This was not a pre-season game that one would normally remember or highlight, but it came at a time as speculation mounted that the Arsenal manager Bruce Rioch was going to be sacked after just one season. And indeed just one season in which he had got Arsenal back into Europe. There was talk of who might come in, but no one got anywhere near the correct prediction.
None of us knows, of course, exactly how matters were handled as Bruce Rioch was sacked and Arsene Wenger arrived. We know that Rioch finished the previous season of 1995/6 in a bit of style, but had an utterly and totally 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 Rioch, 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.
In terms of win percentage, Rioch 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, but 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 the very 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.
My view is that the final nail for the manager was pre-season. 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, could have been excused by the team simply not being ready, 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
And this with a team that boasted Platt and Bergkamp (whose transfer broke the English transfer record), plus the famous back five.
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. Either way the manager was out, Stewart Houston was back in charge, Pat Rice was the first team coach, and the papers talked up all the possible managers:
Johan Cruyff, George Graham, Terry Venables, David O’Leary…
When Stewart Houston was told he was not being considered, he left to be the manager of QPR, Pat Rice taking over as interim. 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.