Optimism returns after the dark years

QUEST IN EUROPE: One footballer's legal battle may help bring European success to British clubs. Phil Shaw reports
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The Independent Online
Peter Schmeichel was bracing himself for bad news. Even so, when Alex Ferguson confirmed that he would not be facing Barcelona before 115,000 people in the Nou Camp Stadium, he could not hide his pique. "It's a stupid rule," he said. "Can't you do anything about it?''

The legislation which so annoyed Manchester United's Danish goalkeeper was imposed by Uefa, European football's governing body, and allowed teams to field a maximum of three foreigners in Continental competition. British clubs were particularly aggrieved; all but a few Scottish, Irish and Welsh players were classified as foreign.

Ferguson, who recalled Schmeichel's reaction in his diary A Year in the Life, reasoned that he needed the best 10 outfield players available. He brought in Gary Walsh, and although United's 4-0 rout had more to do with tactical poverty than a Pontin's League keeper, their interest in the Champions' League was over for another two years.

Around the same time, Blackburn succumbed to the Swedish part-timers of Trelleborgs, Aston Villa to Turkey's Trabzonspor. Last year, in the space of 48 hours, Leeds and Liverpool followed United out of the Uefa Cup; Blackburn officially became also-rans in the Champions' League; and Everton departed the Cup-Winners' Cup.

Yet when United return to the premier tournament tomorrow against the holders, Juventus, Schmeichel will be in the starting line-up. In fact, all Old Trafford's sundry Dutchmen and Norwegians, Czechs, Celts and Francastrians can play if the manager is so minded. United's corporate empire may have been powerless to overturn one "stupid rule", but a journeyman Belgian footballer did.

As a by-product of Jean-Marc Bosman's successful legal challenge to the transfer system between European Union countries, the three-foreigners rule is no more. That fact, allied to England's "success" in Euro 96 and the influx of big-name players from abroad, has encouraged the belief in some quarters that Premiership clubs are about to reassert their dominance in Europe.

For there was a time when they beat more than their breasts. The Champions' Cup was won seven times in eight seasons prior to the Heysel tragedy of 1985 and the ban on English clubs which followed; the Uefa Cup on nine occasions between 1968 and '84. The suspension was lifted six years ago, since when the trophy cabinet would be bare but for United and Arsenal lifting the less prestigious Cup-Winners' Cup.

Eric Cantona recognises that Bosman has moved the goalposts. "The last time we were in the European Cup we had a great team but we had five foreigners as well as injuries and suspensions," he told United's club magazine. "Now we have no excuses. If we don't win it, it will be because we're not good enough. But I think we are.''

Nottingham Forest's Frank Clark, a Champions' Cup winner as a player, was the only British manager whose involvement in Europe extended beyond Christmas last season. Despite Forest's run to the Uefa Cup quarter-finals, a backs-to-the-wall affair, he noticed that the domestic game was still the only one in step.

"European competition is all about keeping the ball," he said. "The Continentals play a more cagey game based on possession whereas we give it away too easily. Our football goes from end to end. I firmly believe the Premiership is the most exciting league in Europe, though I wouldn't say it's the best. To re-establish our credibility we really need to win the Champions' Cup again.''

Clark expects the rule change to enhance United's prospects. "Our game was uniquely affected by it. It wasn't a big problem for me except that I wasn't able to have the keeper on the bench I wanted, but it was a major drawback for Alex. What a penalty to have, when you're competing against the best, to have to leave out someone of Schmeichel's quality.

"But I'd have expected United to do better this time anyway. They won the double with a team in transition, and Alex has made some excellent signings since. It's still going to be difficult because we don't have the experience of Europe we had 20 years ago, but it must help not having to juggle about with nationalities.''

For Aston Villa's Brian Little, tonight marks his managerial debut in Europe. His qualified optimism for the English representatives is influenced by the Bosman verdict.

"I do feel this country is on the verge of achieving something in Europe again," he said. "Whether it's this season or whether it'll require more experience, I'm not sure. But the platform is there in the Premiership - we're giving ourselves a real chance.

Villa's close-season recruits were a Serb, Sasa Curcic, and Portugal's Fernando Nelson. Under the previous regulations, Little would have had to think twice about compounding the complications of team selection in Europe by such signings.

"Of course it [the abolition of the limit] will be a factor. The Liverpool and Leeds sides who did well in Europe in the '70s always had a good mix of personalities from different backgrounds. At Aston Villa we've got people from all sorts of cultures. They add to the flavour of the team. Our lads see things the foreign boys do and think: 'Yeah, I'll try that'.''

However, Little's hopes are based on more than the freedom to field a polyglot team. In his view, English football has been undergoing a transformation for three years now. Two revisions of the laws have had an impact: outlawing the tackle from behind and discouraging the backpass.

"In the '80s you could be successful with athleticism and strength. Flair was stifled by spoiling tactics. There was a lot of long ball and squeezing up to get offsides. Now I think we've come full circle to when I played. It was rough then, though people were passing the ball around. Today we're playing with pace and technique, closer to the rest of Europe.''

Like Clark, Little remains cautious about proclaiming the Premiership as the best league. "People say that, but we still haven't got the mentality the Continentals have. The minute someone's left out of the side they're thinking: "I might as well go somewhere else'. Over there you see all the subs leaping up when they score, along with the guys in suits not in the 16.

"We're definitely going in the right direction. We've just got to come to terms with the concept of working from a squad of 22. The sooner there's a transfer ban during the season, the better.''

Perhaps Monsieur Bosman could make that his next project, moving on to address the anomaly whereby a player can move abroad on a free transfer when his contract is up but not to another English club. In the meantime, one man's victory looks like having a knock-on effect for for Ferguson, Little and the rest, not to mention Peter Schmeichel.