'Bitter' Houston speaks his mind

FOOTBALL: The Premiership kicks off today but the arguments have already started. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
This time last year, the sense of expectation surrounding Arsenal was almost tangible. Today they launch a new campaign at home to West Ham against a backdrop of unrest which yesterday prompted Stewart Houston, their caretaker manager, to bemoan the "bitter taste" left by Bruce Rioch's sacking.

Houston, who also held the fort following George Graham's dismissal 17 months ago, will oversee first-team matters for five weeks until Rioch's probable successor, the former Monaco coach Arsene Wenger, is free from his commitments in Japan. However, it is clear he does not regard his duties as preventing him from speaking out.

"Of course loyalties have been stretched," Houston said. "I've lost another good friend - two, really, because Steve Burtenshaw, our chief scout, has also gone this week. But what else can I do but get on with it?

"There's a lot of bitter taste around when something like this happens to a man you like and respect. People on the outside couldn't see it perhaps, but he [Rioch] was a very caring person who looked after his players and staff and was always very approachable."

Rioch's coup in bringing Dennis Bergkamp from Internazionale to Highbury 12 months ago was seen as the ultimate in transfers from Italy to England. Now another Dutchman, Ruud Gullit, has gone a step further.

In years to come, people may look back on this weekend as a turning point. Will it be remembered as when the first wave of Italians arrived, captivating crowds and changing the game here forever? Or as a cultural mis-match in which a few Serie A stars briefly had their way with the Premiership - in the mercenary position - before the money ran out?

Chelsea's captures, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo, must wait until tomorrow before discovering the realities of the British game at Southampton. Lying in wait amid The Dell's cramped confines will be a team of hungry journeymen (plus Matthew Le Tissier) now under Graeme Souness, whose friendship with Vialli at Sampdoria will not temper the tackling.

Grafting foreign flair on to an average side did not work for Middlesbrough when they went Brazilian. Undaunted, Bryan Robson takes the wraps off his own Italian, Fabrizio Ravanelli, against Liverpool, 10 years after Boro kicked off before 3,690 diehards at Hartlepool when the Receiver padlocked Ayresome Park.

There are no Italians at Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool, the trio likely to dominate again, although all now have a Czech. The double winners might have hoped for an easier start than Wimbledon away. Joe Kinnear's gang will not stand on ceremony, making Eric Cantona's return to Selhurst Park a test of temperament and his suitability as captain.

Newcastle face an equally arduous task at Everton, where Duncan Ferguson is capable of giving their suspect defence a torrid time. Clubs seeking a striker will be studying Kevin Keegan's line-up to see whether he pairs Les Ferdinand with Alan Shearer. "We're still one of the teams capable of winning the title," Keegan said yesterday, "but that's all we are."

History suggests that Rioch's exit will be followed by others by autumn, with Ray Harford and Howard Wilkinson under particular pressure. Harford found the switch from coach to manager awkward last season - now he is cast as the man who sold Shearer. His failure to sign a replacement will count against him unless Tottenham, one of the division's best away sides, are beaten. What should work in Harford's favour is a desire, sure to be manifested in the performance of Colin Hendry, to prove that Blackburn are more than a one-man team.

Wilkinson, whose sale of Gary McAllister was also largely out of his hands, must hope for a similar response from his Leeds players at promoted Derby. Those who like to see the ball sprayed around in the manner of McAllister will look to Aljosa Asanovic, Derby's pounds 900,000 Croatian, who could be a candidate for snip of the summer.

The weekend's losers can console themselves that first-day results are often poor pointers to long-term prospects. After Manchester United's 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa last August (as Newcastle were keeping a clean sheet), Alan Hansen decreed: "You win nothing with kids." Perhaps, in the rush to judgement, some bold pundit will shortly be substituting "Italians" for "kids".