In April 1996, 15 minutes into one of the least dramatic north London derbies in living memory, Ian Wright was picked out by Dennis Bergkamp and sent haring through on goal.
Arsenal’s first season under the management of Bruce Rioch had been turbulent, but with six wins from their last nine, it at least looked set to finish on a relative high. With only the whites of Ian Walker’s eyes standing between him and the Highbury goalmouth, Wright steadied himself, picked his spot – and was promptly bundled over from behind by Justin Edinburgh. Despite having extinguished a clear chance to score, Edinburgh was punished with only a booking. Bergkamp wafted the resulting free-kick over, the 11 men of Spurs dug in for a drab 0-0 draw, and Arsenal’s season petered out.
A challenge that changed the course of English football? That may well be overstating things, but it certainly played its part in ushering in the changing of the guard at Highbury a few months later. Victory over Spurs would have lifted Arsenal’s spirits further and, more importantly, lifted Bruce Rioch’s side to fourth, while a derby winner for Wright may well have assuaged a conflict that would prove to be pivotal. Instead they staggered to a fifth-place finish, with back pages fixated on the growing rift between Arsenal’s disciplinarian manager and his star striker. That summer, out went Rioch, in came Wenger, and English football entered a new and broccoli-fuelled era.
There’s little evidence, of course, that a mere late-season win over Spurs would have been enough to salvage Rioch’s Arsenal career. But it would have seen his side finish at least one place higher in the league, and the fact that he wasn’t fired until August, five days before the start of the next campaign, is enough to suggest that the decision to let him go was anything but cut and dried.
That said, talk of Rioch’s job being under threat had littered the papers since January, when a dressing-room bust-up with Wright made its way into a Sunday red-top (“The pair went face to face and it looked like the boss was about to explode,” testified one nameless eye-witness). The story would run and run – Wright famously took exception to his manager instructing him to study the off-the-ball runs of Bolton’s John McGinley – with various papers reporting that England boss Terry Venables was being lined up. When Wright handed in a formal transfer request in March, the News of the World reported it under the headline: “1991-1996: END OF AN ERA”.
It didn’t quite happen like that, of course – just ask Cliff Bastin. But nor was the Rioch/Wright conundrum as clearcut as we might now think. Plenty of Highbury die-hards sided with a manager trying to institute a move away from the safety-first football of the George Graham era. “Rioch wants to play a passing game, playing through midfield and through Bergkamp,” wrote the editor of the One-Nil Down, Two-One Up fanzine, at the height of the cold war between the pair. “Wright thrives on the ball over the top but with his back to goal, he’s very average. Look at Alex Ferguson: he had the same issue with Mark Hughes and he got rid. Wright’s 32. He’s in decline.”
In the end it was Rioch rather than Wright who got the bullet, but perhaps if Wright had been allowed to stay on his feet and slot past Ian Walker as he surely would have, the debate would have moved past the either/or stage. After all Rioch was no grand failure: he had succeeded in quickening pulses in the Clock End (“Bruce Rioch will have to be careful,” wrote the Times’ Peter Ball after an early-season demolition of Leeds, “if his team carries on like this, it will be in danger of burying the ‘boring Arsenal’ tag for all time”) and certainly Wright had more strings to his bow than the above assessment accepts. A derby winner could have been the start of a beautiful friendship.
Or not. As it was, the enmity remained and, allied with some frosty disagreement between Rioch and his chairman about potential new signings, it was enough to convince the board to cut short the new man’s tenure after a mere 12 months. Cue a little-heard-of appointment from Monaco and the Evening Standard’s famous and very possibly apocryphal “Arsene Who?” headline. The shortest-serving Arsenal manager since the 19th century would make way for the longest ever.
Wenger’s impact on English football is too great to go into here, but suffice to say he blazed a trail that led the sport from booze-sodden sepia into vivid futuristic Technicolour. In the short-term, a squad whose lifestyles resembled a Charles Bukowski novel – Steve Bould supposedly ordered a 35-pint round for seven of them during Wenger’s first pre-season tour – would quickly be whipped into lean shape.
“We want our chocolate back,” chanted Wenger’s players on the coach to Blackburn for their first game under him; within a few weeks they were passing on yoga tips to team-mates at England training. The following year they were double winners.
All Wenger’s advancements – the nutrition, the scouting networks, the training drills – would have arrived in England sooner or later, of course, with or without him; the difference is that he did it first, and he did it at Highbury.
No clearer is this demonstrated than through the fate of Arsenal’s north London rivals. When Wright was looming down on Walker only two points separated the clubs, while the previous season Spurs had finished a full five places above Arsenal. But the inbound Wenger spent the next two decades casting himself as the patron saint of St Totteringham’s Day, an annual event that would go proudly ahead without fail for the next two decades.
It would be harsh to blame Justin Edinburgh for that, even if there is a chance that none of it may have happened had he declined to clatter clumsily into Wright back in ‘96. But as north London’s power-pendulum swings back the other way for the first time since then, he and many thousands of Spurs fans might be tempted to wonder how different things could have been.