Meanwhile, on the field

Arsenal 2 West Ham United 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When time lends some perspective to Bruce Rioch's brief reign at Highbury, it may be judged that his greatest legacy came in the last few days. It was then that Paul Merson, suffering a particularly bleak stage in his fight against alcoholism, contemplated giving up the game.

Not for the first time Rioch provided sympathetic support which Merson publicly acknowledged even after Rioch's dismissal. There is some irony, then, that it was Merson, after a week of wordplay in north London, who provided the fizz-buzz to inspire a victory many felt Arsenal - or at least their board - did not deserve.

The former England man, slimmer and fitter than ever, was a constant creative influence as he operated with Dennis Bergkamp just behind John Hartson, and gave the impetus to a surprisingly sprightly Arsenal first- half display. Three points did much to cheer up a packed house - from whom there was little or no signs of pro-Rioch demonstrations - but there was nothing to alter the impression that Arsenal are beginning the 1996 season as a club in chaos, if not crisis.

Certainly, the directors made little attempt in the programme to explain future plans, or the shabby treatment of Rioch. The manager's column was replaced by a message from the chairman which repeated that "it was in the best interests of the club that Mr Rioch should leave". (Football- speak, presumably, for "we can't tell you the real reasons because they are too embarrassing".)

Elsewhere the document was a masterpiece of disinformation, with virtually all references to the man who was the most important person at Highbury five days earlier (or should have been) carefully removed. One that did slip through was in Tony Adams' column. He wished his old boss well and wrote, pointedly: "I'm sure the directors believe they've acted in the best interests of the club."

The feeling that Ian Wright did not speak for all the players when he wholeheartedly backed the board the day after Rioch left was reinforced by Martin Keown's disclosure that Rioch had called him on Saturday morning to wish him luck. "He was unbelievably jovial, in very good spirits," Keown said, which suggested that the club had at least been generous with their redundancy terms.

Another significant phone call was revealed afterwards, that between Stewart Houston, the caretaker manager, and Arsene Wenger, who will eventually replace him. Houston smiled painfully when the conversation was described as a dialogue, but insisted that it was mainly a question of keeping the incoming manager informed. Confirmation that Wenger will add to Highbury's French collection is likely this week, but he will probably not take charge for at least a month.

For the moment, Arsenal are likely to persist with five at the back, a tactic with which Rioch had persevered during a dismal pre-season. Against West Ham, with Ray Parlour and Steve Morrow stationed in front of the centre-halves, Arsenal looked more like a team from the late Graham period, and after Hartson's scrambled opener and Bergkamp's penalty, certainly demonstrated familiar fighting qualities as the visitors sought salvation in the second half.

The injury crisis that followed West Ham's summer of multi- lingual transfer activity meant they arrived looking less like the Foreign Legion than the International Red Cross. With nearly half of his first- choice side hors de combat, Harry Redknapp was sanguine about his team's display, though with none of the wounded likely to be fit in the next week it will be a difficult opening to the season. There are already suggestions that Paulo Futre's stay in east London could be even shorter than that of Marco Boogers.

Arsenal travel to Anfield tonight without Adams, while Bergkamp and Wright may again share time after injury-disrupted pre-seasons. David Platt will also be missing. He suffered a hairline fracture to his back during training on Friday but, to the irritation of his manager, only phoned in to report the soreness on Saturday lunchtime, a tardiness which Houston put down to a lie-in. It's not just his runs into the box, it seems, which are late.

Goals: Hartson (27) 1-0; Bergkamp, pen (40) 2-0.

Arsenal (5-2-2-1): Seaman; Dixon, Keown, Linighan, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Morrow; Merson, Bergkamp (Wright, 71); Hartson (Dickov, 84). Substitute not used: Helder, Lukic (gk), Rose.

West Ham United (3-2-2-1-2): Miklosko; Rieper, Bilic (Ferdinand, 87), Dicks; Breacker, Rowland (Lazaridis); Williamson, Lampard (Slater, 66); Hughes; Dowie, Jones. Substitutes not used: Mautone (gk), Bowen.

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

Attendance: 38,056.

Bookings: Arsenal: Deane, Bould, Winterburn. West Ham: Bilic.

Man of the match: Merson.

Comments