Midweek Muse: Arsenal’s Bruce Rioch – The Nearly Man?

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Tom Simmonds looks back on the managerial career of Arsenal Wenger’s brief predecessor, Bruce Rioch…

Arsene Wenger signed a new two-year contract last week to extend his tenure at the Emirates. Whatever Arsenal’s fanbase think of this, it is still a remarkable length of time to be in charge of a football club, particularly in today’s climate, and particularly when you consider that his predecessor lasted only 14 months in the job.

That man, was Bruce Rioch. Though his managerial journey started at Torquay in 1982, and then took him to the far north west of the US to Seattle immediately after, it was what he did at Middlesbrough, where he arrived in February 1986 with the club loafing in the old Third Division that started to turn heads.

In his second season in the North East he took the club to promotion with 94 points. Context is all here; Boro were locked out of their ground on the eve of the season. Their extinction was actually announced on the local news on the night that a consortium – which included current chairman Steve Gibson and local petrochemical giant ICI – delivered a deal which fulfilled the Football League’s demand for them to pay their debts in full and to have £350,000 in working capital.

This was clearly a case of adversity breeding togetherness. The Scot harnessed a young squad into an exciting and effective unit, who went undefeated from the March 7 through to the end of the season as they stormed to automatic promotion, finishing second behind Harry Redknapp’s Bournemouth side, who finished three points in front of them.

Cynics could look at the squad Rioch had on paper and point out that it contained young versions of future Premier League winners Gary Pallister and Stuart Ripley, future England international Colin Cooper, and was helped by the prolific goalscoring of Bernie Slaven. But what Rioch did next further showcased his gift for bottling momentum and squeezing every last drop from it.

A fearsome record at the Ayresome Park home they were locked out of a year previously was key to Boro’s settled squad finishing third in the Second Division the following season – level on points and goal difference with second placed Aston Villa, only missing out on automatic promotion on goals scored. This pitched Boro into the play-offs where, after overcoming Bradford in the semi-finals, they prevailed in the last ever promotion-relegation play-off, restricting Chelsea to a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge, having won the first leg 2-0 at Ayresome. A club that was 10 minutes from death two years previously was now in the top flight.

Agonisingly for Rioch and Boro fans, the 1988-89 season was to prove a bridge too far for a team that had been on a heady journey. They managed to navigate losing their first three games of the season to recover and hold a solid position in the table for most of the season. However, an alarming collapse after consecutive home wins over Manchester United and Southampton in January saw them win only once more all season and Boro fell into the relegation zone on the last day of play, sealing an immediate return to the second tier. Talk of a quick return was to prove overly optimistic and Rioch was sacked the following March with Boro in huge relegation trouble. It did not take Rioch long to find another job, however, as he took over at Millwall shortly after.

Rioch’s time at The Den is definitely a case of what might have been. He did get himself a few free hits when he took over a Lions side doomed to relegation from the top flight in only their second (and last) season there. Rioch cannily added the likes of Malcolm Allen and Alex Rae to a squad that had remained largely together after winning promotion in 1988. Fans expected an instant return to the top flight and, with Teddy Sheringham on a goal rampage and the team playing some superb attacking football, it looked extremely likely that this would happen. However, Rioch was unlucky to find Millwall in what was probably the strongest ever Second Division, in which the three automatic promotion places were claimed by a brilliant Oldham team, a West Ham side who won 1-0 an awful lot, and Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday side who also won the League Cup that season. A fifth-place finish meant it was the play-offs for Rioch’s team, and a dreadful 4-1 defeat to Brighton in the semi-final first leg gave them too much to do, with Neil Warnock’s Notts County claiming the final promotion spot.

The season after consisted of the mother of all play-off hangovers. A predictable raid on The Den took Sheringham to Nottingham Forest. A completely remodelled squad never really moulded into a cohesive unit, despite two high-performing signings from his former club, Cooper and Paul Kerr. Some of this can be attributed to popular assistant Steve Harrison being sacked for misconduct in pre-season. The loss of Sheringham’s goals, the service provided by Jimmy Carter and, crucially, being without Allen for most of the season due to a knee injury that would end the Welshman’s career two years later all didn’t help Rioch, and he was sacked in the March after a 6-1 defeat at Portsmouth after a few months of mutiny in the squad and on the terraces.

