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23 December Liverpool 3 Arsenal 1, two wins in nine – but we end up 5th

Season 1995/6 was the Bruce Rioch year, the season between the final outing of George Graham (replaced in February by Stewart Houston) and Arsene Wenger (preceded by Pat Rice).

On the morning of 30 October the league table looked promising

PD W D L F A GD Pts
1 Newcastle United 11 9 1 1 27 8 +19 28
2 Manchester United 11 8 2 1 23 11 +12 26
3 Liverpool 11 7 2 2 24 8 +16 23
4 Arsenal 10 6 3 1 15 5 +10 21
5 Nottingham Forest 11 5 6 0 19 12 +7 21
6 Middlesbrough 11 6 3 2 11 6 +5 21
7 Aston Villa 11 6 2 3 13 8 +5 20
8 Leeds United 11 6 2 3 17 13 +4 20
9 Tottenham Hotspur 11 4 4 3 16 14 +2 16
10 Chelsea 11 4 3 4 11 14 -3 15

A win for Arsenal playing their catch up game would lift them to 24 points and put them in third just four behind the leaders.  With Bolton sitting 19th out of 20 in the league with just a single win all season, it looked eminently achievable.

At the end of that season in fact Bolton came bottom with just five home wins in the campaign.  Sadly one of them was against Arsenal, 1-0 on 30 October 1995 – and their attempts to undo Arsenal that season were not yet over.

But for a moment it didn’t seem to affect Arsenal that much since on 4 November Arsenal played Manchester United at home and beat them 1-0.  Amidst the joy of the moment the loss at Bolton then looked even more annoying since a win at Bolton combined with the victory over Man U would have put Arsenal above Man U in the table.

The defeat against Tottenham the following weekend (2-1 away) deflated the feeling, but again that was followed with a 4-2 victory over Sheffield W.

Four matches with a sequences of win-loss-win-loss was not ideal, but still there was hope.

Date 1995/6 Home team Score Away team Result
30 October Bolton W 1-0 Arsenal L
4 November Arsenal 1-0 Man U W
18 November Tottenham H 2-1 Arsenal L
21 November Arsenal 4-2 Sheffield W W
26 November Arsenal 0-0 Blackburn R D
2 December Aston Villa 1-1 Arsenal D
9 December Southampton 0-0 Arsenal D
16 December Arsenal 1-1 Chelsea D
23 December Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal L
26 December Arsenal 3-0 QPR W
30 December Arsenal 1-3 Wimbledon L
2 January Newcastle U 2-0 Arsenal L
13 January Middlesbrough 2-3 Arsenal W
20 January Arsenal 1-2 Everton L
3 February Arsenal 1-1 Coventry D

But a sequence of four wins in sixteen matches is nothing to get excited about and by the end of that sequence after the game on 3 February the league table looked like this…

P W D L F A GD Pts
1 Newcastle United 27 19 4 4 52 25 +27 61
2 Manchester United 28 17 6 5 55 29 +26 57
3 Liverpool 28 16 7 5 56 24 +32 55
4 Aston Villa 28 14 7 7 39 24 +15 49
5 Tottenham Hotspur 28 13 9 6 35 25 +10 48
6 Everton 29 13 7 9 44 30 +14 46
7 Arsenal 28 12 9 7 36 26 +10 45
8 Chelsea 29 11 10 8 35 31 +4 43
9 Nottingham Forest 28 11 10 7 38 39 -1 43
10 Blackburn Rovers 29 12 6 11 43 34 +9 42

Arsenal were only seventh although one might have expected them to be much lower, but the fact is that we were 12 points behind the team in second and 16 behind the leaders.  It was a catastrophic fall, which was combined by unhappiness in the dressing room over the tactics.

The team at the time included Wright, Platt and Bergkamp and one might have expected more from them, but it was not to be at least until the very end.

Arsenal recovered after that low point of a home draw with Coventry, and a last gasp victory at home against a relegated Bolton on 5 May 1996 gave us fifth place and much celebration within Highbury.  A draw would have let Everton in to the final European slot.  A defeat could have made way for Tottenham.

The final table looked like this…

Pd W D L F A GD Pts
1 Manchester United 38 25 7 6 73 35 +38 82
2 Newcastle United 38 24 6 8 66 37 +29 78
3 Liverpool 38 20 11 7 70 34 +36 71
4 Aston Villa 38 18 9 11 52 35 +17 63
5 Arsenal 38 17 12 9 49 32 +17 63
6 Everton 38 17 10 11 64 44 +20 61
7 Blackburn Rovers 38 18 7 13 61 47 +14 61
8 Tottenham Hotspur 38 16 13 9 50 38 +12 61
9 Nottingham Forest 38 15 13 10 50 54 -4 58
10 West Ham United 38 14 9 15 43 52 -9 51

Yes we got fifth, and yes that last game is remembered for the excitement of the last few moments.  But leading up to that last gasp winner we had had another run of one win and four draws in the previous five.

As for the last game, against an already relegated team there were even extraordinary moments, like when Platt did a back-heel overhead shot which hit the crossbar… but as so often in this season, the goals that should have come did not come despite the talent on the pitch.  We only scored 49 all season.

We knew we were in trouble when Ian Wright was taken off on 57 minutes for the honest bluster of but lack of guile of Hartson.   Then Tottenham scored and threatened to end up above us.  Bergkamp almost scored with a traditional curling shot on 65.  Surely not a 0-0 draw?

And then the midfield got confused, as they had been doing all season, Andy Todd took the ball, by passed the defence and we were 0-1 down.

Anyone there will remember the silence. No attempt to bring Arsenal on – at least not for a couple of minutes.  Just desperation that this season of poor football despite the players in the squad could end like this and that Tottenham would get the place in Europe that we expected.

Then, Platt scored, and three minutes on Bergkamp got the ball 35 yards out, and thumped it into the top right-hand corner.  There was noise, relief, excitement, but later, upon reflection, we knew we had been lucky.

Seaman

Dixon, Keown, Linighan, Winterburn

Merson, Marshall (Shaw, 78) Platt, Parlour,

Bergkamp, Wright (Hartson, 57).

Substitute not used: Bartram (gk).

That team, we felt, should be giving us more than this.

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