This match was the final one of the season for Arsenal with the Gunners chasing a place in Europe. It marked the end of manager Bruce Rioch’s first (and, as it turned out, last) season at the club and in the programme he looked back at what he described as an interesting and enjoyable but demanding period.
He singled out his new signing Dennis Bergkamp for particular praise saying: “He has had a wonderful season. He’s been good for us all. Every young player can learn from his ability and temperament – and his desire to train and practise. The way he carries himself, on and off the pitch, is an excellent model.”
Rioch also mentioned how unlucky David Platt had been with injuries and that he hoped he would have a great run at Euro 96, together with all the England players hoping to be selected by boss Terry Venables – Tony Adams, David Seaman and Martin Keown, except when they played his native Scotland! With Dennis Bergkamp lining up for the Netherlands, Rioch indicated he thought Keown would be ideal for a man-marking job on the Dutch master.
Opponents on the day, Bolton Wanderers, had already been condemned to relegation, finishing bottom of the division, and Rioch said of his former club: “I’ll always remember Bolton with affection. I had three fantastic years at Burnden Park, where I built up some great relationships, and I hope Wanderers will be back in the Premier League soon.
Under the headline ‘England Can Do It Says Platty’, having just re-established himself as England captain, David Platt said about the national team’s prospects at Euro 96: “We’re going into the competition with a determination to win it. It’s no use thinking in terms of having a good run because we’ve got a team capable of winning the championships and home advantage will obviously be a great help.
In his programme notes, Tony Adams also believed England had a good chance of winning Euro 96, citing Germany (accurately as it turned out) and Italy as the biggest dangers. Adams had been bothered by a troublesome cartilage injury and had missed the last three months of the season as a result, but he was aiming to prove his fitness ahead of the tournament with a run-out in Paul Merson’s testimonial a few days after this game. He congratulated Martin Keown on doing a great job as captain in his absence and said he deserved being named Player of the Year – pipping Dennis Bergkamp by one vote with Ian Wright in third place.
Merson’s Benefit Match was due to take place on Wednesday 8 May, the 25th anniversary of the day the Gunners finished off the ‘double’ at Wembley by beating Liverpool in the FA Cup Final, five days after clinching the title at Tottenham. The whole squad plus manager Bertie Mee and coach Don Howe would be introduced to the crowd at half-time. There would be some some famous guest players in the Arsenal line-up on the night, including David O’Leary, Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle and Ray Wilkins, while their opponents in an International Select team, managed by ex-Arsenal skipper Frank McLintock, featured amongst others Ruud Gullit, Slaven Bilic, Gordon Strachan, Chris Waddle, Charlie Nicholas and Matt Le Tissier.
Back to the match with Bolton, and it was the visitors took the lead on 76 minutes but two goals in two minutes from Platt and Bergkamp gave the Gunners victory and secured their UEFA Cup spot. But Rioch himself would not lead the Gunners into the European campaign as he was sacked five days before the start of the season following a dispute with the club’s directors. His assistant Stewart Houston was installed as caretaker manager with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff mooted as a possible permanent boss, together with the manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, Frenchman Arsene Wenger – whatever happened to him?!