Arsenal Managers reviewed: Bruce Rioch

By Tony Attwood

This is part of what is becoming a fairly large series of articles on Arsenal’s managers.  There is a full chart of the managers with links to numerous articles about them, and their players.

Also we have a range of charts on that page which highlight the achievements of each manager.  Rioch was Arsenal’s 23rd manager (our list includes temporary appointments and caretakers) and was Arsenal’s 11th most successful manager with a win rate of 46.81%.   He was aided somewhat by having a limited number of games and by having the remains of the Graham side, and the addition of two high profile players who joined the club.  Under him our first team won 22, drew 15 lost 10.

Bruce Rioch was born on 6 September 1947, which means he is (as I write this) approaching his 65th birthday.  

He was a player (making over 550 League appearances) and played 24 times for Scotland.     He played for Luton, Aston Villa, Derby (with whom he won the League), Everton, Derby (again), Seattle Sounders, and Torquay (player-coach). 

But it is as a manager that we are more interested in him here.  He took up that last position (as player-manager of Torquay) in July 1982, and lasted 18 months in the job, before being out of the game for 13 months.  In both seasons Torquay were mid-table in the fourth division, which is where they had been in the season before he arrived.

He was unable to land a job for a while after that until February 1986 when he took over at Middlesbrough.   Middlesbrough were relegated under him at the end of that season, to the third division.   The following season they were runners up behind Bournemouth and went back to the second.

The club at the time was on the verge of bankruptcy and locked out of their own stadium.  But the following season the club came third in the second division and won promotion again via the playoffs.

After a poor second half to the season Middlesbrough were then relegated next time around (1988–89).  1989-90 was also poor and he was dismissed – and the club survived by just two points at the end of the season.

Next up was Millwall, who had been relegated at the end of 1989-90 after coming bottom of the first division, 17 points from safety.  In 1990-91 Millwall finished 5th in the second division, but despite four clubs going up that year (for the enlargement of the top division) Millwall did not and with Millwall no where near promotion the following season he was again dismissed.

In May 1992 Rioch became manager of Bolton who had just ended a season in mid-table in Division 3.  His side defeated Liverpool 2-0 in the Cup at Anfield, and finished runners up in the re-named 3rd league (now called Division 2), one point ahead of Port Vale.

In 1993/4 Bolton were again mid-table in Division 1 (the second division) and beat Arsenal in the FA Cup.   In 1994/95 they were losing finalist in the League Cup but won promotion through the play offs having come third in their league.

But Rioch then jumped ship and became Arsenal’s manager.  1995/6 was his one season with Arsenal, and ended with Arsenal claiming 5th spot and a place in Europe, on the last day of the season.  This was quite an improvement on 12th place in the previous season – the season in which Graham was sacked.  In this season we reached the League Cup semis, but were knocked out of the FA Cup by Sheffield United – a mid-table Division 1 team – in the 3rd round.  Rioch was then sacked in the summer.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

After leaving Arsenal, Rioch worked as assistant manager to Stewart Houston, who had been his assistant at Arsenal.  Both were sacked after a mid-table finish in Division 1 in 1996/7.

In May 1998, he became manager of Norwich, also of division 1.  After two mid-table seasons he resigned.  And moved to Wigan Athletic for 2000/1 season.   Things were going well in the Division 2 (ie third division) but Rioch left in February 2001, with the club in 4th position.  Wigan said Rioch resigned, he said he was sacked.

He was out of work for four years before moving to OB in the Danish Super League in June 2005.  He took the club to third in the league, but then left in March 2007.

In June 2008 he went to another Danish club AaB.  AaB were champions at the time and thus entering the Champions League.   Rioch got the club through the preliminary round and into the League, in which they came third and moved into the Uefa cup.  But in the league their performance was a disaster, and with the club second from bottom in the Danish league he was sacked in October 2008.

In March 2010 he was reported to be coaching Falmouth Town who play in the South West Peninsula League Premier Division.

So what are we to make of all this?   A movement from club to club rarely lasting more than a year – two at most.

If you read any histories of the era the same thing comes up – there was a dispute between Rioch and the board.  Norwich “lacked ambition” he said in one example.  Elsewhere there are differing accounts.  At OB one claim was his wife was ill so he had to leave – the directors disagreed.  At Wigan there was a disagreement as to whether he resigned or was sacked.

Either way the pattern seems to be that he simply argued with those around him and did not accept that he had failed.  He seems to have been a manager who could always have done more if only others had given him the tools to do the job.

Which brings us to Arsenal.  He is known as the man who brought in Bergkamp – although many believe that this was David Dein’s work.   But he also moved Ian Wright to the wing, fell out with Wright, who then demanded a transfer.

Rioch did not get the best out of Bergkamp, nor indeed Wright, but 5th was a creditable finish after the turmoil of Graham’s exit.  But Wenger managed to take the side up to 3rd the following season and the league championship the following year.  What I remember from that season at Highbury was how poor the quality of play had been.  Smoothness (at least in my memory) was there none.

Using the old 1-4 definition of divisions, as a manager he got

  • Third division runners up (Middlesbrough
  • Third division runners up (Bolton)
  • Second division play off winners (Middlesbrough)
  • Second division play off winners (Bolton)

That was clearly his forte – taking lower league clubs and getting them up.  Quite what the Arsenal board thought he would deliver.


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3 Replies to “Arsenal Managers reviewed: Bruce Rioch”

  1. I read this with interest expecting to have to support him with, “But … We got Dennis Bergkamp!”.
    Thanks (as ever) for leaving me better informed.

  2. I recall his tenure being dogged by stories of supposed differences with David Dein. Although Dein surely must have OK’d his appointment there seemed to be a constant wo mis-communication between the two on transfer matters. Rioch is supposed to have drawn up a list of targets for the Board to enact (remembering that immediately post-Graham the manager was supposed to be detached completely from transfer negotiations). Dein on the other hand was reported as saying that money was available but realistic targets weren’t identified. There were also rumours that Rioch did not like Dein getting involved socially with some of the senior players, and perhaps undermining him.

  3. Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt and 5th and into Europe and we began to think the club was ‘going places again’. Little did we know!

    The season over and it was Bruce who was going places and a certain monsieur in far away Japan coming to the ‘home of football’.

    For me the icing on the cake will always be the fact that spudoes most talented player Glen Hoddle left N17 to play for Arsene’s Monaco but Arsene preferred ‘the home of football’.

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