Rioch calls a different tune

Ian Ridley meets the disciplinarian who has brought new flair and belief to Arsenal
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IN ONE of those brilliant head-to-head sketches, Griff Rhys-Jones announced that he loved going to the Arsenal to hear all those clever football songs. "Like 'one-nil, one-nil, one-nil, one-nil'?" Mel Smith wondered. "And 'two-nil, two-nil, two-nil, two-nil'?" "No," Griff said, "never heard that at Highbury."

Times have changed since then, and last week against Sheffield Wednesday the Gooners were lustily singing "four-two to the Arsenal" for the second time this season. They also chanted "Broooce", like fans at a Springsteen concert. As the Boss sang, these are better days.

Arsenal's own boss, Bruce Rioch, is, naturally enough, buoyant at his and his team's start, even if it may flatter a little. "The players have made tremendous progress in what I have asked them to do, that is passing the ball accurately and feeling comfortable in possession," he said. Are you going for the Championship, he was asked after the midweek win? He smiled and said the usual about the next match. Today, at least, Arsenal are going for the champions.

It looks a foregone conclusion. Arsenal have won five and drawn two of their home matches; Blackburn Rovers have one point from their seven away matches. Rioch is unlikely to be fooled, however. "It was a bit open for my liking. We are starting to let crosses come into our box and that's not been allowed to happen in the past," he said after the match against Wednesday, whom they also face in the Coca-Cola Cup this week.

You can often judge a manager by his work at half-time. Any of us can throw teacups and rant about sleeves being rolled up but the acid test is making calm, tactical changes. Tottenham's Gerry Francis used the time the previous Saturday to cut the supply line from Paul Merson; against Wednesday Rioch told Merson to help Nigel Winterburn to stem the flow from Chris Waddle. There followed three second-half goals scored to none conceded.

Winterburn is beginning to look vulnerable at left-back and Steve Bould error-prone inside him. When Rioch took over in the summer, during a six- hour briefing the Arsenal coaching staff advised him not to touch the defence, but he will come to his own conclusions. "You only get one life," he said, "so I am going to be myself."

So far, Rioch has been linked with many players, among them a correspondent on this page. His squad does remain thin as he lost five players in the summer and signed only two, but he is taking his time - "Bill Shankly used to say 'make haste slowly'" - to weigh it up. Perhaps he is loath to tinker, the team probably having surprised him as much as anyone. The recent flowering of Dennis Bergkamp is a big reason.

But the present optimism is not the only reason why Rioch is an open, approachable character willing to give time. For the first time in his life, he has an answering machine, so great has been the interest in him as the manager of Arsenal. A spell in America in the Eighties taught him the power of positive thinking and courtesy in dealing with people. It is a pity that a few more of his managerial brethren have not been there.

Rioch is clearly a man who has seized the most from each of his experiences - good and ill - over the past 48 years. He recalls as a boy, for example, playing draughts with his father, a regimental sergeant-major. "Dad would let you play and you'd think, 'Oh good, he's given me one there.' Then he takes three of yours and you think, 'I didn't see that.' That's a bit like football isn't it? You suck in the opposition, give them one and take three."

As a player with, notably, Aston Villa and Derby County, Rioch was a powerfully gifted but ready participant in a brutal era of the Seventies that he would not wish on any modern player. As manager at Torquay, Middlesbrough, Millwall and, famously, Bolton, he learned to exist on limited resources and implemented the passing playing style he admired but without the excess he loathed. "I didn't like that period in the Seventies that I was party to," he said. "I liked the players and the skill factor but on too many occasions we were looking over our shoulders wondering where the next tackle was coming from - how high was it going to be?

"The game is much cleaner now but there are still areas that need to be looked at. We should eliminate the raising of the studs. It's dangerous. If a player goes to clear or shoot, often he won't hit a volley because someone is coming at him with studs showing. They may not be trying to injure him, but he might hit his shin on the studs and break it. Stopping that will get even more players wanting to be comfortable on the ball. It's a free-kick on the Continent. Why not England?"

Rioch believes that if Bergkamp does not succeed in Britain, it won't be because of Bergkamp. "Tell them what he does," Rioch said to John Hartson last week. "Well, he stays out late," said the centre- forward to the group of expectant journalists. "Nearly every day he stays behind working after training," Hartson explained.

A rejuvenated, consistent Paul Merson now also enjoys the more wholesome after-hours company. On the field, too, others respond. After Bergkamp had volleyed a flick-on against Wednesday, Martin Keown, having essayed a drag-back to great delight at Tottenham, did likewise. So too Lee Dixon.

"You never know what's in people until you look for it," Rioch said. "I want my players to take responsibility on the pitch. Looking to the bench is an old habit and an increasing one. I was given responsibility as a young person and player. I remember at Derby once the manager shouted something to the pitch and one of the players shouted back 'Be quiet. It's all in hand out here.' I do have a philosophy. It's about ball possession and being effective and positive in the right areas. I would like to win with a bit of style and class and at the same time be competitive. If the ball is there to be won, tackle, win it well."

You leave Rioch's company understanding the comment of one who knows him well when the question of the Arsenal vacancy arose, that if he got an interview with club directors looking for new direction he would definitely get the job. "In our lives a little bit of the Corinthian spirit has been taken out," Rioch said. "There still has to be a part of it left."