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)
Doctor Who? When trailblazer Jozef Venglos baffled fans – and his Aston Villa players
- 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.”
- READ THIS Doctor Who? When trailblazer Jozef Venglos baffled Aston Villa – and English football
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)
- 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.
Next page: The bloke who managed to freak out the Crazy Gang...
6. Gianluca Vialli (Chelsea)
- February 12, 1998 to September 12, 2000
Vialli’s appointment by Chelsea followed the pattern of his predecessor’s: just as Glenn Hoddle signed Ruud Gullit on a free transfer and was then replaced by him as a first-time player-manager, so Gullit watched his own freebie take over as a newbie gaffer.
The Dutchman’s swift exit in February 1998 may well have been hastened by Cuddly Ken Bates’s keenness to promote from within again, and Vialli – who had been somewhat ostracised by the prickly Gullit – continued the Dutchman’s work. Having taken over with Chelsea in the semis of the League Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup, he won both competitions, becoming at a shade under 34 the youngest gaffer to win a UEFA trophy (Andre Villas-Boas later trumped him).
In 1999 Vialli’s Chelsea finished just four points off champions Manchester United and in 2000 they reached the Champions League quarter-final, losing after extra-time to Barcelona, winning the FA Cup as a consolation. But by mid-September Vialli was on his way, having ostracised key players – just like his predecessor.
7. Gerard Houllier (Liverpool, Aston Villa)
- Liverpool: July 1, 1998 to May 24, 2004
- Aston Villa: September 8, 2010 to June 1, 2011
Perhaps previous footballing imports had been more than mere economic migrants, but few can have been as immersed as Houllier. Having studied English at university, he spent a year at a comprehensive school in Liverpool, attending an Anfield match in late 1969 and becoming smitten. Three decades later, he was in the dugout.
The initial joint arrangement with club legend Roy Evans reflected the club’s incompatible desires for continuity and revolution. Evans was soon gone and the former France manager set to business, overhauling the underachieving squad and underwhelming training facilities. It took a while but Liverpool enjoyed a cup treble in 2001, lifting the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup.
That October, Houllier was rushed from Anfield to hospital for an emergency heart op. Although he returned five months later and helped guide Liverpool to a 2nd-placed finish, the story thereafter was marred by poor finishes and failed signings; in summer 2004 he was replaced by another studious European in Rafa Benitez. Houllier had another crack at the Premier League in 2010/11 with Aston Villa, whose fans must now regard the subsequent 9th-placed finish as a very long time ago indeed.
8. Egil Olsen (Wimbledon)
- June 9, 1999 to May 1, 2000
You had to go some at Wimbledon to be seen as odd, but Olsen managed to freak out the Crazy Gang. The appointment made sense: he’d overachieved with Norway, reaching two successive World Cups and 2nd in the FIFA rankings. A sports-science buff, he was supposed to maximise the Dons’ chances of getting back up to the business end of the top flight.
Olsen was an odd type. He’s remembered for always wearing wellies, which could be a quaint affectation (and sparked replica sales in the club shop), but he was also a Marxist who’d memorised the heights of mountains, and would run after members of the public to berate them for smoking.
Those eccentricities might be tolerated if his football worked, but it didn’t. The players didn’t understand his jargon, and he didn’t understand their booze-and-jokes culture. The Norwegian refused to scout opponents, given that he wouldn’t change anyway. And he wanted to implement zonal marking, but his defenders simply couldn’t cope. In late April, they went to relegation rivals Bradford and lost 3-0, two of the goals being headers. After an eighth straight defeat, the players had a post-match punch-up and Olsen was on his way; so were Wimbledon, relegated a fortnight later.
9. Jean Tigana (Fulham)
- July 1, 2000 to April 17, 2003
Tigana joined a club in a rush, Mohamed Al-Fayed bankrolling his pledge to go from fourth tier to top division with Fulham in five years. Tigana completed that job in style by May 2001, taking them into the top tier with 101 points.
The Cottagers settled nicely, especially considering Al-Fayed’s pre-season boast that they would win the league title. That was never on the cards, but they finished 13th and reached the FA Cup semis. It helped that Al-Fayed’s cash (and Fulham’s London location) helped lure star players like Edwin van der Sar, although money wasn’t everything: record signing Steve Marlet looked hopelessly overpriced at £11.5m.
Indeed, it was Marlet’s pricetag and Al-Fayed’s dissatisfaction that helped end Tigana’s reign. He was sacked in the April of his second top-flight season with the Cottagers in lower mid-table; Al-Fayed initially refused to pay the final instalment of Marlet’s fee and sued Tigana – but not for the first time, the courts found against the Egyptian.
10. Claudio Ranieri (Chelsea, Leicester)
- Chelsea: September 18, 2000 to May 31, 2004
- Leicester: July 13, 2015 to date
After Glenn Hoddle, Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli, Chelsea ran out of managerial newbies and switched tack to someone who’d managed seven clubs in 14 seasons. It didn’t go down well: fans chanted Vialli’s name and Ranieri’s halting English led to the nickname ‘Clownio’.
His Chelsea rotations led to another disparaging tag of Tinkerman, but he signed Frank Lampard and nurtured John Terry. He also got Chelsea into the Champions League, encouraging the 2003 Roman Abramovich takeover which numbered his days. Finishing second to Arsenal’s Invincibles wasn’t good enough, and despite a popular campaign to save him he was sacked: nice guys don’t come first.
Or do they? After taking Juventus to third, and Roma and Monaco to second, the Italian was tempted back to England by Leicester. In an unfolding season-long fairy tale to melt the hardest heart, he benevolently led his team to the title amid a flurry of lovably avuncular behaviour, media-satiating soundbites and no little managerial savoir-faire.
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