Rioch’s next stop was at Bolton Wanderers, where he reminded those at the higher echelons of the extent of his coaching ability as he recreated the magic carpet ride he piloted at Middlesbrough. Three magical seasons ensued, which Trotters fans see as having laid the foundation for their sustained success under Sam Allardyce a decade later. Taking goalkeeper Keith Branagan and striker John McGinlay with him from Millwall  club, Rioch set about creating another attractive, winning team to take into the top flight. In the process of doing this, he made stars of Jason McAteer, Alan Stubbs, Alan Thompson, and the rotund McGinlay, whose girth was no barrier to his sniffing instincts, as he bagged 101 goals in 192 appearances over five years for the club.

Rioch’s time at Bolton saw many a landmark, including promotion from the Second Division, a FA Cup win over Liverpool at Anfield, and knocking Everton and Arsenal out of the FA Cup in 1993-94. But it was the 1994-95 season in which Bolton were impossible to ignore. They reached the final of the League Cup, narrowly losing 2-1 to Liverpool and finished third in the First Division. A semi-final play-off win over Wolves saw them make a second Wembley appearance of the season, when they overcame Reading 4-3 despite being 3-1 down at one stage. Mixu Paatelainen’s winning goal secured Rioch’s second promotion to the top flight of his career, though he would be tempted away from Burnden Park by an irresistible offer to fly higher within that strata.

It was a no-brainer for Rioch to join Arsenal in the summer of 1995. The lure of the marble halls notwithstanding, his experience narrowly failing to keep Middlesbrough up six years previously must have featured heavily in his thinking. Here was a job that managers like Rioch just don’t get these days. He inherited a world class goalkeeper in David Seaman, their famous back four, Ian Wright in his goalscoring pomp and he was set the challenge of building a side around Dennis Bergkamp.

Read: Arsenal legend Vic Akers on how he took the Ladies to the top

Unfortunately for Rioch, it was to prove a case of being careful what you wish for. With rumours that some players did not feel he was enough of a ‘name’ for them, and rumblings that some were not too keen on Rioch’s more abrasive side (a trait which also made him unpopular at Millwall), it did not go swimmingly for him at Highbury. He managed to annoy Wright hugely by playing him out of position at times as he tried to work out the best way to accommodate Bergkamp in his team.

Despite this, Rioch did the minimum required in his sole season at Highbury, finishing 5th and qualifying Arsenal for the UEFA Cup. It was fated not to last however, and Rioch – frustrated with a squad that lacked depth despite having a stellar first XI- departed after a clash with the board over resources for the following season. The unknown manger to take his place, had a very different experience.

Flying close to the sun at Arsenal seemed to take some of the zip out of Rioch’s coaching from then on. An unispiring spell in charge of a Norwich side in the doldrums from 1998-2000 saw his methods cast as a relic of an age that football was moving away from. Despite this, he had one last shot at managing in England, taking on the challenge of getting heavily-backed Wigan Athletic out of the Second Division in 2000-01. But another strong field saw Wigan fall behind the likes of Millwall and wildcards Rotherham and Stoke in the promotion race, and they were too far adrift for chairman Dave Whelan’s liking and he sacked him at the end of February 2001. A hiatus of four years saw him rock up in Denmark to take charge of Odense and AaB – the latter which, in his last act as an elite manager, he qualified for the group stages of the Champions League in 2008 before he was sacked for poor league form.

It is easy to look at Rioch’s managerial career and saddle him with the nearly man tag. He never won a league title or a cup competition and his tenures at most of his clubs seemed to have a natural shelf life, quite often descending into acrimony. However, he gave the supporters of two big clubs some of the most magical times of their supporting lives and was, on more than one occasion (at Millwall and Wigan) extremely unlucky with the unusual strengths of teams around him. Arsenal was a club in transition which needed a reformer of Wenger’s type rather than somebody cut from the same cloth as Rioch’s predecessor, George Graham. Anybody who ever watched a Bruce Rioch team will generally not have wanted for entertainment and that is the real mark of a manager’s true worth. Even if some Arsenal fans might not agree, most fans would still happily pay to watch Bruce Rioch’s football.

Follow Tom on Twitter at @TallulahOnEarth

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