When Bruce Rioch managed Arsenal; the man, the myth

by Tony Attwood

It has become commonplace for people who don’t like Arsene Wenger to state that “this is the worst Arsenal team that I have ever seen, and I have been supporting the club for 30 years.”

I was about to add to that sentence “or words to that effect” but actually looking at the comments, they are pretty much those words that are used.

My point here is to disagree completely.  If you want a really bad Arsenal team, look no further than  the season before Wenger joined Arsenal.

That’s not the only point here.  Many people now like to re-write history to show that Wenger had it lucky by inheriting the back four or five left over from the Graham era.   The records show that is not quite how it was.

By dealing, as we have been here, with the issues of failure, I am trying to put into perspective the thin line between success and failure.   As the series of articles on the opening years of the Chapman regime show, even the great man who is deemed to have founded the modern club was such a failure that in modern times he most certainly would have been hounded out by the “supporters” who are now attacking Wenger.

In the piece on the worst players for Arsenal, it is clear just how strange some people’s selections are, and how short their memories.

Now, I want to look the man who preceded Wenger and what he did for the club.

In forthcoming articles I want to look at the one season of Rioch in some detail – not just to prove how bad it was, but also because it is a vital reference in relation to the work on Untold Arsenal which celebrates the world and work of Arsene Wenger.

First then, Bruce Rioch, the football man.

Rioch made his playing debut with Luton Town in Division 4, and then Aston Villa in Division 2.  He then played in the first division and won a championship medal with Derby.

Then came the difficult times.  He went to Everton, but lasted only half a season.  Went back to Derby and fell out with the manager.  Went on loan to Birmingham and Sheffield United.  Went to Seattle Sounders, and then came to my own second club, Torquay United, where he was player-coach before becoming player manager in 1982.  He lasted one and a half seasons before leaving.  He was unemployed for 13 months and then went back to the States to manage Seattle Storm.  He left after six months.

After another six months out of football he became manager of Middlesbrough and they were promoted from the Third to the Second division as runners up.  The following year they got promotion via the play offs to the first division.

This was the making of the Rioch Myth – the manager who in appalling financial circumstances took the team up two divisions.  What is forgotten is not only the comings and goings earlier, but also what happened after the two promotions.   The club went down again, and were close to relegation again back to the third when the club sacked him.

After Middlesbrough it was Millwall.  A place in the playoffs, but then departure the following year.

By May 1992 he was at Bolton, and they ended 1992/3 with a promotion and this time Rioch kept the team in the division with a mid-table finish. In 1994/5 Bolton were in the league cup final, and won the play offs to get into the first division.  Then he joined Arsenal.

So, to summarise, what had the man done to warrant an appointment at Arsenal?

Here’s the list of his managerial conquests.

Torquay United and Seattle

  • No trophies


  • 3rd division runners up
  • 2nd division play off winners

Bolton Wanderers

  • 3rd division runners up*
  • 2nd division play off winners
  • League cup runners up

* To clarify this is the third tier of English football – the divisions were often renamed named, but I’ve tried to be consistent in counting them as 1 2 3 4.

The man who preceded Wenger

This is my main point.  This man who had never won anything of major significance in a top division as a manager was the man who came before Wenger.  It is a tribute to the magnitude of the performance of Wenger, and to the low-level expectations of Arsenal before Wenger that Rioch would never ever be considered a manager now.

He was, and as we will see in the next article, has remained, a low-level performer.

And yet he was made manager of Arsenal, in succession to George Graham, who had won two league championsh9ps, two league cups, the FA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup.

He was a man who had had a series of fallings out with people over the years, and was not considered an easy person to get on with.   While today, when we think of a successor to Wenger for whenever he retires, we will think of the top managers from around the world, and look for one of them.   And yet with the man who came before Wenger we chose a second rate second level performer.

It did not bode well, and indeed it didn’t turn out well.   I’ll explain how, and why in the next article.

6 Replies to “When Bruce Rioch managed Arsenal; the man, the myth”

  1. i think wenger was lucky to inherit bergkamp, who was rioch’s signing.

  2. Most of the so called fans that are asking for Wenger to be sacked werent fans of the gunners when Rioch was the manager. They have by in large only started supporting Arsenal in the Wenger years as he transformed the way we play football and was hugely succefull in his first decade.

    So the same people that only supported our club because of Wenger and his philosophy are now wanting him out, while the rest of us who have been around since the Goerge Graham days realise what Wenger has done and is doing for us.

    Hi contribution is unmeasurable and will only truely be appretiated in years to come when all of the worlds major teams have adopted the “Wenger Model”.

  3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.

    For those who chant the mantra: “Arsene Wenger inherited George Graham’s back five”

    1. Arsenal’s defence under Arsene Wenger has, on average, conceded one goal more per season than under George Graham.
    2. Arsenal’s defence since 2003-4 has, on average, conceded one goal more per season than under George Graham.
    3. Arsenal’s attack under Arsene Weneger has, on average, scored 15 goals more per season than under George Graham.

    I can remember in George Graham’s last season that people were talking about replacements for Dixon and Winterburn who were “too old”.

    Bruce Rioch may have signed Dennis Bergkamp (although I believe that it was more to do with David Dein than Rioch), but Wenger’s style of play got the best out of him.

    I recommend any doubters read Lawrence Marks’ “Fan For All Seasons”. It’s a fantastic diary of the the time and gives his view on the difference that Wenger made when he took over the team.

  4. And here’s another one.

    Since 1888, only two managers have led their teams to top four finishes in the top division of English football for 15 consecutive seasons. One of them is Alex Ferguson. I’ll leave you to work out who the other one is.

    Even the mighty Liverpool machine of the 70s and 80s couldn’t manage that!

  5. Wrong, most of the fans …

    This comment has been removed as it was primarily abuse aimed at the author of the article, without any justification.

  6. Its been a bittet sweet experience under Wenger. Most of the fans that want him out are more upset that we no longer realistically challenge in the BPL and continue to get embarrased in the UCL. Since the Ivincibles we’ve become easy to beat…and many of the squad only know how to win the FA cup…some not even that. Exlectatiin rose when we left Highbury and havent been met in the last 13 years. Not good enough for todays fans sitting in a fantastic stadium with high ticket prices…so hence the frustration..

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