As a player, he made more than 550 appearances in the Football League and, by virtue of his father's birthplace, represented Scotland in 24 matches; he became the first player born in England to captain Scotland. As a manager, he has taken charge of clubs in England, the United States, and Denmark. His brother Neil, son Gregor and nephew Matty Holmes were also professional footballers.
Rioch was born in Aldershot, Hampshire. After moving to Luton, Bedfordshire, at the age of 14, he joined his local side, Luton Town, turning professional in September 1964. He made his first team debut later that month, and his league debut in November 1964 in a 1–0 defeat at home to Southend United. He spent a couple of years establishing himself and was a regular member of the Luton team, scoring 24 goals, that won the Fourth Division title in 1968. He moved to Aston Villa in July 1969 for a fee of £100,000, then a record fee paid by a Second Division side. He won a League Cup runners up medal in 1971, Villa losing 2–0 to Tottenham Hotspur.
He moved to Derby County in February 1974, winning a League Championship medal. He joined Everton in December 1976, but returned to Derby County in September 1977. After a dispute with the Derby manager, Tommy Docherty, Rioch had brief loan spells with Birmingham City in December 1978 and with Sheffield United in March 1979. He then left the Baseball Ground to play for NASL side Seattle Sounders. While playing with Seattle Sounders in 1980 he was named to the NASL First Team All-Stars. He returned to England in October 1980 when he joined Torquay United as player-coach, working at first under Mike Green and then under Frank O'Farrell.
In July 1982, Rioch became player-manager of Torquay United, but left in January 1984. In February 1985, after 13 months out of the game he was appointed manager of FC Seattle, of the US Western Soccer Alliance, but resigned in September 1985 to return to England.
He was appointed as manager of Middlesbrough in February 1986 and his first success in management came in 1987 when he guided Middlesbrough to runners-up spot in the Third Division and promotion to the Second Division at the end of a season which had started with them locked out of Ayresome Park by the official receiver and on the verge of bankruptcy. A year later they won a second successive promotion, this time as winners of the Second Division promotion/First Division relegation playoffs. Middlesbrough showed great promise in the first half of 1988–89, but fell away badly and were relegated on the last day of the season (despite having not occupied a relegation place prior to that). He was sacked the following March as the Teessiders hovered just above the Second Division drop zone but on the brink of their first ever Wembley final in the Zenith Data Systems Cup.
Rioch is held in the highest esteem by fans of Middlesbrough as, following liquidation, he took a threadbare squad of local players and turned them into a team the town could be proud of. Many fans believe that, had it not been for Rioch, Middlesbrough would have struggled to survive.
Whenever Rioch returned to Middlesbrough as the opposition manager the 'Boro fans would frequently chant the songs that they had when Rioch was manager as a mark of respect for his services.
Rioch made a quick return to management the following month with Millwall and guided them to a playoff place in the 1990–91 Second Division campaign, but left in March 1992.
Rioch's next stop was at Bolton Wanderers, becoming manager in May 1992. In his first season they beat cup holders Liverpool 2–0 at Anfield in an F.A cup replay which many fans feel was the start of Bolton's resurgence. They finished runners-up in Division Two and won promotion to Division One. The following year Bolton finished in a respectable mid-table position as well as beating Premier League opponents Arsenal, Everton and Aston Villa in the F.A cup. In the 1994/95 season they were League Cup losing finalists to Liverpool and beat Reading 4–3 in extra time in the Division One playoff final after being 2–0 down at half time.
The playoff final victory was Rioch's last game as Bolton manager. A few weeks later he accepted the Arsenal manager's job and was replaced at Bolton by Roy McFarland. He is considered to be one of the best Bolton managers of all time by the club's supporters.
In 1995–96, his only season at Arsenal, Rioch guided Arsenal to a UEFA Cup place, finishing fifth in the Premiership. It was achieved on the last day of the season, at the expense of Everton, Blackburn Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal also reached the League Cup semi-finals, but lost on away goals to Aston Villa, and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the third round by First Division side Sheffield United.
