Dutch courage

Ken Monkou was one of the first in a flood of Dutch players to move to Britain. Thomas Blom charts the career of one of football's unsung stars 

You may as well blame the Dutch for England failing to qualify for the European Championship finals. No fewer than 158 Dutchmen have come over to supplant local players since English clubs were permitted to sign foreigners in 1978. After George Boateng, the humble, uncapped Ken Monkou is the Dutchman who has made the most top-flight appearances (280 in total). Monkou joined Chelsea in 1989 and played 94 League games (two in Division Two) before moving on to Southampton. He was named player of the year by his club’s supporters no fewer than five times over the course of his career – twice at Chelsea and three times at Southampton – so it’s no wonder he likes life in England and has stayed put. From his base in Harrogate in the Yorkshire Dales (All Creatures Great and Small was always his favourite TV show), he keeps a distant eye on his recently purchased pancake restaurant in the Dutch town of Delft.

“Super Ken” has not changed much since appearing at his first fashion show in his home town, The Hague. It earned him some pocket money, before Feyenoord plucked the 20-year-old from amateur team VVP. There were some surprised guests at one of his events. Monkou says: “I’d just signed with Feyenoord and was doing some shows. I walked on to the catwalk and suddenly realised, ‘Shit, there’s my team-mates.’ And they were just as shocked – ‘Hey, there’s the guy we’ve just signed!’”

After a mediocre debut for Feyenoord, the 6ft 4in defender was sent to play for the reserves on a Monday evening against neighbours Sparta Rotterdam. He was the only player to respond in kind to the flying elbows of a certain Greg Campbell, whose father Bobby was Chelsea manager. Greg was impressed and tipped off his dad. Two months later, Feyenoord agreed to let Monkou move for a modest £100,000.

“My first Chelsea start was at Wimbledon. Thirty seconds into the match the ball gets kicked up into the air and bam! [Monkou claps his hands] – I get an elbow. I thought, ‘Whoa, welcome to England, here we go.’ You had to find your feet pretty fast, so I immediately went for the next one. Bam!” Another handclap. “Keith Curle this time, and before I knew it I had about five or six Wimbledon players on top of me.”

A 20-year-old Dutchman of Surinamese descent (his surname was originally a slave name), Kenneth Monkou finds himself in a bizarre world. It’s not just the foreign style of play, he is equally unfamiliar with the drinking, gambling and eating habits of the average English player – “We had fish and chips for our post-match meal.” At Chelsea, there were handshakes with Michael Caine, Richard Attenborough and the young Tony Blair, offset by encounters with hooligan groups such as the Chelsea Headhunters. “The crowd was a mixed bag. There was obviously a lot of money, but also a real hardcore element, which I didn’t discover until 12 months later. I had been warned that some Chelsea supporters were racist. They had a couple of black players in the squad who were slated by their own supporters.”

To Monkou’s astonishment, those very same fans named him player of the season at the end of his first year, ahead of Kerry Dixon, the club icon. “I was supposed to collect the supporters’ trophy at a known right-wing pub. So I walk into this pub and one half starts cheering – ‘Ken, fantastic!’ – while the other half just sits there staring. I’m wondering where I’m going to sit. So I thank them all, ‘I feel really honoured to be the first foreign black player…’ Applause all around. ‘You deserve it,’ they say.

“I’m sitting at this table with two body­guards, when suddenly a guy walks up to me, leaving his group of mates, and he goes, ‘Ken, I’d like to congratulate you, you’re an unbelievable player, a super player, you’re different from the rest.’ I say, ‘Different in what way?’ ‘They’ve all got chips on their shoulders,’ he says, ‘they’re all arrogant.’ I say, ‘You don’t know that, I could be arrogant as well.’ ‘No, we know you’re different.’ You could tell that in those five minutes he had completely changed his mind about black foreigners. But then he was called back over by his mates – ‘Hey Gary, come back’ – and he goes, ‘Sorry, but I have to go.’ Imagine the peer pressure at work there.”

Eight years after Chelsea’s first black player, Paul Canoville, was booed off the pitch, it was Monkou – six years ahead of compatriot Ruud Gullit – who overcame the racism of the Stamford Bridge hardcore. But despite his popularity, after four seasons he was transferred to Southampton for £750,000. “At one point the taxman came knocking on my door. ‘Mr Monkou, we’ve been checking the books. You went to Southampton for ­£1 million, but the records mention only £750,000, we’re missing £250,000 – did it end up in your pocket?, I said, ‘Take a look at my payslips and my transfer fee.’ I had everything on file. Of that transfer money, £250,000 simply vanished. Where did it wind up? Not in my pocket.”

During his time at Southampton, the then England manager Terry Venables even sounded him out about playing for the national side. He turned it down, in the hope of one day receiving a call-up for the Netherlands. To his disappointment it never came. Whereas the Dutch thought he had become too Anglicised, he was known to managers in England for his Dutch bluntness. In 1996, the newly appointed Southampton manager Graeme Souness said Monkou wasn’t his type of player. Monkou could not keep his big mouth shut: “I said, ‘Mr Souness, so what if I’m not your type? You’re not my type either.’ You should have seen his face. I said, ‘Sure, I admire you as a player, but as a manager you are rubbish. That’s my opinion anyway.’” Two years later, at the age of 36, Monkou wound down his career with 21 games for Huddersfield Town.

Ken Monkou went to England ahead of the big foreign invasion and witnessed all the changes at close hand. “Shortly after I’d arrived here, I was told, ‘Typical foreigner, you’re gonna be here two seasons, steal our money and our women and then piss off.’ That hurt. But four years later I knew what they meant and I was telling new arrivals the same thing.”

From WSC 255 May 2008