The two sides to a foreign invasion

ALL-COMERS RECORD: What was once a trickle of talent from abroad has now become a flood, but for every Eric Cantona there are many more who make much less impact. Glenn Moore asks whether they are a positive force, or just a form of cheap labour
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The scene was so surreal one half expected to see Peter Greenaway directing affairs from the dug-out. In goal was Peter Shilton, England's most capped player; in defence were Alvin Martin, a team-mate at the 1986 Mexico World Cup, and Slaven Bilic, a Croatian international; at centre- forward there was Dani, Portuguese football's hottest young talent.

Yet, as they strained and stretched in the wintry afternoon air, their cries echoed to a near-deserted Upton Park. The attendance was 207, not all of them paying, and 26,000 empty seats. The star quartet must have paused to wonder "what am I doing here?"

None of them, however, looked as bemused as the lonely Romanian in the main stand. This was Ilie Dumitrescu and, on Thursday, he wanted nothing more than to be out there, making his debut for West Ham reserves in the Avon Insurance Combination game against Norwich.

Unfortunately for Dumitrescu he is not only a veteran of two World Cups and 52 internationals, he is also no stranger to the Avon Insurance Combination. That has led to the rejection of his appeal for a new work permit, either with Tottenham, his present club, or West Ham, who are trying to buy him for pounds 1.5m. It has also made him a cause celebre in the debate over the influx of foreign players.

While it was Dumitrescu's case which was being discussed by lawyers for West Ham and Tottenham yesterday, as they prepared to wrestle with the Department of Employment and the Professional Footballers' Assocation, far more is at stake than one players' future. On the one side is a seemingly limitless supply of cheap, technically proficient foreign players. On the other is the players' union which, having long been regarded as one of England's most progressive unions, is now cast as Luddite.

King Canute would be a better analogy. The PFA are attempting to stem a foreign tide which, they fear, is swamping the English game. Nowhere is the effect more pronounced than at Upton Park where they are fast becoming known as West Ham United Nations.

Dumitrescu would become their 10th foreigner - not including three Irishmen - eight of whom have been signed this season. It leaves the Englishmen outnumbered at one of the Premiership's most community-orientated clubs.

"Everyone looks upon me as being English now," Alvin Martin said, "whereas when I first came down here as a Scouser I was supposed to be a foreigner. What a difference 20 years make."

Indeed. Twenty years ago there had been barely a handful of foreign players in England. Although Max Seeburg, a German, had played for Tottenham in 1908 only Bert Trautmann, George and Ted Robledo and a handful of South Africans made any subsequent impact.

Then, in 1978, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa signed for Tottenham precipitating a steady growth in overseas signings. Some, like Arnold Muhren and Ivan Golac were a success, many others, whether internationals like Alberto Tarantini, or unknowns like Darlington's Tunisian Roch Karaa, were not.

But, in the last two years, the rising wealth of English clubs and cost of English players have combined with the Bosman judgement to increase this trickle to a flood. There are now more than 170 foreigners in the English game, representing 45 nations, a 50 per cent rise on last season. One in every 10 players is from abroad. In January alone English clubs signed, or gave trials to, 18 foreign players.

Five of those were at West Ham. Dumitrescu agreed his deal, Dani arrived on loan from Portugal, Chris Coyne, an unknown Australian, signed from that country's Institute of Sport, another Australian, Steve Mauntone, came and went on trial, as did Frenchman Phillippe Chanlot, from Toulouse.

The reason is simple, economics. "West Ham want to buy me because I was cheaper than a player in the Second Division," Dumitrescu said. "He was valued at pounds 2m, it is obviously better to buy an international like me for pounds 1.5m."

"I scoured the market for English players and was getting quoted such ridiculous prices I could not afford them," Redknapp said. "I cannot complete with the Newcastles, or the even the Tottenhams, they spent pounds 4m each on Fox and Armstrong, but we are building a decent team."

Redknapp's 10 foreigners, including Dumitrescu, cost pounds 6.3m. He has got six internationals for that, although two are only on loan. Or he could have bought Mark Draper and Craig Short, two uncapped lower division players, assuming they would have come to West Ham.

"They add a bit more than we are used to," said Martin. "We are buying quality now. Dani has a lot of ability, Slaven is different class. The more the merrier."

