Pat Rice: A Tribute
It`s been an open secret for some time that Arsenal`s Assistant Manager Pat Rice will be retiring at the end of this season. This was confirmed last night as a number of players tweeted pictures of an official club function in his honour, adding their thanks for his service. The Belfast born Arsenal man has always been a quiet, studied character and rarely gives interviews to the media. Indeed, it looks as though he wanted to eschew any fuss by announcing his retirement in advance of the last home game. As a result of his taciturn nature, his 44 years of service if often under credited. So here follows a short biopic of Arsenal`s mystery man.
Rice was born in Belfast on 17th March, 1949 but soon relocated to Finsbury Park, where many Irish immigrants set up home in the post war years. Rice went to school in the borough and earned pocket money working in his mum`s greengrocer store on Gillespie Road, adjacent to Highbury. Rice was a keen footballer and once work was over, he and his friends used to kick a football around the quiet streets of Avenell Road. One day, a 15 year old Rice began idly kicking a ball up against the walls of the old East Stand. After about half an hour a club official emerged through the doors of the Marble Halls and summoned Rice. Sheepishly expecting a telling off for his antics, Rice reluctantly walked over. To his astonishment, the stuffy club official asked him if he could attend a trial.
Details of who exactly had been watching Rice or had thought to ask him for a trial are sketchy. But the bottom line is, the young Ulsterman took his chance and was signed on schoolboy terms in 1964. He made steady progress through the Youth and Reserve sides as a sturdy, if unspectacular right back, making his full debut as a callow 18 year old in December 1967, a 2-1 League Cup win over Burnley at Turf Moor. Though manager Bertie Mee liked his quiet work ethic, Rice spent much of the next three seasons in the Reserves, with Peter Storey the favoured right back. Though he did make his debut for Northern Ireland in 1968, his first of 49 caps for his country.
Rice watched on from the sidelines as the club secured its first silverware for 17 years with the 1969-70 Fairs Cup win. But that summer, Mee fell upon a plan to convert the uncompromising Storey into a defensive midfield player, to add more steel to Arsenal`s midfield at the expense of the flair of Sammels. As he had 6 years earlier, Rice took his chance. The following season, he became the club`s first choice right back, forging a resilient alliance with McLintock, Simpson and McNab at the back, with the fearless Wilson in behind them, Storey shielding them with gritted teeth. He became a significant part of the side that won Arsenal`s first ever F.A. Cup and League Double in 1970-71. Rice remained Arsenal`s first choice right back for the whole decade.
In fact, he was an ever present in three seasons in the 70s, in 71-72- where he was an F.A. Cup runner up, 75-76 and 76-77. As Mee dismantled the Double side and Arsenal were closer to relegation than silverware, Rice was one of the few constants. When his ex Arsenal teammate Terry Neill became manager in 1976, he made his compatriot Rice club captain. Rice captained the team to three consecutive F.A. Cup Finals- in 1978, 1979 and 1980, as well as the 1980 Cup Winners Cup Final. Though he would only lead his side up the steps to silverware once, as captain in the 5 minute Cup Final in 1979. He became the first Arsenal player to play in 5 F.A. Cup Finals for the club- a record that has been since equalled by Ray Parlour and David Seaman- though never surpassed.
In 1980, with the bitter taste of two Cup Final defeats in the same week, Rice left Highbury at the age of 31. He had won 2 F.A. Cups and a League title, having made 528 appearances and bowed out as club captain. His young compatriot John Devine was by now 22 and considered ready for the first team. Rice went on to make 137 appearances for Graham Taylor`s Watford during the most illustrious period of their history. He scored the Hornets first top flight goal in August 1982 against Everton. In the 1983-84 season, his legs began to give and he became a bit part figure as Watford made it to the 1984 F.A. Cup Final, which Rice watched from the stand. That summer he decided to retire from playing.
Rice was not a man for idleness however (though a 1970s footballer salary wouldn`t have left much room to retire to one`s garden as Voltaire would have it). He rejoined the club of his life as coach of the Youth Team. It was a position he held for twelve years. Don Howe- who had coached Rice as a player- made the appointment. Old ties remained as Rice`s ex teammate George Graham was appointed to the hot seat in 1986. Graham set about reconnecting the club with its traditions and, obviously, felt having Rice as part of the backroom staff would only aid that initiative. Rice won two Youth Cups in 1988 and 1994 and oversaw a crop of talent that would emerge to win Arsenal the league title in 1989.
The likes of Michael Thomas, Paul Merson and David Rocastle passed through his care as a youth coach, with Kevin Campbell, David Hillier, Ian Selley, Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, Paul Dickov and Steve Morrow all serving various levels of first team distinction having been coached by Rice. In 1996 he found himself at the centre of great upheaval for the club. The sacking of Bruce Rioch was the catalyst for a maelstrom of activity. Assistant Manager Stewart Houston became Caretaker Manager and Rice was promoted to backfill his place. A month later, Houston, aware that he wasn`t in the running for the full time job, also resigned with manager elect Arsene Wenger determined to see out his deal in Japan. Rice was suddenly Caretaker Manager. On top of that, the club captain admitted to the press that he was an alcoholic.
Rice`s steady hand kept the ship on course though. He won all three league games of his Caretaker reign, with a 4-1 home win over Sheffield Wednesday, a 2-0 away win at Middlesbrough and a 2-0 home win against Sunderland. The only blot on his copy book was a 3-2 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in a UEFA Cup 1st Round 1st Leg tie. Determined to maintain connection with the club`s heritage, Wenger immediately appointed Rice as his number 2, with Boro Primorac appointed as First Team Coach. Rice`s quiet work ethic earned him Arsene`s trust very quickly, as well as his capabilities as a coach. Rice has held the position for 16 years, overseeing two more Doubles and the unbeaten season, as well as a further five F.A. Cup Finals, bringing his tally as an Arsenal man to an astonishing 11 F.A. Cup Finals in the employ of the club.
Rice holds the joint distinction with Bob Wilson of having been involved in all three of Arsenal`s domestic Doubles. He has lifted a league title and two F.A. Cups as a player, four F.A. Cups and three league titles as a coach and won 2 F.A. Youth Cups as Youth Team Manager. He was part of a backroom staff that oversaw League Cup wins in 1987 and 1993 as well as league wins in 1989- sitting in the dugout at Anfield that fateful night of May 26th- and 1991 as well as the 1994 Cup Winners Cup. The final that night in Copenhagen saw four of his Youth Team graduates in the starting line up and a further three on the bench. In total, Rice has been on Arsenal`s books, in one way or another, in 24 different Cup Finals (25 if you factor in the 1993 F.A. Cup Final replay) and 6 league title winning campaigns. He appeared for the club 528 times as a player and will be in the dugout as Arsenal`s number 2 on Sunday for the final, and 903rd time (having taken in 4 games as Manager too), in a total of 44 years service to Arsenal Football Club. Those statistics are barely comparable for any other figure in our history. For that alone, he deserves our unbridled respect, our congratulations and our thanks. All the best in your retirement Pat. LD.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA