Bruce Rioch, then the Scotland captain, looks back on those fateful few weeks as an example of how not to prepare a football team. 'There were wranglings over finance,' he recalls. 'That in itself was a disruption. Then several changes were made in the team for the home international championship, and that lost us continuity. And the send-off at Hampden - well, it was like celebrating before the medals are handed out. I don't apportion blame to any individual, but it wasn't smooth. For those players who were there who've gone into management, it was a very steep learning curve.'
Perhaps that helps explain why so many of them did succeed in making the transition: Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Joe Jordan were with Rioch in Argentina, as were three players who went on to become respected coaches: Willie Donachie, Asa Hartford and Archie Gemmill. Rioch, though, can hold his head up in the company of any of them, as his exploits with Bolton over the past year and a half have shown.
Rioch was late reaching the top as a player. He was 26 before he played in the old First Division, 27 before he was capped. That was 12 years after he had become an apprentice at Luton Town, and the fact that the same period of time has now elapsed since he went into management is not lost on him as his career reaches what could be a turning-point. 'Some people begin at the top,' he says. 'With others, like me, it's different. But you're not in this game that long without talent and ability.'
There is no doubt that Rioch, now 46, has always had plenty of both. But what marks him out as a manager is his willingness to absorb influences and values from outside the game and then adopt them for the greater good of the team. His military background, for example, counts for much. When you suggest to him that there is something of the soldier in his approach to management, he instantly lists the areas of similarity: detail, team spirit, organisation, delegation, forward planning.
Rioch's father was a regimental sergeant-major in the Scots Guards, and an accomplished athlete. He threw the hammer for Great Britain after the Second World War. Rioch was born in Aldershot and had a typical army childhood which took him to a different home every other year or so. But sport was a common bond between the Riochs and their four sons, of whom both Bruce and his brother Neil went on to be professional footballers. The latest generation has inherited the footballing gift, too: Rioch's 18-year- old son Gregor is at Luton.
Rioch was a midfield player noted for a powerful left-foot shot. But Tommy Docherty, who as the Aston Villa manager in 1969 signed Rioch from Luton, remembers much more. 'A very talented player,' he says. 'Strong, quick, aggressive, good balance. And he was very adaptable. He could play it whatever way you wanted.'
It was Docherty who, as the Scotland manager two years later, tried to persuade Rioch to join the national squad, the rules of eligibility having just been changed to allow a player to turn out for the country of his father's birth. But Rioch, whose father was from Aberdeen, felt English and resisted the call for another four years, by which time he had established himself in a pivotal role in the Derby County team that were League champions in 1975. Rioch ended up winning 24 caps for Scotland in a career that subsequently took him to Everton, back to Derby, and to Torquay United as player- coach. Then came the first of three spells in the United States, coaching and playing in Seattle, which were to have a profound effect on his thinking about the game.
'What I learnt were the Americans' positive attitudes,' he says. 'Making people feel bright every day. The courtesy. I brought that back and have tried to use it at all my clubs. If you ask people how they are, 95 per cent of them will say 'Not bad'. Well no one says 'Not bad' here. The response at this club is 'Brilliant'. If people feel bad I don't want to know. I didn't get up in the morning to hear their problems. You find you can change people's approach, not just to football but to life.'
John McGinlay, the Bolton striker, vouches for the power of the positive thinking Rioch has instilled. 'With all due respect to the other clubs I've played at, the spirit among the lads here is the best I have ever known,' he says.
Not that this unusual combination of West Coast and command post has ensured a trouble-free managerial career. At Middlesbrough, where Rioch went after Torquay, he turned a young team round almost too quickly, taking them from the old Third Division up to the First in successive seasons. When they went straight back down again he fell victim to disappointed expectations, and was sacked. At Millwall it was a similar story: into the 1991 play- offs, then a slump the following season. This time it was Rioch who decided to go, and in May 1992 he took charge at Bolton.
Whether the pattern will repeat itself at Burnden Park remains to be seen. For now the club can savour an astonishing 21 months in which the excitement has been as great as any since Nat Lofthouse was inspiring them to victory in the 1958 FA Cup final. Last season, as a Second Division club, came their Cup win at Liverpool, followed by promotion. This year they have won at Everton and Arsenal in the Cup, and continued to play purists' football.
'We do try to get our teams to play,' Rioch says of the work he does with Colin Todd, a former Derby team-mate and long-standing coaching partner. 'To educate the players to do what we want them to: to push and run, to move, to support each other, to work extremely hard on their technique.' The performances Bolton have given this season, notably in the two games against Arsenal, have shown how successful Rioch has been, not least, as McGinlay stresses, in the planning stage.
And now for Aston Villa. A formidable prospect, Rioch says, but not so much that he felt he had to watch them at Tranmere in the Coca-Cola Cup last Wednesday. 'I had my assessor there,' Rioch says, ever the delegator. 'I'll have a talk with him. He knows the things I am looking for.'
Victory today would take Bolton into the quarter-finals of the Cup. Their League form has dropped off a little, but promotion to the Premiership remains a realistic possibility. How long can they be successful and still hang on to a manager of Rioch's calibre?
Rioch doesn't hide his ambition. 'It's just the same as if you were a player. You want to achieve the best: to get into the Premier League, win the championship, manage your country.' Docherty is in no doubt: 'Bruce is too big for Bolton,' he says. Rioch, who has been linked with Manchester City, where Brian Horton's position looks vulnerable under the new chairmanship of Francis Lee, won't go that far. 'No individual is too big for any club,' he says. 'The club will always continue long after the individual has gone.'
As befits a Scotsman - albeit a very English one - who experienced Argentina in 1978, Rioch understands more than most the importance of keeping things in perspective.Reuse content