For many younger Arsenal fans, Arsène Wenger is the only manager they know, the managerial legend has been in charge at the club for over two decades. Before Wenger, George Graham enjoyed a trophy-laden nine-year spell in charge. Between these two greats however, there was another, often forgotten manager. Bruce Rioch.
Bruce Rioch, who managed Arsenal during the 1995-96 campaign, served as the bridge between Graham and Wenger. Considered a failure by many, Rioch helped lay the groundwork that would allow Wenger to succeed almost immediately at the club.
Rioch enjoyed a good playing career in which he won the First Division with Derby and captained Scotland at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. After a brief spell in the NASL with the Seattle Sounders, Rioch returned to England and began his managerial career as player-manager at Torquay United.
Rioch’s first real success as a manager came at Middlesbrough in the late 80’s. Appointed in February 1986 with the club fighting relegation in the 3rd Division, Rioch led the club to successive promotions 1987 and 1988. Rioch kept his job as Middlesbrough were relegated and guided ‘Boro to the Zenith Data Systems Cup Final before getting the sack just weeks before the Final as the club struggled for form in the 2nd Division. Despite the sack, Rioch earned plenty of plaudits for taking a nearly bankrupt club into the 1st Division and putting his faith in young players from the Middlesbrough area.
Following a short spell at Millwall, Rioch took over at Bolton. Again, Rioch won two promotions, this time in just three years. Rioch’s success with ‘Boro and Bolton attracted the attention of many clubs around England and Rioch jumped at the chance to become George Graham’s successor at Arsenal.
Bruce Rioch came from a military family and this upbringing undoubtedly shaped his managerial style. Described as a “stern disciplinarian”, Rioch was known for his intense training sessions and famously even joined in during small-sided games to dish out intentionally nasty tackles on young players to test their mentality.
Rioch took over an Arsenal side that had finished 12th in the Premier League the previous season. Rioch was tasked with returning Arsenal to the top end of the table and relieving the club of the “Boring, boring Arsenal” moniker picked up in Graham’s final seasons.
Preseason signings David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp signaled Rioch’s intent to play a more attacking, possession based style. Arsenal made a strong start to the campaign, not losing until matchday 8 at Stamford Bridge. A loss in the North London Derby at White Hart Lane in November was the start of a tough spell however as Arsenal won just three of the next twelve in the Premier League and went out of the FA Cup in the third round to Sheffield United. Rioch did manage to right the ship and lead Arsenal to 5th and a place in the UEFA Cup after losing just two of their final thirteen league matches.
In Rioch’s first season, Arsenal saw an improvement from 12th to 5th, improved their goal difference by 14 goals and conceded only 32 goals, a league best. Despite this progress, Rioch’s high-profile fallout with fan favorite Ian Wright, in which Wright ended up turning in a transfer request, was a black mark against his name. Still, attendance figures at Highbury were up and the future looked promising for Rioch’s Arsenal.
In the summer of ’96, while the European Championships captivated the attention of the country, Rioch clashed with vice-chairman David Dein about transfers. Following George Graham’s fiasco with an agent that ultimately led to his firing, Arsenal decided that transfers would be dealt with by the board rather than the manager going forward. Rioch and Dein however, failed to see eye to eye about how Arsenal should act in the transfer market.
A host of world-class stars were linked with Arsenal in the press including Frank de Boer, Paul Ince, Les Ferdinand, Jürgen Klinsmann, George Weah and even Bordeaux’s Zinedine Zidane. Instead, former Arsenal number 1, John Lukic joined as reserve goalkeeper along with 18-year old Icelandic defender Valur Gíslason. This was clearly not the investment Rioch was hoping for and the feud between the manager and Dein escalated. Just days before the start of the new season, Rioch was sacked as the relationship was deemed untenable. Shortly thereafter a little known Frenchman was appointed and Rioch became just a footnote in Arsenal’s history.
Rioch’s 431 days in charge is the shortest spell of any Arsenal manager since William Elcoat’s spell between 1898 and 1899 (when the club was still known as Woolwich Arsenal). Had Rioch stayed at the club, it is highly unlikely that he would have gone on to the same success as Wenger has done but then again very few, if any managers could have accomplished what Wenger has. Still, Rioch was a respectable manager who could have succeeded at Arsenal, given more time and the support of the board.
The signing of Dennis Bergkamp is often cited as Rioch’s lasting legacy at the club. While he deservedly gets credit for this, his contribution to Arsenal’s future success is considerable. Rioch’s commitment to creating a passing style and improve the players’ lifestyles made the transition to Wenger much easier.
“Rioch helped improve my distribution of the ball no end.” – Martin Keown
After leaving Arsenal, Rioch sadly never again reached the same success that led to him being appointed at Arsenal. Rioch had spells at Norwich and Wigan in the lower divisions before taking charge of Odense and Aalborg in Denmark.
Rioch never managed in the Premier League again after leaving Arsenal and has been out of football since 2008. This lack of success since leaving Arsenal is likely part of the reason why Rioch’s spell at Arsenal is largely forgotten.