Richard Darn looks at how Barnsley created an international squad
If I said that Barnsley FC had a centre-back who is not only bilingual but also a qualified doctor you’d probably scratch your head for a moment and then conclude he must be foreign. And you would be absolutely correct.
Dutch defender Arjan de Zeeuw was recruited less than twelve months ago, and has since been joined by two compatriots with even better names, plus a Trinidadian and most recently a Croatian.
Once upon a time having a Welsh player in our ranks seemed pretty exotic, so this foreign invasion has come as a bit of a culture shock. I dare say the club shop is taking delivery of blue berets as well as red shirts at this very moment.
At first I thought the only reason behind manager Danny Wilson's sudden cosmopolitan urge was a preference to strike deals in sun-baked holiday resorts rather than in the car park at Scotch Corner Services. But then a source close to the club (yep, that's just how exotic we are now) revealed that the Oakwell fax machine is currently humming every week with speculative messages from agents across Europe.
Normally such junk mail would have been binned, but then along came dear old Bosman. Although its true that of Oakwell’s overseas contingent only Jovo Bosancic came on a free – from Madeira would you believe – the others were to some extent released by their clubs in the knowledge that their contracts were running out. Telstar in Holland cashed in with £200,000 for Arjan (pronounced Ariane, like the exploding rocket), while Carol Van Der Velden and Laurens Ten Heuvel came from Den Bosch for smaller fees and Clint Marcelle arrived from Portuguese second division club Felgueiras for £200,000.
The first three were the product of a Dutch agent who “suggested” we take a look at Arjan. Barnsley scouts soon turned up at a Telstar league game trying to look inconspicuous with their Yorkshire-English-Dutch phrase book and a deal was struck as soon as someone mentioned PSV were interested in the player. Once upon a time we used to shadow Rotherham United in the transfer market.
And indeed the player has turned into a minor star and was voted player of the year by the fans last season. The Dutch agent recognized an open wallet when he saw one and returned to proffer the two other Dutch lads on a trial which again ended in deals and more cash for our Benelux middle-man. Clint Marcelle, on the other hand, burst onto the scene in more spectacular fashion, scoring his first goal for the Reds in his debut match against West Brom.
More goals followed and the media soon became interested in this oddball soccer emigre. It emerged that he plans to spend winter in Barnsley and summer in New York, where he has an apartment. Needless to say this domestic arrangement is a first for Barnsley FC. He’s also been told naughty things about the depths of winter in Yorkshire (“I just don't want to think about it,” shivers Clint) and unwittingly seems ready to join the ridiculous Ron Noades ‘school of thought’ on climatology and the modern black footballer.
Clint’s transfer to Barnsley was all the more unusual because Danny Wilson had never seen him play – not even on video. It was his agent who travelled to South Yorkshire on a couple of occasions to strike a deal and there’s no truth in the rumour that we gave him a trial just for form’s sake. The same agent also worked for Bosancic and seeing another job-lot opportunity got a successful two week trial for his other client.
But why are Barnsley taking what might be regarded as major risks with overseas players? After all, would you buy a car you hadn’t driven before? And quite apart from the open question of whether they can adjust to a long, arduous season, there’s the problem of settling down in an alien environment where English is arguably not the first language. Bosman is the primary reason, but particularly the fact that the ruling is currently working in favour of English clubs – although not Scottish – because this is where the money is, even at First Division level. (This despite the fact that the flow almost went the other way during the summer, when the Reds’ leading scorer, Andy Payton, tried to move to Caen in France. We scotched that by off-loading him for £350,000 to Huddersfield, where winters really are bad.)
But the other reason is that domestic clubs often price their own players out of the market. In my view this was sparked by UEFA’s erstwhile ruling that clubs playing in European competitions could field only three non-nationals. Suddenly English born players attracted a premium in the transfer market and the inflation spiral was launched. Of course that ruling has now been overturned, but even so decent players at lower division level are still ludicrously over-priced, as Danny Wilson made clear before buying his airline tickets. Doubtless the market will settle down given time, but prices always rise far quicker than they fall.
The real losers in this scenario are not the big city clubs with money to burn, but outfits like Barnsley who traditionally have been prepared to offer up and coming players a platform at a higher level. Now that platform is increasingly being denied and instead overseas players sought at more competitive prices. I could take this scenario on a bit further and speculate that with the numbers of foreigners now in the game, lower division clubs will be forced to hang on to talent longer because there are fewer buyers at the top.
If I was Hartlepool's star striker and well versed in the works of Milton Friedman, I'd rest easy waiting for the pendulum of the free market to swing back, opening up foreign football markets to domestic professionals. But again, quite aside from differences in football style and philosophy, the money is still mainly with the English game, which has always supported the biggest professional league in Europe.
But enough of this theorising, how are Barnsley's stars doing so far this year? Well the start of the season could hardly have gone better with the imports figuring in a five-match winning run which saw crowds double and latent Reds’ supporters rediscovering themselves. To prove the point a group of Bulgarian fans from Sofia sent the supporters’ club a letter professing their love for the club with a request for more information. As one of the club’s members wryly observed with a tut: “A bit of success and they all come out of the woodwork.”
On the playing side the only problem was one of the Dutch lads who came back from Holland overweight and was promptly fined, even though the club insists on thrusting fish and chips down his throat on Fridays to maintain long-standing tradition. Our Croatian would also like the world to slow down a little so he can stop and chat about his homeland while dwelling on the ball.
But otherwise everything is dandy. Even Oakwell’s match day radio is exploring new territory with fetching jingles in Dutch, Serbo-Croat and Creole. Anyone know how long Jürgen Klinsmann’s got left on his contract?
From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month