Home and away: how Arsenal's imports changed the landscape

The Gunners have broken taboos and fought xenophobia in a controversial history with foreign stars. By Nick Harris

Wednesday 16 February 2005 01:00

" It will be a bad day for club managers when they have to cultivate team spirit in a team of players where some would not understand a word said to them." - Charles Sutcliffe, leading Football League official, FA councillor and anti-foreigner campaigner, 1930.

" It will be a bad day for club managers when they have to cultivate team spirit in a team of players where some would not understand a word said to them." ­ Charles Sutcliffe, leading Football League official, FA councillor and anti-foreigner campaigner, 1930.

In the space of 16 years, Arsenal have transformed from being the last club to win the English league without using a single foreigner in the whole season (in 1988-89) to becoming the first club to use an entire matchday squad comprised of non-British players.

Yet given Arsenal's long, rich and often controversial involvement with foreign players, it is appropriate that they should be first to reach the "ultimate imports" landmark, with a foreign manager selecting a starting line-up of 11 foreign players and a bench of five foreign substitutes. (Chelsea fielded the first all-foreign XI in England in 1999 but had four Britons on the bench).

Arsenal were not the first club to field a foreigner in the League. That was Accrington in 1892, when Walter Bowman, a Canadian international of Swiss heritage, made his debut.

But the Gunners have been among the leaders in the import business since the early 1990s, when the likes of Anders Limpar and John Jensen arrived as part of a Scandinavian influx.

They have also blooded a number of notable foreign "firsts", including the first Dutchman in the League (Gerry Keizer, in 1930), the first Icelander (Albert Gudmundsson, 1946), the first player born in Senegal (Frenchman Patrick Vieira, 1996), and the first Liberian (Christopher Wreh, 1997).

But arguably of greatest significance to the story of England's foreign footballers, Arsenal have a record of breaking taboos and railing against an often xenophobic establishment in the search for multinational talent. Indeed, in 1930, their stubbornness in the face of resistance from the authorities led to a nationwide 47-year ban on importing foreign professionals being imposed by the Football Association.

That episode began when Arsenal's manager, Herbert Chapman, agreed a deal to sign an Austrian goalkeeper, Rudy Hiden, from Vienna. Hiden never made it past immigration at Dover because the players' union and the Football League had implored the Ministry of Labour to deny him a work permit on the grounds that he would be taking the job of a British worker.

Charles Sutcliffe, a powerful FA official who later became president of the League, made his own stance (and the FA's) resoundingly clear in his column in the Topical Times newspaper in August 1930.

He wrote: "The idea of bringing foreigners to play in league football is repulsive to the clubs, offensive to British players and a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club."

The FA, the PFA and the Ministry of Labour then made a formal agreement that they were opposed to foreign professionals, although they stopped short of legislation just then.

Arsenal were unbowed, and hired a different foreign player who was already resident in England ­ Keizer, a Dutch international goalkeeper. Arsenal's only concession to the authorities was that Keizer was given an amateur contract, not a professional one. In other words, he played without pay, hoping not to provoke those who were against foreign professionals.

Instead, Sutcliffe and his FA colleagues were so enraged that at the next AGM of the FA, in the summer of 1931, they changed the rules of the FA. The pivotal clause, approved by the FA Council on 1 June 1931, read: "A professional player who is not a British-born subject is not eligible to take part in any competition under the jurisdiction of this Association unless he possesses a two-year residential qualification within the jurisdiction of the Association."

In other words, foreign professionals were banned from England. The only way around the rules was to play for nothing, or live in England doing another job before becoming a pro. The effect was that English clubs were not allowed to buy off-the-peg foreign professionals.

Some foreigners did still play after the ban, but relatively few and only when the residency and/or amateur criteria were met. For example, Bert Trautmann, the first foreign Footballer of the Year, in 1956, qualified via residency after being captured as a POW. Other foreign stars, like Sweden's Hans Jeppson at Charlton, had short, glorious stints in England on amateur terms then went elsewhere to earn a living.

Incredibly, the FA's no-foreigner rule stayed in place until 1978, when the EC deemed it contrary to the principles of free movement enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The football authorities lifted the restrictions on foreign players and so began a famous influx, spearheaded by the likes of Argentina's World Cup winners Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa at Tottenham. The inevitable consequence, 27 years later, was embodied by Arsenal's all-foreign squad to face Crystal Palace on Monday.

Arsenal will no doubt see the irony in the current debate that a European legislative body ­ Uefa, which runs football across the continent ­ is now intent on promoting "home-reared" players, albeit in a system that does not define "home-reared" based on nationality but on where they spend their formative years. Yet Uefa sees no irony, hoping that most clubs, and even political bodies such as the EC, will see the need for action.

Arsenal have already indicated they will take legal action to fight any Uefa ruling on home-reared players. Many fans will back such a stance, echoing Arsène Wenger's case that we live and work in an international market, so why should football be different? Others will be wistful for the not-so-distant past, or 1989 to be precise, when an entirely British and Irish squad won the old First Division under George Graham.

They might legitimately ask why is it, if a squad hailing from Lambeth, Lewisham, Stoke, Birmingham and Dublin were able to win England's most prestigious title just 16 years ago, that not a single local lad (or indeed any home nations or Irish lad) was able to make it into Monday's squad?

Certainly Paul Merson, one of the squad from 1989, was having trouble yesterday comprehending the scale of change. "Not a Brit in sight? That was a disgrace," said Merson, now Walsall's manager. "For an 18 or 19-year-old dreaming of playing in the big time and representing his country, it was terrifying...

"It shows how much the game has changed in the last 15 years but I cannot help but feel it is not to the benefit of English football."

Graham, a Scot who had 15 Englishmen and two Irishmen ­ Niall Quinn and David O'Leary ­ in his title-winning squad, said he feared for the future of the England team.

"I think it's very sad that a club of the quality of Arsenal did not have a domestic player playing or on the bench," he said. "It's really going to affect the English international team in the near future. Look at how Scotland [where the leading teams Rangers and Celtic field few native players] have suffered. It could happen to England.

"Arsenal have a very good youth policy but it is a worldwide policy. They have some great kids but most of them are foreigners. And if your up-and-coming kids are foreign as well it does not look good for England or UK players.

"It could get to the stage where Sven Goran Eriksson is struggling to find a game to watch. It is an unbelievable transformation in 16 years. Let's not kid ourselves. The main reason they are here is because the money is here and they will remain here as long as the money does.

"That said, you have to give credit to the likes of Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. They have committed themselves to Arsenal for a number of years. They haven't just grabbed the money and moved on. But not many foreign players have stayed that long and I do think Arsenal miss a major captain, a John Terry or Tony Adams figure who has come through the ranks.

"What I would love to see at Arsenal is a combination: world-class foreign players and a few more Englishmen ­ they do have Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell but I'd like to see some more.

"All English clubs, not just the big ones, have to work a lot harder at their youth policies. We have to learn from the Dutch. How is it a nation of 15 million people can produce so many world-class individuals and teams? They take the game to the kids. They get them at a very young age and teach them the fundamentals.

"The FA have done some great work in the last five to 10 years but there is a lot more we can learn, and need to learn, for the sake of the national team."

It is an old cry, at least 74 years old. And Arsenal have again provoked it.

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