Ever since he signed Argentina's Alberto Tarantini for Birmingham in 1978, Jim Smith has been one of the managers most willing to introduce foreign players to English football. Andy Lyons asked him about the pitfalls and benefits
What have been the main barriers to the integration of foreign players in English clubs? Has the traditional “team building” culture of drinking together been a particular problem?
I think that was true at one time but generally there is less of a drinking culture around English football these days. Players will go out together to restaurants and so on but you don’t usually get a whole team all going out on a Thursday night or whatever. One thing that did concern foreign players in the early days especially was our level of medical treatment. They’d often prefer to go back home to get treated. I think we have caught up in that respect and work with the best international specialists now, rather than just with staff at the club. The foreign players couldn’t believe we didn’t have full-time masseurs and that it was down to the old physio doing a bit on a Friday or Saturday morning. The foreign players work religiously on massaging muscles after training, far more than English players do.
Are there other specific ideas they have made more popular here?
One of the influences that foreign players have brought in, and I’ve noticed it with my players, is the idea that you should sleep in the afternoons after training. There has also been a signficant passing of ideas between English and foreign coaches. Steve McClaren, who worked with me at Derby, read a lot about American Football coaches, who are very big on psychology and ways of geeing players up. He took ideas from that and now works with a sports psychologist, Bill Beswick, who’s with him at Middlesbrough.
Are there ways in which foreign players have improved their game by playing in England?
It’s fair to say that foreign players and coaches have brought more things to us than we’ve given to them. But there’s been a marked improvement over the years in their determination to come back from being behind. When Stefano Eranio first came over, we played Barnsley at Pride Park. They were struggling at the bottom of the table but we only just beat them, 2-1. He was very surprised at their players’ approach to the game and that they didn’t accept defeat as a foregone conclusion after we scored. I think foreign players have picked up that determination from English players. I know from talking to players like Igor Stimac, he loved the competitiveness of the English game and the fact that some relegation issues for instance are nearly always not sorted out until the final day because struggling teams will rally and fight to stay up.
What’s your view of the practice of buying very young players from abroad, as some clubs have done?
There are some young Scandinavian lads at Derby but I think that actively courting foreign youngsters for the Academies to the detriment of our own is a dangerous road to go down. Yes, buy good players for the first team but don’t bring over ten or 12 teenagers who are going to block progress for British players. Certain clubs have gone over the top in that area. Also, it would be fair to say we couldn’t have competed with the Chelseas or Arsenals anyway. Those kids would want to sign for the wealthiest clubs. Managers will always use the contacts they’ve built up and that means that clubs with managers from a particular country are always likely to be looking at players from there, and those managers don’t feel that the future interests of the England team are their concern.
Can you detect a strong influence from foreign players on the way young English players think about the game, or play it?
It’s hard to say because I’m not involved with Academies – at Premier League clubs they are now separate set-ups with their own coaches. But the youngsters we’ve been seeing in the Premier League in the last few years are a very exciting crop and I think the foreign players have had a lot to with that, because their skills are what the English players want to emulate – whether it’s Joe Cole seeing Di Canio in training or the Derby players with Eranio.
When you look at buying a foreign player, how important is it to you that they can speak English?
It’s a big plus. It would definitely help in my decision to buy a player. But the players I’ve signed who spoke very little English to begin with seem to pick it up far quicker than any English player would speak French or Spanish the other way. I can only think of a couple I’ve signed who haven’t got beyond what you might call pidgin English, but they were players who were only intending to stick around for a short time, take their money then move on. Generally, it’s particularly important for defenders to be able to communicate properly with their team-mates. And they need to get used to thinking in English too, because you have to communicate quickly. When you need to shout “man on” or “my ball” when you’re under pressure it’s important that it comes out in English and not in your own language.
What have you found to be the best method for finding players?
You build up contacts over the years, and you know whose opinion you can trust. Igor Stimac I heard about through someone I used to play with, Graham Smith, who was a goalkeeper at Notts County and Colchester. He told me Stimac was available and I knew a bit about him anyway, having seen him play for Croatia. With Horacio Carbonari, we went over to Argentina to see another player, but we saw him instead and he had what we wanted.
