How many of English football's first 10 managerial imports do you remember?
Amid the brouhaha and ballyhoo surrounding this season’s big-name managers – the Mourinho/Guardiola rivals, Conte's arrival, the Klopp revival – a landmark has been quietly passed. The summer’s new intake means that English top-flight football has now hired a nicely round number of 50 foreign managers.
Let’s define our terms. By “foreign” we mean those from outside the British Isles; obviously there has long been a history of Irishmen hopping across our Atlantic archipelago, but that’s another, quite different, story. By “English top-flight” we mean the Premier League and it predecessor the English First Division, along with the England national team – you may recall they have also hired from without, as it were. And by “hired” we mean someone who has managed in the top flight, even if appointed before promotion (bienvenido, Aitor). We’ve counted long-term interim managers (welkom, Guus) but not short-term caretakers (scusa, Attilio). Oh, and we’ve only counted heads once – so Jose Mourinho isn’t three members of the 50. Even his ego doesn't require triple-entry.
However you cut it, and whatever else has happened elsewhere, there can be little doubt that the influx of 50 foreign managers has significantly broadened English football’s horizons from a pre-EU world of strict 4-4-2s, pre-match steaks, post-match lagerthons and mistrust of Johnny Foreigner. Speaking of which, let’s start at the very beginning, when the “Premier” was where Celtic and Rangers played…
1. Dr Jo Venglos (Aston Villa)
- July 22, 1990 to May 28, 1991
July 1990, and Gazza’s tears have barely dried. Aston Villa boss Graham Taylor has taken the England job; unveiling his replacement, chairman Doug Ellis smirks: “Do you know who this is?” Few of the press pack do recognise Dr. Jo Venglos, who had just led the Czech Republic to the Italia 90 quarter-finals, and the first foreign manager of an English top-flight club is quickly christened Dr Who.
Cue a culture clash. “A few things those days were a bit different to what we'd been doing in central Europe,” explained Venglos later. “The methodology of training, the analysing of nutrition and the recuperation, regeneration and physiological approach to the game.”
It nonplussed players who could barely understand the need for a post-match warm-down, and Villa – who'd just finished 2nd under Taylor’s muscularly direct style – struggled to a 17th-placed finish. Venglos was replaced by Ron Atkinson, and English football continued to distrust foreigners – even though, as Dwight Yorke acknowledged, “Things he did at Villa, other clubs were doing seven or eight years later.”
2. Ossie Ardiles (Tottenham)
- June 19, 1993 to November 1, 1994
Ardiles was used to being a trailblazer: there had been very few overseas players before he joined Spurs in 1978. Unlike many who came in his wake, the Argentine was a success, spending a decade at White Hart Lane before a promising start to his managerial career in the English lower leagues tempted Tottenham into hiring him back as gaffer.
Therefore he was what FA headhunters might call “nationalised”, if exotic: Swindon’s newfangled diamond midfield had completely bamboozled the second tier. And after a mixed first season at White Hart Lane (5th in October, then two wins in 23 precipitating a plunge toward the drop zone), he cranked up the tactical innovation by constructing a ‘Famous Five’ forward line of Teddy Sheringham, Nicky Barmby and Darren Anderton augmented by star signings Jurgen Klinsmann and Ilie Dumitrescu.
It didn’t work. It wasn’t dull – results included a 4-3 win at Sheffield Wednesday and an 8-6 aggregate cup win over second-tier Watford, but also a 4-1 home loss to Forest, a 5-2 defeat at Man City and, the final straw, a 3-0 cup humiliation at Notts County. Chairman Alan Sugar had no option but to tell the club legend “you’re fired”.
3. Ruud Gullit (Chelsea, Newcastle)
- Chelsea: May 10, 1996 to December 2, 1998
- Newcastle: August 28 1998 to August 28, 1999
By moving from Serie A in summer 1995, Gullit signalled that the Premier League could attract genuinely world-class overseas players; by becoming manager and winning trophies, he smashed open the doors of English management’s cosily colonial old boys club.
The Dutchman first replaced Glenn Hoddle as Chelsea's brains on the field, then as player-manager when England appointed Hoddle. The Blues had only finished in the top six once in a decade, but Gullit led them there at his first attempt – the first of 19 consecutive top-six finishes – and also won the 1997 FA Cup, the first major English trophy won by an overseas manager.
However, pioneers don’t always have a long shelf-life, and Gullit didn’t survive the following season: just before Valentine’s Day, with the Blues 2nd in the Premier League and through to the European Cup Winners’ Cup semis, he was sacked – Chelsea citing contractual squabbles – and replaced by his own signing, Gianluca Vialli.
Gullit resurfaced the following season at Newcastle for an ill-fated year on Tyneside marked by poor results and ended by dropping Alan Shearer for the Tyne-Wear derby. But his Chelsea spell was a genuine turning point in the history of English football.
4. Arsene Wenger (Arsenal)
WENGER'S 20 YEAR ANNIVERSARY
- October 10, 1996 to date
The famous newspaper headline “Arsene Who?” was a lot less Anglo-Saxon than the phrasing when David Dein told the Gunners players who their new boss would be. And the (initially) bespectacled Frenchman’s overhaul of entrenched diet and training could easily have caused much more internal strife.
But astute signings (Wenger was the first Arsenal manager given free rein in the market) and acute man-management helped get the doubters on board – as did the results. Having finished 3rd in 1997, Arsenal won the Double in 1998 and 2002 before compleitng a title-winning season undefeated in 2004.
Equally importantly, his successful husbandry allowed the club to move to a lucrative new stadium while reaching the Champions League for 19 successive seasons. If Arsenal’s failure to win the title in the past decade has caused disappointment, it’s because he has raised expectations at a club that won three top-flight titles in 40 years. And however his reign ends, Wenger will always be the first overseas manager to conquer the English league.
- READ THIS Arsene Wenger’s 11 defining moments at Arsenal: derby delights, power shifts… and Sylvain Wiltord
5. Christian Gross (Tottenham)
- November 25, 1997 to September 5, 1998
It may be that Tottenham would have recruited a foreigner even without the neighbours’ high-profile hire; they had, after all, appointed Ossie Ardiles in 1993. But former Grasshoppers gaffer Gross’s fumbling nine-month reign ticked all the wrong boxes.
The misjudged photo opportunity with the Travelcard, supposed to show empathy with the fans, made him look like a lost tourist. He couldn’t win over the players who hated his iron-rod training regime (they reported back for pre-season training before the France 98 final), the journalists who derided his communication skills, or the fans who saw poor results with no discernible plan to improve them. Meanwhile, Arsenal were doing the Double. Tough gig.
It all led to Spurs’ publicity-magnet chairman Alan Sugar getting the kind of attention he doesn’t like, and the axe fell three games into the season. Gross returned to Switzerland and success; instead of hiring an imitation Arsenal manager, Sugar hired George Graham.
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