Pat Rice: Mr Arsenal since 1964 and even before that
Supporter, player, captain, coach, manager - farewell to a true Arsenal legend
Another piece of Arsenal history, a vital link with the past glories of Bertie Mee, Terry Neill and George Graham, will be severed on Sunday at The Hawthorns.
Pat Rice, a Gunner for 44 of the 47 and a half years since he signed as an apprentice in December 1964, will step down as No2 to Arsene Wenger.
“It is very sad for me, because when you work with a guy like Pat for 16 years, it is a very difficult separation,” said Wenger in confirming the news on Thursday.
“I would say it is a privilege for me to meet a guy like Pat, not only for his competence but as well for his honesty, his discretion - which is not always easy in this job - and for his confidential attitude, and for his tremendous support.
“He was one who always gave me his honest feelings, and when I made different decisions he was completely behind me. That is a privilege when you are in my position. I am convinced it will not be a complete separation. I am convinced until the last day of his life he will be at the Emirates,” added Wenger, as he prepares his side for their key trip to the Black Country, a game they must avoid losing to secure a top-four finish.
Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League every year since 1998. And Rice, now 63, has been on the bench, next to the most successful manager in Arsenal’s history, for every single campaign.
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But it is a sign of the times, and the frustrations felt by Arsenal followers growing increasingly disenchanted with another season of mediocrity – at least by Wenger’s high standards – that his unassuming right-hand man has also come in for criticism for his apparent inertia sat on the Arsenal bench.
They clearly don’t know the man.
Rice is one of the most determined, motivated, characters to have ever represented the club.
Born in Belfast, but raised in north London, just around the corner from Highbury, Rice was a fanatical Arsenal supporter in his youth, badgering his local club for a chance.
He was given that chance, working fanatically on his fitness and technique, desperate to shore up the deficiencies that had led to serious doubts from some within the club that he would last the distance.
Far more talented young men fell by the wayside, as the stocky full-back worked hard to utilise the talent he had.
Ivan Ponting, writing in his excellent ‘Player by Player’ tome of former Gunners stars, states: “Nobody wanted to be a footballer more than Pat Rice.”
When Peter Storey moved from right back to defensive midfield during the 1970-71 Double campaign, Rice was drafted into the No2 shirt. Very fitting.
He went on to become a mainstay of the 1970s, playing more than 400 times for the club and appearing in five FA Cup finals – most memorably skippering Arsenal in their 3-2 success over Manchester United in 1979.
Manager Terry Neill let the 31-year-old leave for Watford in late 1980, but after four years at Vicarage Road, Neill’s replacement, Don Howe, brought him back to Highbury as youth team coach and he has remained with the club ever since.
Howe loved Rice’s spirit. “His work ethic was extraordinary. He trained as hard as the hardest trainers. He was up there with the likes of George Armstrong – he just loved working hard and improving,” Howe told me years later.
Rice guided his young guns to FA Youth Cup success in 1988 and 1994, nurturing the talents of Ray Parlour, Kevin Campbell and David Hillier amongst others, before his promotion to Wenger’s assistant up on the Frenchman’s arrival in September 1996.
Rice, in fact, held the fort while Arsenal waited for Wenger to leave Grampus Eight in Japan – winning all three Premier League games.
He did so again for 90 minutes earlier this season, guiding the Gunners to an impressive 1-1 draw at German champions-elect Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, as Wenger served a Uefa touchline ban. Not for the first time, the studious Frenchman had leant on his straight-talking wingman.
Eclipsed by the likes of Theo Foley and Stewart Houston, both No2s under George Graham, Rice took his belated chance at first team level with both hands.
Now, after 16 years, including three titles, four FA Cups, two European finals, the move to the Emirates and 14 years of unbroken Champions League football, Rice is to finally call it a day – a year after first privately expressing a desire to move on.
His contribution to the history of Arsenal Football Club, straddling six decades, is impressive enough now. But it is only as the years pass, and Rice enjoys his retirement in the sun, that the full scale of his achievements will be fully appreciated.
From his playing career to the dugout, he has never been anything less than the number one No2.