By Tony Attwood
My feeling is that there are many people who claim to be Arsenal supporters who believe the mantra that “this is the worst Arsenal team ever”. My personal remembrance, backed up by videos of the pre-Wengerian seasons is that what we see now is several million light years ahead of what we used to get.
When Arsène Wenger came to the club he came to a club in crisis and turmoil. In the latter years under Graham the results had been poor. Following the historic 1990/91 season in which we had won the league with just a single defeat and only 18 goals against our results were
This then was not an all conquering club, and those of us who were there at the time well remember thinking that after the two Graham championships we could be in for another long wait.
George Graham spent much of the latter part of his era fending off criticism about his squad – just as Wenger has to do now. In George’s case it was a question of midfielders. The fans wanted a Brady II, and George couldn’t find one. In fact he said in one interview that he was so fed up with being asked at every interview why he didn’t sign a midfielder, he had had a t-shirt made with the slogan “I am trying to sign a midfielder” on it, with the aim of wearing it at a press conference. His view was the right player was not available.
But there is another issue that is often mentioned in relation to the changeover between Graham and Wenger: the back five.
The team that Pat Rice as caretaker manager put out for the first game of the 1996/7 season was
Dixon Bould Linigham Winterburn
Parlour Bergkamp Hartson Merson
and one can argue that was a hell of a team to have available – especially with Tony Adams recovering from injury and Ian Wright on the sidelines.
But in the 1994/5 season much of this team was also available – although hit by injuries. True there was no Bergkamp but there was Alan Smith, and the fact is that before Wenger arrived the back four was looking as if their time had been and gone and that a new defence was needed.
Arsène Wenger arrived just after another appointment – Liam Brady as head of youth development. Wenger even made two signings before actually arriving in London: Partick Vieira (£3m) and Remi Garde (free). It looked as if the new boss might be ready to change the team considerably.
Pat Rice announced (undoubtedly without talking to the new boss) in the programme that he was looking to get back to some 1-0 to the Arsenal type victories, which I must admit as a season ticket holder who had never heard of Arsène Wenger, did not fill me with much excitement. Nor did the signing of Vieira and Garde since I had never heard of them.
Arsenal played seven league matches before Arsène Wenger arrived, under the guidance of Pat Rice and Stewart Houston – Houston resigning after the defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in the Uefa Cup.
In that sequence we won four, drew two and lost one. One will always stand out for me: Arsenal 4 Sheffield Wednesday 1, 16 September 1996. Roger (my dear friend with whom I went to Arsenal for more years than I remember, and to whom the book “Making the Arsenal” is dedicated) and I sat in the North Bank watching the game, arguing for much of the time about the wiseness or otherwise of bringing in a non-English manager to run the club. Adams had already famously said something along the lines of “what does he know about English football?” which did not bode well.
Neither of the first two Wenger signings had been seen, and we were watching the regular team have a rather nice win, when Pat sent on Patrick, and this guy with the long legs came on for Platt (whom Roger thought was a total Pratt).
Now Roger and I played this game with new players of trying to make instant judgements as to how good or bad they were going to be. He never forgot my early judgement on Theirry Henry (along the lines of “what the fuck is he doing out on the left wing?”), but in retaliation I always reminded him of my opening comment about Vieira.
Of course I can’t be sure these were my exact words, but they were something like, “Vieria’s just taken control of the entire game”.
It is a very strong memory – Patrick took up a position in the middle of the pitch, and then just loped around taking the ball, running forward, passing, pointing, moving. I remember it as an immediate event. No warm up time, no getting used to the pitch or the players. He just walked in and did it. I don’t think he spoke any English at the time either.
Patrick played his first ever full match for Arsenal in Pat’s last game as manager – a 2-0 away win at Middlesbrough. When Adams came on in that game as a sub we had the Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Bould and Adams back five playing (although to be fair Adams came on for Dixon, so they weren’t all there together.)
Now we could see what the new man would do with the old team.
Mr Wenger came in for the second leg game of the first round of the Uefa cup, and we were knocked out (2-3 on both legs). Not a great start, but the league position looked healthy, although there was a feeling that Arsène was going to have to clean out a lot of the old timers to make a real challenge.
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Making the Arsenal – the book of Arsenal death and rebirth