr Wenger some time before, only to find he wouldn’t break his contract in Grampus 8, or was there really the breakdown in communication between players and manager, which has been mentioned in some quarters?
Certainly, Arsenal had shown significant resolve to move forwards during the 18 months prior to Wenger’s arrival.
There is an earlier article on this site with the bleak title “By 18 September 1994, Arsenal knew they were in trouble…” In February 1995 George Graham was sacked, ostensibly for accepting a payment from an agent, but also for the bad results that season. Stewart Houston was in charge and Arsenal slithered to 12th, the lowest league position since 1976 when the club finished 17th.
So in came Rioch as manager. In terms of win percentage he was Arsenal’s 11th most successful manager with 46.81% win ratio – but that was over just 47 games.
Two big name signings were brought in to boost the team at the start of the Rioch era – Bergkamp and Platt signed in the summer of 1995. At the end of the season the club finished 5th, which was enough for the Uefa Cup, but a disappointment, given that third was a possibility not that far from the end of the season.
Arsenal were undone by two very poor patches. 15 games from the 30 October to 3 February resulted in just five wins. The last five games of the season resulted in just one.
With Platt and Bergkamp in the team, the famous back five still showing that they could do their stuff, and Ian Wright able to knock in goals anywhere anyhow, it should have been third, at least.
So July 1996 was a time for some serious re-arrangement to boost the team, but we got only John Lukic on a free and Valur Gíslason who actually never played for the club.
What we needed was to make the existing team, which was not that poor in terms of personnel, really function. Would that happen?
The pre-season games told us.
A 0-6 away win to St Albans City on 19 July, with a team including much of the first team regulars like Dixon, Merson, Stephen Hughes etc, told us little, but the defeats that followed revealed a lot:
- 27 July 1996: Birmingham 1 Arsenal 0
- 31 July 1995: Celtic 2 Arsenal 1
- 3 August 1996: Rangers 3 Arsenal 0
- 7 August 1996: Fiorentina 2 Arsenal 0; Benfica 3 Arsenal 1 (two 45 minute games)
- 10 August 1996: Ipswich Town 1 Arsenal 1
Pre-season doesn’t always tell us a lot, but it tells us something, and these games told us that this was not working – not at all.
I doubt that the run of results in the pre-season was a central cause in Rioch’s departure, but clearly it didn’t help. Most likely it was those two sets of very poor results, in a team that boasted Platt and Bergkamp (whose transfer broke the English transfer record), plus the famous back five, that undid it all for Rioch.
There was talk over Rioch not being happy with the transfer fund available (but would you give more money to a man who had failed to make an impact with the team available?) There was talk of a breakdown in the relationship with David Dein. Stewart Houston was back in charge, Pat Rice the first team coach, and the papers talked up all the possible managers:
Johan Cruyff, George Graham, Terry Venables, David O’Leary…
Looking back, the list (apart perhaps from the first) was laughable.
When Stewart Houston was told he was not being considered he left to be manager of QPR, Pat Rice taking over. Arsène Wenger was not announced until his contract in Japan was finished, but everyone knew by then, and his impact even before he arrived, was huge.
On 13 August Arsenal, instead of putting out a full first team, as Rioch had been doing, put out a mostly reserve team to play Northampton in the final friendly – and lost 3-1.