Jan Age Fjortoft talks to Mike Ticher about his own adjustment to English football and the effect foreign players have had on the game
When I arrived in English football I found you could walk into the dressing-room and be completely accepted. I was taken into the group straight away at Swindon, although it probably helped that it was a small club. I’ve never had a problem at any club, but I think that’s a bit to do with my personality as well. And of course I already spoke English. But the English mentality is that in principle you are valued as part of the team. There’s lots of selling and buying in English football and so you get used to having new faces in the dressing-room. I don’t think that affects foreigners in any different way from anyone else.
The main positive change I saw during my time in England was the influence the foreigners brought in in their preparation for games. They treated it more like a 24-hour profession. They were more professional in all areas of preparation, including what you eat and drink. In Germany, where I am now [in an all too familiar relegation struggle with Eintracht Frankfurt] they take it to the other extreme – there must be a golden middle way. It’s also a bit different in England because you are always playing almost every Saturday and Wednesday – then you have to be even more professional to get through all these games. But I think that side of things has developed very well in England in the past few years.
The negative thing was that one of the main strengths of English football is that at three o’clock everybody knows that the team is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how much you earn, it doesn’t matter what your name is, in the game you have to give 100 per cent for the team. And I think a lot of the foreigners brought a bit more selfishness into it.
You will still get some resistance to foreign players coming in, because the English management set-up is so different from other countries. In the German Bundesliga, for example, you need a coach’s licence. In England you play football all your life, you start by cleaning boots, you’re a professional for 20 years and then you’re running a multi-million pound company. And you have to decide who are going to be the new players.
At the start that lack of preparation made it difficult for someone like Bryan Robson, being English through and through. And Viv Anderson too. They were used to the fantastic attitude of British players and then they had people in who were, well, not very English. It looks as though Robson has learned to adjust to it more now. I think he has learned from the experience he had at the start, when he brought in players who weren’t maybe the easiest players to cope with, like Fabrizio Ravanelli.
He lived just up the road from me and I had quite a good relationship with him, but he didn’t have a great rapport with the other players. And I think for Robson that was very hard, to see that his star player knew the power of players and he knew that he could just walk out the next day.
I think the English players would have accepted any gap in the wage structure, I don’t think that was the problem. The main thing was the gap between the different mentalities of the players and the rift was getting bigger and bigger. I think that did make a big contribution to their relegation in 1997. Although, having said that, Ravanelli did score 30 goals, so somehow he delivered the goods.
Not all the players Robson brought in were failures. Juninho was a fantastic player, he nearly managed to save Boro by himself that season. But you also had Emerson and maybe Branco, they didn’t produce. When Emerson went away, at that time I think I would have let him rot in the reserves, because that was the biggest betrayal of all. And I think the other players were a bit disappointed that he got away with it and it set the standard for the other foreigners. So then you had other people doing more or less the same in different ways.
Since then players at other clubs like Van Hooijdonk have found different ways to get away, and I think that’s a rotten game. The interesting thing is that anyone can do it in theory, but so far we haven’t seen a big example of an English player doing it. To stop playing, more or less, in order to get away from a club, I can’t see so many examples of British players doing that.
In general the set-up now is much better than it was four years ago. There was a time when there was almost a principle that new players should be foreign. I think now English clubs have built up a great scouting network in Europe and as a result you don’t tend to have these big, big flops that you had three or four years ago.
Now they seem also to be getting people who can adjust to the English way of playing, because that is quite different, for example, to the Bundesliga. It’s a great league and it’s very well liked around Europe, but you can’t compare it with English football. In England it’s 90 minutes of power – here, you always get the chance to have a rest. One of the main reasons why there are so many Scandinavians in England is that we can adjust quite easily. The English and Norwegian mentality is quite similar.
Whichever nationalities adapt best, however, nothing will stop players moving between all the different countries in Europe. I think it’s something we just have to live with, but I also think the best players will come through anyway. I mean look at your English players, there are some fantastic players coming up in this generation, despite all the foreigners. It’s the same with Norway. You can’t complain that it’s raining all the time. You can’t do anything about it. European integration is here to stay.
The same debate is going on in Germany at the moment. There are a lot of east Europeans coming here, and it’s a safe option for the clubs of course. They talk about it all the time here, how it’s affecting the youth set-up, but when it comes to serious prospects it’s always easier for the clubs to buy someone from abroad anyway because they need to get results. Football is all about today, not what you did yesterday or what you will do tomorrow.
From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month