Cruyff is favourite to replace Rioch

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The Independent Online

Johan Cruyff could be following in his son's footsteps to England, as the new manager of Arsenal following the shock dismissal of Bruce Rioch yesterday. The great Dutchman, whose son, Jordi, has just joined Manchester United, has emerged as the favourite to take control of the Gunners with the start of the season just four days away.

Cruyff, who was replaced this summer as coach at Barcelona by Bobby Robson, has been a regular visitor to Highbury in recent times and was understood to have been sounded out by a member of the Arsenal board on Sunday night.

Within minutes of "releasing" Rioch, Ken Friar, the Arsenal managing director, revealed that the club had already identified a successor and that Peter Hill-Wood, the chairman, would be announcing the new appointment "when he is in a position to do so".

Going Continental may be all the rage, but the name of Cruyff was not the only world figure who was being linked with the job last night. Terry Venables, the former England coach, has been approached by Arsenal before and must inevitably be a front runner, even though he started his new role as director of football at Portsmouth yesterday.

Arsenal broke the news of Rioch's departure with a terse statement which read: "The Board have decided that it was in the best long-term interest of the club that Mr Rioch should now leave."

Rioch last night offered no insight into the sacking, but he said: "At this point in time I should just very much like to extend my thanks to my players, coaches, staff and the supporters, all of whom have been superb. I wish them every future success."

His demise may have come as a surprise to the public at large, but the gambling fraternity caught wind of it last Saturday morning when bookmakers closed the book on the Scotsman staying in charge until the end of the season.

Rioch's turbulent 14-month reign was punctuated by run-ins with the board and David Dein, the club's vice-chairman, in particular over the purchase of players. The club had decided to take transfer negotiations out of the hands of their future managers following the involvement of George Graham in the notorious "bungs scandal" last year.

Rioch refused to sign a contract, believed to be for four years, until certain details had been resolved. He finally signed at the start of this month and was awaiting Arsenal's counter- signature. Terry Neill, a former Arsenal manager, said: "Despite the facade of everything being correct and proper at Arsenal, things have always been done on a nod and a handshake."

Arsenal, who recently announced a financial loss for last season, have been conspicuous by their absence in the transfer market this summer, unlike last year, when they spent pounds 12.25m on the Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. Both signings have had their critics, but Bergkamp eventually won over the fans and while the season was less successful than they have come to expect, the club still managed to qualify for Europe. However, the absence of any signings combined with some disappointing pre-season results has caused supporters considerable disquiet.

Arsenal turned to Rioch last summer after Porto had vetoed an approach for Robson, who was still under contract to the Portuguese club. Rioch had steered Bolton Wanderers back into the top division with a brand of football which must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to Arsenal fans after the stereotyped - but highly successful - years under Graham.

The players, as always, were the last to know. "It is just unbelievable," Paul Merson said. "We've had some hard friendlies and got beaten, but I wouldn't have thought that was anything to go by because it all starts on Saturday. Four or five days before the start of the season? I don't think it's fair on the fans or the players."

One player who is unlikely to mourn the Scot's removal is Ian Wright, the club's most popular player, who requested a transfer last season after clashing with Rioch.

It would not be the first time that a Dutchman has been considered for the job as manager at Highbury. Leo Beenhakker, the former Real Madrid coach, once applied for the position. But the climate has changed and Continentals are in vogue.

Glenn Moore, page 22