Arsenal stand united
Despite the turmoil at Highbury, the north London club put on an impressive display to defeat a struggling Wimbledon; Wimbledon 0 Arsenal 3 Winterburn 61, Platt 65, Bergkamp 83 Attendance: 18,335
Sunday 17 March 1996
Rioch was effusive in his praise, perhaps compensating for those times earlier in the season when he regularly put all of his staff under threat. "We have a lot of inspirational players, it's all a matter of balance," he said afterwards.
Similarly, some of Arsenal's present and past inner circle say the rumours of discontent and warring factions at Highbury ought to be dismissed as nothing more than some creaks and groans, not a full-scale earthquake. Alan Smith, their former centre-forward, puts it all down to transition. "It takes at least a couple of years for a new manager to get everyone doing things his way," he suggested.
Although Rioch says the talk of discontent, inspired mainly by Ian Wright's transfer request, is all mischievous, but mutterings that the manager will not be around for two more months, let alone two years, are going to take some shifting, especially as his own contract remains unsigned.
A manager who is called in to meet his chairman and is told the club is right behind him generally knows his time is up. Similarly, a manager who feels the need to get all of his players together and tell them to ignore all the rumours and only believe what he tells them is obviously troubled. Rioch did that the week before last, after which Wright put in his request.
Significantly, when Wright later committed himself to the club until the end of the season but still insisted that sooner or later he intended to move, he thanked the board for their "continued support", even though they turned down his request. He did not thank Rioch until much later, which put some silent blame on the manager while guaranteeing that his own fans remain true. The fans seem permanently prepared to forgive Wright his poor disciplinary record and costly suspensions, but patience has worn thin among some members of the board and coaching staff.
Arsenal are an ageing team and Rioch's talk of large-scale changes, plus his moves away from the similar "steady as she goes" philosophy, must have made some of them feel uneasy and perhaps ready to look for last big paydays elsewhere. Yet there is considerable allegiance amongst a group that has fought together long, hard and often successfully. They are mostly settled in north London and Hertfordshire and would be happy to see out their playing days at Highbury. Obviously Rioch's threats of change also threaten their way of life.
Yesterday's threat was less complicated. Arsenal still needed points to secure a place in Europe, while Wimbledon needed to keep their Premiership status. Both had been unbeaten in seven games. Arsenal employed a five- man defence and John Hartson and Wright (returning after a three-match suspension) as twin strikers, and predictably attacked long or down either edge from the back, which allowed Wimbledon plenty of midfield possession.
Wright only slowly recovered match sharpness and it was Dennis Bergkamp who probably deserved to take Arsenal ahead shortly before half-time, when Kenny Cunningham up-ended him in the penalty area without any disciplinary action. Wimbledon briefly rode their luck, but a 57th-minute square pass across the penalty area by Wright saw Bergkamp brush a post - welcome activity that was followed up when Lee Dixon's close-in shot deflected to Nigel Winterburn, who scored from an unmissable distance.
When David Platt smashed in a deflected long-range drive that beat Neil Sullivan, a match that had been flatter than the pitch and evenly balanced was up-turned and won in the space of four minutes. Bergkamp hardly needed to have his shot fumbled into goal to secure victory.
For Wimbledon, the days of relegation get more intense, yet it was only a few days before that they went to Anfield and achieved a draw that could have a significant influence over the Premiership title race.
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