What are you looking for above all when you watch them?
Usually when you watch a player in another league you’re able to gauge how he’d adapt to English football. Nine times out of ten you’ll have no worries about their footballing ability, their ball skill and passing – what I’m looking for more is to see how they cope when things are going against them, and their ability to withstand physical challenges. Our game is more upfront physically, and you need to be able to handle that. One player I watched was Marco Negri, the Italian striker who ended up at Rangers. He dived so much it just put me him off him totally. He went on to have a great half-season where he scored 30-odd goals, but he’s disappeared since.
How much do you rely on videos of players you don’t know?
Videos are OK to give you a taste. I have sent scouts to look at someone having seen a video of them first, but that would usually be a Bosman transfer, someone who’d be cheap anyway and not too much of a risk. Otherwise I’d always want to see for myself. Watching non-League players too, you can take a chance if they’re not going to cost much and you see something there. I signed Les Ferdinand for QPR after watching him play for Hayes in a match when he did one run where he beat four or five players and got in a shot on goal. I thought he’d be worth risking a few thousand on – the same with Malcolm Christie.
You signed Alberto Tarantini for Birmingham in 1978, which didn’t really work out. Was that down to him or the club?
Partly him. One problem was that we couldn’t get a work permit for about eight weeks, so he was with us but couldn’t play. He also had a girlfriend who was still married to someone else, and pregnant, so there was all that in the background. I discovered subsequently that his idea when he signed was that he’d be moving on anyway – he was with Boca Juniors at the time and wanted to go to River Plate, their big rivals. It didn’t help that when he did finally play, Jeff Powell for some reason really had a got at him in the Daily Mail, saying: “How did this guy win a World Cup winners medal?”
But he was one of the best players I ever signed. He could play at full-back or in central defence. He was outstanding in a game at Coventry after which Joe Mercer, who was general manager there, wanted to meet him to say it was best performance he’d seen that year. Towards the end of the season – we were going down, unfortunately – he said he’d like to stay on and asked me to stop a deal that had been set up for him to go back to Argentina. I said we’d like to keep him but he needed to sort it out with the club he was joining, Cordoba. But the Cordoba president was also president of the Argentine FA and he felt he’d never play for the national team again if he didn’t go.
A year later I met him when Argentina were playing England at Wembley. He came up to me and spread his arms out and said: “Boss! I’m there – crap team; I’m gone – good team!” When I went to Argentina to watch some players last year I tried to contact him again, but it turned out he was in prison. A month later he phoned me and said he’d work for me over there. I said: “Yeah, I’ll ring you...”
Who have been the best and most disappointing players you’ve signed from abroad?
Igor Stimac was an outstanding buy for Derby when we were in the First Division. Asanovic had unbelievable skills, but he was a money man, came in, did his bit, bye bye. Mart Poom, who I bought first for Portsmouth, has done really well. Stefano Eranio was probably the best, a free transfer too, maybe a bit soft at times, but a lovely character and great technical ability.
Most disappointing? There was Mikkel Beck, though the crowd didn’t really give him a chance. Lars Bohinen didn’t do what we expected him to do. Probably Bragstad, the Norwegian defender, was the biggest let-down. We watched him six times and he played well each time, then came into the team when we had a lot of injuries and he just lost confidence. Then he got picked on by a section of Birmingham fans when he went on loan there, because they thought he was keeping out one of their young players – though I’m told he’s playing well again in Derby reserves now.
Because of the wealth of Premiership, very few English players go abroad now. Have they missed out?
Clubs in Italy and Spain have never really fallen over themselves to get British players. They’d take Owen now, or Beckham. But in the main they’ve found that our players haven’t settled there. Even when their playing ability isn’t in question, like Denis Law or Ian Rush, it seems they’re just not the best travellers. The Spanish are like that too, maybe the Portuguese until recently. Whereas players from countries that have exported players for generations, like Argentina or Yugoslavia, are used to the idea that their job is likely to mean them living somewhere else. The first thing they ask for when they arrive is a language teacher.
From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month