Bruce Rioch: The One Before Wenger

Pic: Ben Radford/Getty Images
Pic: Ben Radford/Getty Images

It has been over 18 years since someone other than Arsene Wenger managed Arsenal. That man was Bruce Rioch, a success at Middlesbrough and Bolton Wanderers, and the manager tasked with guiding the club into a new, post-George Graham era. He was sacked after a single season. So what went wrong? Adrian Clarke, just breaking into the Gunners’ side at the time, takes up the story. 

 

Some managers shudder at the thought of in-house confrontation. Arsene Wenger is that way inclined. He absolutely loathes it. His predecessor as Arsenal boss was an altogether different animal. In fact, Bruce Rioch would voluntarily launch himself two-footed into any showdown, as long as he felt it would extract more from a player, or the team. Conflict didn’t faze him. It was part of who he was. And in the end, this may have been his undoing.

It didn’t matter who you were. If the boss wasn’t happy with something, he had to let you know in his own commanding way. Honest, blunt and hard talking, he wasn’t the type of man who played politics, or messed around with mind games. So, even though he was coaching a squad packed with experienced title winners and players who’d recently put FA Cups, League Cups and Cup Winners’ Cups on the Arsenal table, there would never be any tip-toeing gently, or walking on egg shells. No special treatment. No softly softly approach.

This didn’t always go down brilliantly with the senior pros – and I do recall him rubbing Ian Wright up the wrong way several times. When he infamously stopped a training session in full flow to tell our main man that he should look at the runs his former Bolton striker John McGinley made and learn from them, it was a grave error of misjudgment.

While I’m sure he was only trying to help, offence had been caused, and I don’t think their relationship was ever the same again. Respect on Wrighty’s side had been lost, and fearing he wasn’t wanted it was the precursor to several blazing dressing room rows.

Personally, I was way too scared to bite back; even when Rioch left stud marks down my ankles in training. Unlike George Graham, who’d usually stand on the side watching us go through our paces, if there was an odd number – or even when there wasn’t – Bruce would join in with the small-sided games, and crunch into full-blooded 50-50s with his own players; often leaving a little something extra on the young upstarts. He loved a ruck.

One day I remember he and Eddie McGoldrick kicking lumps out of one another (much to everyone else’s hilarity) and this wasn’t an uncommon scene. With younger players like me, I sense he wanted to rattle our cage and see how we’d react. It was old school.

The tougher he was with us, the more he felt it would help us in the long run, and I didn’t mind either. If he clobbered me in training I took it that he’d taken a keen interest in my play. That’s how things worked back then. Unlike the talented teenagers of today, we definitely weren’t wrapped in cotton wool.

The son of a regimental Sergeant Major in the Scots Guards, Rioch had arrived in north London with a reputation for taking a military approach to football management, and it soon became apparent that this wasn’t an urban myth.

He was fixated by detail, team spirit, organisation and forward planning – and this was often reflected in the training sessions he took. I remember doing timed runs around the perimeter of our old London Colney training ground one day in pre-season, with George Armstrong (our late and much loved reserve team boss) jotting down our times at the finish line.

Based on the list he then split us up into equal teams, each with one of the slowest players in it. The next run would be more arduous, assault-course in style, and the winner would not be first over the finish line but instead the ‘team’ who got their last man home before the others. It was a classic boot camp exercise in teamwork.

My group had Paul Merson (a sensational player but terrible long distance runner) and the way the manager screamed at us to drag Merse along was reminiscent of an Army instructor cajoling the weakest in his pack. He could easily have been wearing khaki camouflage gear instead of his Arsenal branded t-shirt and shorts.

It was a good drill though. I’ve tried my best to forget the pain of most running sessions I did down the years, but that one was a bit different. His attention to detail was meticulous, and this was evident in his obsession with set pieces. Arsenal under George Graham had been machine-like in this department (so there was a tradition to be upheld) and boy did we work hard on ensuring standards were maintained.

My left foot was the biggest asset I had. I couldn’t always put it on a sixpence but I’d usually be pretty close. Most teams I represented, had me on corners and free kicks. During first team action I’d delivered plenty of decent dead ball deliveries but one day in training I remember being asked to specifically drive it on to Andy Linighan’s head at the near post from a corner; but for some reason I just couldn’t get it right. The more he asked me to do it, the worse I got. I was embarrassed, and wanted the ground to swallow me up, but the manager showed no sympathy. All he cared about was getting the corner drill done properly, so after much headshaking and cold hard stares, he hauled me off corners and told me to stand at the side. I didn’t train with the first team again for weeks.

