Foreigners both obscure and notorious are flooding into Scotland. Gary Oliver suggests some clubs may have bought better than others
If Jim McLean is proved to have cut the lip of BBC reporter John Barnes, it will be a rare instance of a Dundee United man hitting the target this season. The team, like the former manager and chairman, has become a parody of its former self. At Tannadice there no longer appears to be a quality control department, and the club is recruiting increasingly obscure foreign players of dubious ability.
Five points adrift after the first round of SPL fixtures, the received wisdom is that in such a crisis United would be much better served by indigenous players than transient outlanders. Yet across the road at Dens Park, where Ivano and Dario Bonetti have dispensed with most of the Scots they inherited, Dundee fans are at their most excited for a generation.
Many Scottish pundits, outraged when moderately successful manager Jocky Scott was removed last spring, wishfully predicted that clashing Latin temperaments would soon bring down Dundee’s house of cards. That may still happen, but at the moment the foundations appear more solid than expected and the Dark Blues are comfortably placed in mid-table.
Quite simply, Dundee have recruited foreign players of much greater quality than their local rivals. On the same day Jim McLean made his undignified exit from the Scottish game, spectators at Pittodrie witnessed the surreal image of Claudio Caniggia scoring on his debut for Dundee, coming off a bench that also accommodated Georgia’s captain, Georgi Nemsadze.
Quite how Dundee can finance such a squad remains a mystery, and the club’s next accounts will make interesting reading. Their chief executive Peter Marr has scoffed at press reports that Caniggia’s wages amount to £15,000 a week, but one may assume the Argentinian is trousering a few bob more than last season’s leading scorer, Willie Falconer.
Understandably, the Bonetti brothers have made maximum use of friendships and contacts, and other foreign managers have also brought to Scotland players from their own backyard. Rangers’ Dick Advocaat obviously shops at the more exclusive end of the market, though his Dutch contingent currently includes summer signing Fernando Ricksen who, during an inauspicious start, looked as though he were playing in clogs.
To revive Aberdeen, former Brondby coach Ebbe Skovdahl last season tried an infusion of Scandinavians. But the arrivals of Norwegians Stavrum, Solberg and Guntweit did little to prevent Skovdahl’s side being more inept than any fielded by predecessors Alex Miller and Roy Aitken.
The Dane, though, has remained in Scotland far longer than did Motherwell’s hapless Harri Kampman. In charge of the My-Pa side that earlier humbled ’Well in the UEFA Cup, the Finn had a brief stopover at Fir Park in 1998 during which time he introduced a clutch of compatriots. Those newcomers included goalkeeper Mikko Kaven – a name fans inevitably pronounced “cave-in” when he and the rest of Kampman’s team floundered.
Aside from Dundee, the most dramatic change in personnel has occurred at Airdrie, this season’s exotic sounding line-up being the product of Steve Archibald’s address book. For most of the 1990s Airdrie’s workmanlike team went largely unaltered. Now ageing, stalwart Scots have been usurped by names such as goalkeeper Javier Broto and midfielders Jesus Sanjuan and Antonio Calderon.
Calderon is probably the most gifted individual currently playing in the First Division, and his side has been winning maximum points for artistic impression. However, at the end of the first quarter Airdrie propped up the table, reinforcing the view that the Diamonds have imported too many fancy dans with little backbone or cutting edge.
By contrast, riding high in this season’s SPL are Hibernian, who when defeating Rangers on October 14 had just two native Scots in their starting line-up. Admittedly, a few others, such as Finn Mixu Paatelainan and Canadian Paul Fenwick, are long assimilated into the Scottish game. Nevertheless, manager Alex McLeish has proved more judicious in his choices of foreign bodies than have most of his peers.
Hibernian’s current success confirms that what matters is not a player’s nationality but his ability and character. At stricken Dundee United, too many imports have visited Tannadice on a busman’s holiday. What once was Scotland’s most celebrated youth academy has in recent years become more like a hostel for backpackers.
From WSC 166 December 2000. What was happening this month