Just before the beginning of the 1996–97 season, Rioch was sacked, after a dispute with the club's board of directors over transfer funds. His enduring legacy at the club was the signing of Dennis Bergkamp, whom Rioch had signed from Inter Milan in June 1995; Bergkamp would go on to become one of the club's greatest players. However, this was overshadowed by him playing Ian Wright on the left wing, and the subsequent fall out led to Wright putting in a transfer request after being dropped.
Queens Park Rangers
After leaving Arsenal, he worked as assistant manager under Stewart Houston (his former assistant at Arsenal) at Queens Park Rangers, but was sacked along with Houston after just over a year at Loftus Road.
In May 1998, Rioch was appointed manager of Norwich City in Division One. He resigned after less than two seasons at the helm after failing to get the Canaries anywhere near the promotion and playoff places that the club had long been hoping for. He cited a perceived lack of ambition at the club as the main reason for his decision to resign (he correctly predicted that the club's star player Craig Bellamy would inevitably be sold), however he also acknowledged that the club's uncertain financial position meant that the transfer funds available to him were limited.
Rioch made a swift return to management with Wigan Athletic for the 2000–01 season. He won the Manager of the Month award for November 2000, but left the club the following February, as they occupied the Division Two play-off zone. The club said that Rioch had resigned, but he insisted he was sacked.
Odense Boldklub (OB)
Rioch was intent on returning from management, and was linked with the Derby County manager's job after John Gregory was sacked at the end of the 2002–03 season. But it was four years before he made his return to management. He was appointed as head coach of Danish Superliga side OB in June 2005. He led OB to a third place in his first season in charge, but decided to leave the club on 12 March 2007 due to his wife's illness, as the official explanation. The media, however, reported that the actual cause was a dispute between Rioch and the management of OB.
Aalborg BK (AaB)
In June 2008 Rioch returned to management with Danish champions AaB after former head coach Erik Hamrén moved to Rosenborg BK. His first big priority was to try to qualify AaB for the Champions League which they entered in the second qualifying round. He guided them into the group stage after defeating FK Modriča and FBK Kaunas. By beating Celtic, AaB came third and thus entered the UEFA Cup. Rioch, however, did not witness this victory from the bench: On 23 October 2008 he was fired as AaB had only two victories from ten games and were second from bottom of the Danish league.
In November 2009, Rioch was linked with a return to football as manager of the Scotland national team, this following the departure of George Burley. In March 2010, he took training sessions at Cornish non-League club Falmouth Town, near his home. He later became involved with coaching at another Cornish club, Penryn Athletic of the South West Peninsula League.
with Luton Town
with Aston Villa
with Derby County
- Football League Third Division runners-up: 1986–87
- Football League Second Division play-off winners: 1987–88
with Bolton Wanderers
- Football League Second Division (third tier) runners-up: 1992–93
- Football League Cup runners-up: 1995
- Football League First Division (second tier) play-off winners: 1994–95
|G||W||D||L||Win %||F||A||Goal +/-|
|Torquay United||1 July 1982||14 January 1984||72||31||26||15||43.06|
|Seattle Storm||February 1985||September 1985||13||6||1||6||46.15||23||25||-2|
|Middlesbrough||2 February 1986||9 March 1990||205||82||52||71||40|
|Millwall||1 April 1990||17 March 1992||100||36||24||40||36|
|Bolton Wanderers||29 May 1992||8 June 1995||172||83||42||47||48.26|
|Arsenal||8 June 1995||12 August 1996||47||22||15||10||46.81|
|Norwich City||1 July 1998||13 March 2000||93||30||31||32||32.26|
|Wigan Athletic||26 June 2000||27 February 2001||43||19||15||9||44.19|
|Odense Boldklub (OB)||July 2005||March 2007||52||27||12||13||51.92||74||45||29|
|Aalborg Boldspilklub (AaB)||June 2008||October 2008||10||2||2||6||20||10||19||-9|