FAN'S EYE VIEW: Graham is unrepentant, more bunged against than bunging

No 130 Arsenal
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Several candidates - former Arsenal players, all - were mooted to replace the disgraced George Graham after his departure from Highbury, but none had sufficient experience or managerial success to make them likely contenders. What was needed was, perhaps, not so much an Arsenal man, as an Arsenal-style man. A fine, upstanding manager, emphasising neat passing, clean living and freshly combed hair with straight partings in equal measure. Stand up, Bruce Rioch.

Not, perhaps, the first choice of the majority, Rioch won the Highbury hordes over with ease. It is customary in new relationships to greet the object of one's wooing with a gift. Chocolates, flowers, Dennis Bergkamp, that sort of thing. The in-coming governor wisely gave Thornton's and the florists a swerve and opted instead to bestow upon Gooners the aforementioned Dutchman, smashing the archaic Arsenal wage policy to attract him. Credibility was restored; the message to the world was: we're back and we mean business.

And what an astute acquisition the Ice Man has been. In true 'Buy one, get two free' tradition, Bergkamp has been Arsenal's best player in any position, picking the ball up in front of Seaman's goal, playing it out (on the floor! to feet!), shielding the ball in the middle of the park and penetrating the opposition's penalty area with intimidating precision, whether passing or shooting. It took him a game or few to settle down, but against Villa at Highbury back in October, he and Wright appeared almost clairvoyant, finally becoming a partnership. A player of rare vision and ability, Bergkamp embodies Rioch's brave new Arsenal; he has skill and a high work rate, a scandal-free personal life and moderate manner on the field.

Gone is the 'hoof and hope' game which characterised many a Premiership performance in Graham's last three seasons. Indeed, league form from '92/93 onwards had been poor, performances (and players) jaded and the formation defensive, a sad metaphor of the siege-like mentality of the man then pulling the strings. The purchase of Wright not withstanding, Graham appeared reluctant to buy big, despite a midfield peopled by nobodies. Those desiring excitement and a result would have done better to attend a singles-only karaoke rather than a league game at Highbury, where the noise level seldom rose above the decibels required for a mass whinge.

Bruce possesses a candour that George would have found alarming. His programme notes address unflinchingly issues surrounding defeats, team selection and the like. He has acknowledged the need to restore the defence to its traditional mean self and has proved unsentimental in off-loading excess baggage (see ya, Campbell).

Rioch is rebuilding; not always an easy process (witness the dire home bore-draws against Blackburn and Chelsea), but a progressive one, at least.

Although vaguely in touch with the leaders, Arsenal have, realistically, about as much chance of winning the title this season as Martin Keown has of being described as a world-class play-maker. But you've got to fancy us - with our shiny new attacking formation - for a cup, surely.

Meanwhile, as George chews the lid of his Bic and contemplates the correct spelling of curriculum vitae, he remains unrepentant, a defiant and indignant figure, more bunged against than bunging.

Now, Gooners are left with a confused legacy; an undying gratitude to the man who gave us some of the most magnificent moments of our lives, imbued with a bitterness for his betrayal of us and, if we're honest, some relief, too, at his departure. The time had come. George's shelf- life was over - his ideas had dried up and his vision had gone stale.

It's a transitional year. New boss. New blood. But a new pride, too. Yeah, Pride of North London, that's us. Wanna make something of it?

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