There was that cut-throat side to him. He could be ruthless. Ray Parlour, Martin Keown and Stephen Hughes have all reminded me of this tale in recent years. I’d been nicknamed ‘Son of Bruce’ by a few first teamers who thought I was becoming his favourite, so the incident was one of those ‘wow, that was brutal’ moments that had stuck in their heads. We can laugh about it now, but back then it knocked me sideways.

Don’t get me wrong though. I got on fine with Bruce Rioch, and I’ll forever be grateful for the five starts and eight first team outings he gave me in 1995-96. He loved young players and that was fantastic. Under the previous regime it wasn’t easy to get a look-in with George Graham, who was cautious by nature and worried about risking too many kids. Rioch was less fearful. If he felt you were good enough, he’d throw you in at the deep end and expect you to swim.

This faith in youth provided us fringe players with a little more assurance in our new high-pressure surroundings, and it tended to bring the best out of me. Although difficult to read as a person, there was a warmer side to Bruce Rioch too. In one-on-one meetings he’d always make a point of asking about your family, and to see if everything was OK at home with your other half. It was never just about the football. He wanted to know us as people.

Building a family spirit within the dressing room was important to him, and on his say-so it became tradition for players to bring in cakes for everybody else on their birthday; something they’d done at Bolton. George Graham would never have considered this – so it wasn’t supported as enthusiastically as it might have been by the old guard – but the intention was nice enough. He wanted to bring us together.

One, rather more peculiar ‘rule’ was to be positive whenever he said hello to you. If I’d bumped into him in the corridor and the boss had said, “Morning. How are you Clarkey?” he would have ripped out my innards had I come back with “Alright, thanks.”

“Alright!” I heard him scream angrily on more than one occasion to a young player. “You’re a professional footballer, you play for a great club like this, The Arsenal, and you’re just alright?! Not good enough son.”

It was an odd one. He wanted us to engage with him properly I guess, and give off a vibe that we were ‘great’. Maybe it was part of a wider look-good, feel-good, play-good philosophy? I’m not so sure.

Some first teamers occasionally took it too far of course. “I’m absolutely wonderful thanks boss. Marvellous in fact. How are you? How’s the family?” they’d reply with an obvious hint of sarcasm. In a football environment, packed with cynical old pros I guess that was only to be expected.

Just before the referee rang the bell for us to head down the tunnel, Rioch would walk around the dressing room shaking the hand of each player. Looking you in the eye he’d simply say, “Play well,” and that was that. He didn’t try and confuse us with last minute messages or instructions, and I quite liked that.

Rioch’s Arsenal played good football too, and that’s often unfairly forgotten. Released from Graham’s shackles, the team was encouraged to pass and move quicker, and played with freedom. His side was certainly easier on the eye than the one he inherited. Dennis Bergkamp’s arrival may have had something to do with that of course. Bruce adored Dennis (understandably) and wanted us to build everything around him.

Results also picked up. Having finished a lowly 12th the year before, we ended the season in 5th place, with 12 more points than the previous season. A progression had been made.

Yet it wasn’t enough. By mid-August Bruce Rioch had been sacked, and with it came the unwanted distinction of being the club’s shortest-serving boss, at just 61 weeks.

What happened? I genuinely don’t know. All I can think of (and it’s only a hunch) is that those regular confrontations hadn’t painted him in the best light with the men upstairs. Whispers may have got back that he wasn’t universally liked or respected, and that was that. When a dressing room hierarchy backs a manager, so will everybody else. On reflection I wonder if he wishes he’d tried harder to get them on side.

I liked him, but Bruce Rioch was a strong man with a stern management style, too similar perhaps to the strict taskmaster who’d built the team before him. It seems obvious now, but that Arsenal side needed to be taken down a different road, to be invigorated by somebody who would challenge them in a new, unfamiliar way. As it turned out, Arsenal’s choice to replace Rioch fitted that brief perfectly.

 

Adrian Clarke is a football writer and broadcaster. He hosts ‘The Breakdown’ on Arsenal TV and you can follow him on Twitter (@adrianjclarke)

Bruce Rioch: The One Before Wenger
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