Through the net

Foreign players were effectively banned before 1978 but, as Matthew Taylor discovers, there were ways for a select few to ply their trade

Before the arrival of Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa at Tottenham in 1978, foreign players were rarely seen on British football pitches. A mixture of xenophobia and sheer arrogance convinced the authorities that there was little need or desire to import players from abroad. The British – mainly the English – clung to an assumed role as footballing masters who had nothing to learn from their continental pupils, especially on home soil. Even so, the British game was never com­pletely insulated from the outside. The place of for­eigners in our domestic football did not suddenly emerge as an issue in the wake of the Bosman judg­ment, or even in 1978. There had, in fact, been a trickle of foreign footballers into this country for almost a century before the present flood.

Before the First World War continental football was in an embryonic state and overseas players were sim­ply not considered good enough. A few, however, did apparently make the grade. Nils Middleboe, for ex­ample, the captain of the Danish national team, signed as an amatuer for Chelsea in 1913, but only stayed for one season. Max Seeburg, a German forward, had a lengthier spell here, playing for Chelsea, Tottenham, Burnley, Grimsby and Reading between 1907 and 1914. African football is not normally seen as an early starter but at least three Egyptian players signed with British clubs between the wars. One, Tewfik Abdallah, played for Derby, Hartlepool, Cowdenbeath and Brid­gend Town in the Welsh League in the early 1920s before embarking on a successful career in the professional league in America.

By the early 1930s, the progress of overseas football had convinced one or two British clubs that the signing of a foreign player might be worth the risk. What they didn’t account for was the opposition of the Ministry of Labour. Arsenal had arranged a deal with the Austrian national goalkeeper Rudy Hiden, which included a job as a chef in addit­ion to his football wage, but he was refused entry by immigrat­ion officials when he arrived at Dover. The Belgian centre-forward Ray­mond Braine, signed by Clapton Orient, actually made it into the country but was also forced to leave. To avoid such cases, the FA decided on a two-year residential qualification for players from out­side the UK, a measure which effectively prohibited British clubs from sign­ing foreign professionals.

This exclusion of “foreigners” did not, of course, cover colonial foot­ball­ers, who were considered to be British nationals. Australia, Canada, as well as the British territories in Africa and the Caribbean, all drew the attention of Football League scouts. South Africans have a particularly long history in British football, dating back to the inter-war years, when for a time Liverpool had six on their books. The FA Yearbook of 1964-65 recorded some 15 players of “foreign” origin in the top two English divisions but noted that “the great majority come from South Africa”.

By contrast, players from continental Europe were only allowed to play in Britain as amateurs. The first significant wave of imports arrived in the aftermath of the Sec­ond World War, as British society in general began to open its doors to outsiders. A number of footballers from the exiled Polish army briefly joined local clubs. Most played only a handful of games but some, like Alfie Lesz of St Mirren and Felix Starocsik of Third Lanark and Northampton, settled into professional careers.

Chelsea managed to attract Willi Steffen, a Swiss international full-back, and Orient signed the Polish national goalkeeper Stanislaw Gerula, but neither lasted more than a season. Albert Gudmundsson did not stay long either, making just two league appearances for Arsenal after signing from Rangers – he had studied marine engineering in Glasgow during the war. The Icelandic international moved to Milan in order to turn professional and went on to play in France before returning home where he became a successful businessman, politician and president of the Icelandic FA.

Alongside Bert Trautmann, who progressed from German prisoner-of-war to Manchester City goal­keeper and went on to make over 500 appearances in 14 years, the most successful foreign player of the 1950s was probably Viggo Jensen. Like a number of others, the Dane had impressed during the 1948 London Olympics. He signed for Hull City that year and enjoyed nine seasons with the club, first in a goal­scoring role, netting in seven consecutive matches during 1949-50, then as a full-back.

Hans Jepsson made no less an impact during his brief spell with Charlton Athletic in 1951. Jepsson, who had been Sweden’s centre-forward at the 1950 World Cup, came to London on a business course hoping to play for Arsenal during his stay. He was persuaded to help out Charlton instead and almost single-handedly saved the club from relegation, scoring nine times in 11 outings, before moving to Italy as a professional with Atalanta. But Jepsson’s sojourn at The Valley was not appreciated by the authorities. The Football League felt both club and player were abusing the system and “in the interests of the Competition” decided to outlaw future temporary transfers involving what they con­sidered to be “well-known” foreign players.

The 1960s brought a fresh wave of Scandinavian talent, this time to Scotland. Once again, however, it was thought that many of the imports were using British football merely as a stepping-stone for a more lucrative transfer to the continent. What the foreigners lacked, it was felt, was long-term commitment and loyalty. Some, of course, were more committed than others. Preben Arentoft joined Morton in 1965, mov­ing south three years later for spells at Newcastle Unit­ed and Blackburn Rovers before returning to Denmark. He ex­perienced the full range of dom­estic football, as a member of Newcastle’s 1969 Fairs Cup-winning side and then struggling with Blackburn in the Third Division.    But the football authorities and the media have tended to ig­nore players like Arentoft. They always seem more com­fortable with the image of the foreign footballer as a mercenary. In the end it was the Treaty of Rome, rather than a more en­lightened attitude on the part of football’s governing bodies, which finally brought to an end the ban on foreign professionals in 1978. In this as in so many other areas, British football was forced to adapt rather than initiating the change itself.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month