With the Premier League being the most competitive league to play in for players across the world, it is hardly surprising that it attracts the best players from around the world. In the 2019/20 season, only 37% of the players competing in the Premier League were domestic players. Furthermore, incredibly, over 100 nationalities have been represented in the English top flight. However, this statistic would have seemed absurd 40 years ago when the very first overseas players arrived to play in English football’s top flight.
The story of overseas players playing in England started in 1930 when Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman attempted to sign Austrian goalkeeper Rudy Hiden. The move was met with dismay and anger; with one senior Football League official describing the approach as “repulsive”, “offensive” and “a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club”.
However, despite the move being vigorously blocked, it had a significant impact on English football.
The following year, the FA, with the backing of the Ministry of Labour, brought in a rule that declared players who were not British-born subjects could only play for English teams if they had been living here for at least two years. Whilst this qualification did allow players like German goalkeeper Bert Trautman and Chilean striker George Robledo to make a name for themselves in England, it effectively put a stop to any overseas players signing for English teams.
For 47 years this ban remained in place until February 1978, when the European Community ruled that football associations of its member states could no longer deny access to players because of their nationality. So the ban was lifted and in the summer of ’78, the most monumental transfer window in English football history took place.
Argentina had taken the world by storm in 1978, sweeping all other sides away as they stylishly won the World Cup in front of their own fans at the Estadio Monumental. The cavalier approach of the Argentinians, coupled with the lifting of the ban meant that English sides could no longer overlook the abundance of talent that was now available to them across not just Europe, but the world – and it was not long before one club made the first move.
Tottenham Hotspur had gained promotion back to Division One in 1978, under the guidance of Keith Burkinshaw, after a one-year absence from the top flight. So it came as a surprise that it was the new boys, that caused a stir across the footballing world, with a stunning double signing.
Burkinshaw arrived in the Argentine capital just days after Argentina’s World Cup triumph, with the intention of signing Osvaldo Ardiles after a tip-off from Sheffield United manager Harry Haslam. Haslam had been scouting a certain teenage Diego Maradona, before discovering he could not afford him. At this point, he turned his attentions to Alex Sabella, who alerted him that Ardiles was keen to play in England.
Burkinshaw did not require much persuasion and quickly acquired the midfielder’s signature, however just days after he had put pen to paper, Ardiles soon alerted Burkinshaw that his friend and teammate Ricardo Villa also wanted a move. So after getting the green light from the Tottenham board, the duo were snapped up for just £750,000, leaving the world of football stunned.
But how would English football react to Spurs’ earth-shattering double-singing of two World Cup winners? Well, the move was met with great opposition, again, and the secretary of the PFA complained that “every foreign player of standing in our league represents a denial to a UK player of a place in the team”. However that consensus was not shared by many clubs, who decided that they wanted a foreign star of their own, with Ipswich signing Dutch duo Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren, Birmingham bringing in Alberto Tarantini, Sheffield United purchasing Alex Sabella and Ivan Golac joining Southampton.
Not all of the overseas signings of ’78 worked out; however, they heralded the start of a movement that would revolutionise English football.
The signings of Ardiles and Villa did prove to be a masterstroke by Tottenham, however, as both, alongside Glenn Hoddle, helped Spurs to win the FA Cup in 1981, with Villa scoring THAT goal to win it. Ardiles stayed at the club until 1988 helping Tottenham to UEFA Cup success also. The duo were much loved at Tottenham, however, their transition to English football proved challenging initially.
Ardiles said, “At the time, English football was very insular. There was only one way to play, and it was not particularly our style. But we found a happy medium. Glenn Hoddle helped us a lot with that because he played like us anyway.”
This ‘happy medium’ created a fantastic style of play at Tottenham and over the course of the 1980s as more and more overseas players came to England; they were able to revolutionise the typical English way of playing and create much more advanced playing styles.
Gone were the days of English football being all about long balls and tough defending, players like Ardiles and Villa helped give English football a cultural education.
So, in effect, it was the signings of players like Ardiles and Villa among others that laid the foundations for the fantastic football that we witness every week in the Premier League. It was the bravery of managers like Keith Burkinshaw to step into the unknown that started the transition in English football into the game that it is today.
But the question you must yourselves is if that 47-year ban of signing foreign players was not enforced, would English football be in an even more advanced position today?