Soaring, soaring Arsenal

Highbury fans used to spend summers quietly contemplating the prospect of another grim but probably successful season under George Graham. But since Bruce Rioch, Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt have arrived the uncertainty is glorious. Nick Hornby, the author of Fever Pitch, can't wait for the season to start

In recent years, summers for Arsenal fans have been as dull as our winters are reputed to be. We would shell out for a new season ticket in May; in June or July, George Graham would sign one lung-bursting, shot- shy midfield player (Jensen in '92, McGoldrick in '93, Schwarz in '94 - a trio who between them have managed a total of three Premier League goals in over 150 appearances) and maybe a reserve goalkeeper or two. At the beginning of August, a horribly familiar team would draw 0-0 against a couple of rather baffled-looking foreign teams in a meaningless pre- season tournament. Other fans could waste their summers queuing to have some fancy-pants foreign striker's name ironed on to the back of their new team shirts (is there any other team that went nearly four seasons, between Wright in September '91 and Hartson in January '95, without buying a forward?); we could grab a bit of shut-eye, secure in the knowledge that we wouldn't be missing anything, resting up in readiness for the long, grim and invariably successful campaign to come.

This year, the 0-0 draw against the baffled-looking foreign team has been the one constant in what is otherwise a dazzlingly different world, and even that had its unfamiliar elements - a massive crowd radiating hope and goodwill to all players, for a start, rather than the usual grumpy diehard 15,000 yelling at the manager to get his cheque-book out. And then, of course, there were the players themselves. And the manager...

Arsenal's summer started a minute from the end of the penultimate game of the season, when Nayim... well, you know what Nayim did. It was difficult to find an Arsenal fan who felt that the defeat in Paris was entirely a Bad Thing: everyone knew that the team was ageing, that it needed a shake-up, and that Stewart Houston, George in all but Aquascutum suit, was perhaps not the man to do the shaking. We do not know what would have happened if Seaman had gone on to perform his usual penalty shoot-out heroics, but there is little doubt that a shocking but nevertheless honourable defeat made life easier for Peter Hill-Wood and his board when they sat down to discuss Houston's job application.

Twelve days after the Cup-Winners' Cup final, Bolton beat Reading 4-3 at Wembley in the season's most entertaining game. I wanted Reading to win, not only because I was brought up in Berkshire, but because I thought the Bolton manager, Bruce Rioch, might be tempted away from Burnden Park if his team once again failed to reach the Premier League. Bolton, however, were irresistible that afternoon, and nobody could have begrudged them their triumph, nor their claims on a manager who had got them playing football that seemed to involve passing, movement, proper wingers and goals. There was that peculiar moment just after the final whistle, when an ITV interviewer asked Rioch if he'd be staying with the club, and he replied simply with a smile... but for the next couple of weeks, the hunt for George's successor switched to Portugal, where Bobby Robson seemed to be having trouble getting to grips with the terms of his contract.

When Robson turned the job down, things looked bad. Other managerless clubs were reported to be interested in Rioch, and meanwhile long-coveted players like Les Ferdinand and Warren Barton were moving elsewhere, in part, presumably, because Arsenal had no manager to buy them. Worse still, Tony Adams, or his wife, or his dad, or someone who looked like one of them, had been "seen" househunting in the Manchester area. No manager, no new players, no old players, apart from Martin Keown, probably, and still they have the cheek to send me a letter demanding pounds 286 for a new season ticket. True, Kevin Campbell had complained that his new contract offer was "an insult" and "a slap in the face" (many Arsenal fans would have hoped that he meant this literally, that his new contract really was an insult - the word useless, perhaps, on a blank piece of paper, and he could sign it or not, as he chose), but this was our only swallow of a very gloomy-looking summer.

With the appointment of Rioch, it all turned around. Adams agreed to stay on, Dennis Bergkamp signed days later, then David Platt (bought, by strange coincidence, on the very day that a former Arsenal manager appeared before an FA tribunal)... After the bread-and-water privations of the Graham years, this all felt very strange and very exciting. Finally, we could tear up our ration books. My father is fond of telling me that, because of the war, he never saw a banana until he was 17; well, because of George Graham's wages policy I never saw an overpaid Dutch striker until I was 38. When Graham popped up on television, as dapper and as unapologetic as ever, on his way in to Lancaster Gate, he seemed only vaguely familiar, somehow. Only the sad announcement of Alan Smith's retirement (and Smith was surely the best million quid George ever spent) was capable of prompting a sentimental backward glance.

The last three of the George Graham years proved, to most Arsenal fans at least, that winning isn't everything after all, despite what we have been brought up to believe. Three cups, four finals, and yet the abiding memory of the last couple of seasons is month after month of ugly goalless expediency. Bruce Rioch is therefore in a unique position; he really does have time, unlike the rest of the new Premiership managers, simply because the thirst for silverware has been temporarily sated. If he can put together a team that attempts to play football, particularly at Highbury - and he now knows that he's still a couple of players short - he will be forgiven anything, at least for a season or two. For the first time in many years, the first game of the season can't come soon enough.

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