Wily Continentals crossing the divide

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The Independent Online
Forgive me for being a killjoy on the opening day of the season proper (apologies to non-Premiership clubs), but how blase are we becoming? It was only four years ago that we were excited by John Jensen's pounds 1.1m transfer from Brondby to Arsenal (well, some of us were). Yet on the eve of the 1996/97 season, not content with Vialli, Ravanelli, Emerson, Poborsky and Di Matteo (to name but a few), the back pages of the tabloids were unashamedly screaming: "Give us Cruyff".

Cruyff junior is already a Premiership player. However, that Cruyff senior will become a Premiership manager (at least for now) is about as unlikely as Alan Shearer failing to score this season. Instead it will be the Frenchman, Arsene Wenger, who will be Bruce Rioch's successor. The irony of Glenn Hoddle's former mentor becoming the next Arsenal manager has not been lost on fans either side of the north London divide (and may explain Arsenal fans' decidedly lukewarm reaction to the news). However in everything but name, Wenger appears far better suited to the post than Johan Cruyff. Chris Waddle, who played in many a gritty north London derby before moving to Marseille, where his side pipped Wenger's Monaco team to the French championship two seasons running, reckons Wenger and Arsenal are made for each other. "His teams were well-organised, well-disciplined, very hard to play against. His priority was not conceding goals, to get people back behind the ball. If the fans are expecting cavalier football forget it. He's a training ground perfectionist like George Graham."

Wenger won't find communication a problem (unlike his predecessor, whose lack of communication with the Arsenal board was apparently the reason for his sacking); he speaks at least four languages, including English, fluently. But it is ironic that as we plunder foreign shores, both for players and coaches, our two most successful national coaches have had to take their expertise elsewhere: Bobby Robson to Barcelona (via PSV, Sporting Lisbon and Porto) and Terry Venables (who claimed no other English club wanted him after Euro 96) to, er, Portsmouth.

So what is it that makes us think foreign coaches will succeed where a home-grown coach won't? Do we have such an inferiority complex that we bow to what we assume is a foreigner's better judgement? "Wenger's a superb technical coach," we say parrot-fashion, because we know precious little else, except that his ideals fashioned the new England coach.

Most foreign coaches are more qualified than many of our former players who take up coaching posts. But psychologist Dr George Sik, whose new book, I Think I'll Manage, analyses the different management styles of some of the game's leading gaffers, claims it is just a natural progression that the foreign coaches should follow the players to Britain. "Of course they have different ideas and techniques," he says, "but it's just as much the novelty value, a case of a change being as good as a rest."

Certainly a foreign coach may come unburdened with any preconceived ideas about certain teams and players, but that could as easily be a hindrance, say, if he fails to convey enough of a sense of urgency to his players in the games that really matter.

Foreign coaches in our games are nothing new. Successful foreign coaches are. The Czech, Dr Jozef Venglos, spent an instantly forgettable season at Aston Villa in 1990/91, while when Ivan Golac took over from the autocratic Jim McLean at Dundee United, one player said it was like "walking out of Colditz and into Butlin's". The Tannadice club did win their first trophy in 13 years under Golac but his motivational methods included taking the players for walks in the part to hear the birds sing... Golac's subsequent reign at Torquay was even less successful. The chairman said later: "We made him an offer he should have refused."

The Uruguayan, Danny Bergara, now assistant director of coaching at Darlington, says he had it easier than most when he became Rochdale's manager in 1988, because he spoke good English. "But when people say the game has a universal language, nothing could be further from the truth. England is very different. It has one of the best leagues in the world, but the technique and traditions are so different, and I don't believe British players want to win enough: how come a country of 2.5 million people like Uruguay can win two World Cups and numerous South American Championships while Britain, with 55 million people and a lot more money, wins one World Cup - and that's it? For every Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam, there are many more equally good golfers who come out of tiny Sweden. There's something lacking somewhere."

Bergara is not surprised that British clubs are welcoming foreign coaches, but thinks that those, like Ruud Gullit, who have already played in this country, stand a better chance of success. "I played at the highest levels in Spain and Uruguay, yet over here my name meant nothing and I couldn't get a work permit [in 1974]. Coaching was my only option. My problem is that I am called Bergara, not Di Stefano."

But for every foreign coach in the British game, there is a Brit who goes abroad to try his luck. Robson aside, there is Roy Hodgson at Internazionale, John Toshack at Real Sociedad and Terry Yorath, now in charge of the Beirut national side. Some have to travel even further afield to gain the recognition denied them here. The former Lincoln and Scarborough manager, Steve Wicks, coaches the S-League side Woodlands Wellington in Singapore. Both his Football League managerial appointments in England floundered on disputes with the chairman; he says having a job "where you are coach and manager with no interference, in a country where the people are as football-crazy as any I have ever seen, is very exciting".

Brian Talbot, the former Arsenal and Ipswich midfield player, who had fruitless spells as manager of West Bromwich and non-League bound Aldershot ("I was banging my head against a brick wall for eight months"), took the Maltese Premier League side Hibernians to their first title in 13 years in 1994, and again in 1995. "Malta's been an education. Here I'm the coach, my responsibilities are just football; I have nothing to do with contracts, fixtures or bonuses. People look upon me going to Malta as a backward step, say I failed in England. But I didn't want to go back for any old job in some outpost."

At least Gullit and Wenger won't have the problems one well-known English manager had in Portugal. He could not understand why everyone got so upset whenever he shouted corner, until he discovered that in Portuguese "cona" is a female part of the anatomy...

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