The mysterious machinations at Arsenal took another unexpected turn yesterday with the the announcement that not one but two Frenchmen were joining the club, both of them players.
Suddenly the club that could not make a signing under a manager who would not sign his own contract have, within 48 hours of Bruce Rioch's departure, persuaded Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde to put pen to paper before revealing who they would be working under.
The French connection conveys an even stronger hint, if that was possible, that Rioch's successor in the manager's office will be Arsene Wenger. The man who made such an impression on the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, when he played under him at Monaco has reportedly told his current club, Nagoya Grampus Eight, where his contract runs until November, that he will be leaving them to join Arsenal.
No one at the North London club, who qualified for the Uefa Cup despite Rioch's perceived failings, is about to confirm that, though the managing director, Ken Friar, did shed some light on the bold step of signing the French pair. "I know eyebrows may be raised as we have signed them before the new manager has been confirmed, but we needed to beat the Uefa deadline. We cannot make an announcement about Bruce Rioch's successor just yet and it is unrealistic to think that anything will be confirmed before the start of the season."
It must be assumed that someone who is au fait with French football marked Arsenal's card, tipping them a pounds 4m wink about the qualities of Vieira. The former under-21 international, who began his career with Cannes before moving to Milan in November, can play as a defensive midfielder, centre- back or left wing-back. Although he played only six games in Italy - three in the Uefa Cup, one in the Italian Cup and two in Serie A - back home he is regarded, at 20, as highly promising. He was apparently wanted by Paris St-Germain, Marseille and Bordeaux.
Garde, 10 years older than Vieira, played for France four years ago but he has since been hampered by injury, which kept him out of the Atlanta Olympics. He had a knee operation two seasons ago and managed only a few appearances for Strasbourg last season. However, since he was out of contract, he moved to Highbury as a free agent.
Both will have to fit in initially with the plans of Stewart Houston and Pat Rice, who look certain to be directing operations when Arsenal take on West Ham United on Saturday.
For Paul Merson, the main concern is how matters are handled off the pitch as he continues his battle to beat drink, drugs and gambling. He was having "a very bad few days" before Arsenal's pre-season trip to Italy, and told Rioch he could not go. Merson said: "He was fantastic about it. He understood what I was going through and said, 'Right, take four days off and come and see me when we get back'. That's how he was, and now I feel for him over what has happened." He hopes Rioch's successor, whoever it may be, also has a laissez faire approach.