One can see Redknapp's argument. But one can also see Gordon Taylor's. The chief executive of the PFA said: "We have to look at the increase in foreign players. Clubs are going abroad for quick fixes rather than nurture their own talent. There are a few exceptions, like Manchester United, but it is disappointing to see a player like Noel Whelan, a player for the future, moving on from Leeds [who have three foreign strikers].

"It is our job to make sure English players have the chance to develop and play in this country. We are not in the business of saying no to top- class foreign talent, but a large number of the overseas signings have not made an impact. Millions of pounds have been lost to the domestic game. At times you wonder if we are becoming a dumping ground."

Taylor would like to see clubs encouraged to concentrate on their youth systems, possibly by forcing them to play two-to-four home-grown products each game. Only Manchester United and Queen's Park Rangers started with four youth team graduates in last weekend's Premiership programme; Aston Villa, Blackburn, Everton and Middlesbrough had none. But such a ruling might be hard to enforce in law.

"We can have a cosmopolitan game but the ultimate test of talent is at World Cups and European Championships," Taylor said. "We have to encourage clubs to develop talent or youngsters will play other sports and the feeder clubs, like Crewe, will go."

Supporters of foreign players could argue that the years of isolation did little for developing English footballers - since 1970 England have failed to even reach three World Cups. Neither does Italian football appear to have any problems developing young talent - look at Alessandro Del Piero.

It is hard to understand," Dumitrescu added. "If the Premier League have got international players it makes the league a better place. Italian football is of a high standard because of all the great players who play there."

The difference is the sheer number of overseas players in England - whose domestic pool is already reduced by the number of Irish, Welsh and Scots players. It is not just the Premier League, the lower divisions may complain that the Premier would rather buy from abroad rather than them, but they have followed suit. There are three Spaniards at Wigan, a Finn at Preston, an Australian and Norwegian at Bristol City.

And the fall-out of the Bosman verdict has just begun. While the European Commission examine whether it should be applied to a dozen other countries, managers and agents wait for the season's end. "There will be an awful lot of players moving from abroad when their contracts run out and they are free transfers," said Redknapp, who added he was now looking to sign Englishmen.

That news, at least, will be welcomed by Taylor. "We, and the FA, have to take a long-term view," he said. "If we do not, who will?"

West Ham's united nations

Signed 1990-91

Ludek Miklosko (Czech Republic) - Banik Ostrava, pounds 300,000

Signed 1994-95

Marc Rieper (Denmark, international) - Brondby, pounds 1m

Signed 1995-96

Marco Boogers (Netherlands) - Sparta Rotterdam, pounds 80,000

Stan Lazaridis (Australia) - West Adelaide, pounds 300,000

Robbie Slater (Australia, int) - Blackburn Rovers, pounds 600,000

John Harkes (USA, international) - US Soccer Federation, loan

Chris Coyne (Australia) - Australian Inst of Sport, pounds 20,000

Dani (Portugal, international) - Sporting Lisbon, loan (plus pounds 130,000)

Slaven Bilic (Croatia, international) - From Karlsruhe, pounds 1.65m

Ilie Dumitrescu (Romania, int) - Tottenham (provisional), pounds 1.5m

ERIC CANTONA:Manchester United and France

International: Yes

Arrived: Feb 92 (to Leeds)

Cost: pounds 900,000 (from Nimes)*

Is there a better Englishman in his position? No. One of the most gifted players in the Premiership.

*to Man Utd for pounds 1.2m Nov 92

DAN PETRESCU: Chelsea and Romania

International: Yes

Arrived: June 94 (to Sheffield Wednesday)

Cost: pounds 1.25m (from Genoa)**

Is there a better Englishman in his position? No. Has made Glenn Hoddle's wing-back system tick.

Work permit required: Yes

** to Chelsea for pounds 2.3m Nov 95

JOHN JENSEN: Arsenal and Denmark

International: Yes

Arrived: August 92

Cost: pounds 1.157m (from Brondby)

Is there a better Englishman in his position? Yes. The English game has any number of journeymen midfielders.

Work permit required: No

STIG INGE BJORNEBYE: Liverpool and Denmark

International: Yes

Arrived: Dec 92

Cost: pounds 600,000 (from Rosenberg)

Is there a better Englishman in his position? Yes. Steve Harkness and Rob Jones have kept him out of the side this season.

Work permit required: No