On 26 November 1995 Arsenal played out a dire goalless draw at home to Blackburn. A very disappointing result given that we had just beaten Sheffield Wednesday 4-2. Mind you the result before that was a 2-1 away defeat to Tottenham so perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised.
This was the season under the management of Bruce Rioch, and during this particular part of the season Arsenal won just four games in 15, and were very much a mid-table looking team. Yet the players were of a calibre that pretty much one anyone around at that time will remember – Seaman and the famous back four, plus Platt, Wright, Merson, and Bergkamp. Yet somehow it just didn’t seem to fire. Was Dennis worth the transfer fee? Sometimes most certainly but not everyone was sure, all of the time.
And there was clearly discontent. Ian Wright was asked to play on the wing, and as a result then asked for a transfer. Dennis seemed to be firing on one cylinder and by and large kept his head down.
But worse, there was a feeling of drift and decline that seemed to be around Highbury. In 1989 we had that most memorable of league titles won at Anfield, in 1991 we won it again in the era when the League suddenly decided that it had the power to deduct two points for argy-bargy – but only if Arsenal were on the pitch. In 1993 we were the first ever team to win the Cup Double, and the following season we won the Cup winners Cup.
But then in 1994/5 we came 12th as George Graham was sacked for financial doings, (later to return as Tottenham manager of all things), so along came Rioch.
He took us back up to 5th, and the semi-final of the League cup, but going out in the 3rd round of the FA Cup to Sheffield United was not what we were used to after all the Cup Winners’ Cup and Cup Double stuff.
It is hard to describe the atmosphere at that time, but I recall it as almost resigned, sometimes even sullen, as if we couldn’t believe that the excitement was over and demanded that the players do their stuff before we would deign to rouse ourselves to make a noise.
But of course it is never over until… well you know. Because on 4 May 1996 we stood fifth in the league ahead of the final game of the season. That fifth position was enough to get us into Europe the following season, but a slip up in the one game left meant that the last Euro sport could let any one of Tottenham, Everton or Blackburn instead of Arsenal.
Ahead of that final game Tottenham and Arsenal were both on 60 points so a better result for them in the last match would lift them over us. (Their goal difference was four worse than ours, and they had scored more than we had so a 6-0 win to them if we only won 1-0 would give them the European position – but that seemed rather unlikely).
But Everton and Blackburn were also close, and if both Arsenal and Tottenham lost in the last game and either of those clubs made it, again we’d miss out on Europe.
And for a while, everything looked to be going wrong. Bolton took the lead on 76 minutes and depression roared its way around Highbury (if depression can roar, but I certainly recall there being a lot of noise, and not all of it was that pleasant). But then Platt scored on 82 minutes and our Dennis got the winner just two minutes later, and inside the old ground it was as if we had just won the League at Liverpool all over again.
Of course we had no idea our manager, having got us into Europe, was then going to find he had been sacked as his reward, nor that we were then going to bring in a totally unknown man in his place. And as Tony Adams famously said, “He’s French, what does he know about English football?”
As it turned out, Mr Wenger knew quite a lot. As for Bruce Rioch he became assistant manager at QPR before doing a couple of years at Norwich, a year at Wigan and then time with a couple of Danish clubs, before calling it a day in 2008. But I don’t think we noticed.