EXACTLY 25 years ago, the phone rang in Bruce Rioch’s home in Hertfordshire, with an offer which would change his life – and the course of Bolton Wanderers’ history forever.

Rather than follow the party north after an incredible play-off final victory against Reading, the Bolton boss had chosen to celebrate with his family in his Harpenden.

The following day he expected to travel back up to Burnden for a meeting with his chairman, Gordon Hargreaves, and the Bolton board, followed by a civic reception to honour the club’s promotion to the Premier League.

He would do so, however, knowing that he would not be sitting in the dugout at Burnden when they took their place among the elite a few months later.

Arsenal had just reached the UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup final under caretaker boss Stewart Houston but were looking for a permanent successor to George Graham, whose nine years at Highbury had ground to an ignominious halt amid a financial scandal.

The London club desperately needed direction and reached out to Rioch, whose reluctance to sign a new contract with the Whites was anchored mainly in the personal circumstances which compelled him to leave Bolton after three years in charge.

He had built an enterprising team at Burnden Park which had captured the town’s imagination and created national headlines with a string of cup upsets.

But with a poorly father-in-law nearing the end of his life and two new grandsons based down south, Rioch looks back on the call with a measure of regret.

“As ever, it is about timing with these things,” he told The Bolton News.

“I got home after the play-off final and was staying down south in Harpenden. The following morning I got a call from Arsenal asking if I would like to come for a meeting.

“At that moment I could do nothing as I was due to go up to Bolton for a meeting and then we had an engagement at the Town Hall.

“But the circumstances were such that I did speak to them and made the decision I did. Was it right? I don’t know. Do I regret it? Yes, I do.

“I regret it because everything was perfect at Bolton. The relationships I had built, the people who were involved, the whole town was 100 per cent behind the club.

“But circumstances made my mind up and that was that.”

Rioch, like Colin Todd, had rented property near Bolton during his successful three years with the club and would regularly time his scouting missions down south with visits back home to see his wife and family.

The Bolton News: Bruce Rioch is unveiled as Arsenal manager in 1995Bruce Rioch is unveiled as Arsenal manager in 1995

While he would find some of Arsenal’s squad resistant to his managerial style and practices, he had steadily built a team at Bolton which mirrored his philosophy to a tee.

“Everything was like clockwork,” he said. “If I was away looking at a player or watching a game, then Toddy knew exactly what I needed and what needed to be done to prepare.

“My relationship with Gordon Hargreaves was second to none. I cannot tell you how supportive he was during my time at the club.

“But again it’s that word – circumstances – and my twin grandsons were born at the time of the play-offs, May 23, and they were in Luton, which was certainly a part of it.

“Arsenal trained at London Colney, which was half an hour from where we lived.

“I had been staying in Edgworth for three years, travelling back and forth, so I wasn’t with Jane.

“It all added up. But we make these decisions and live with them.”

Rioch guided Arsenal to fifth spot the following season and was able to sign players like Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, bringing in a new, less direct style which would become a feature of Arsenal sides for years to come.

But his relationship with some players in the squad – and particularly star striker Ian Wright – become a stick to beat him with in the press and despite the improvements shown on the pitch Rioch was sacked after just 61 weeks. The Gunners opted to bring in Frenchman Arsene Wenger, a name with which few in English football were familiar… At least at that point.

Wanderers dropped out of the Premier League with a whimper after a failed experiment with Roy McFarland and Colin Todd as joint managers. Their lack of financial resources and top-flight know-how proved to be decisive but they would return under Todd – this time as a solo act - with a free-scoring, amped-up team, and a brand new stadium.

  • On Monday, Bruce Rioch tells the stories behind some of the signings he made at Wanderers as he and Colin Todd clocked up 100,000 miles a year on the road.