It seems inconceivable to us today, but for almost 50 years the FA banned English clubs from fielding foreign players.

How did it come about? What happened when it was lifted?

For the origins, you have to blame Arsenal. Well, not exactly, but it certainly emanated with legendary manager Herbert Chapman. The same Mr Chapman who won four league championships in 10 years during the 1920s and ’30s.

During his time at Arsenal he tried to sign Austrian goalkeeper, Rudy Hiden. Hiden was part of the fabulous ‘Wunderteam’ who swept all before them during the ’20s. Arsenal agreed a fee with his club, Vienna and he made his way to Dover looking forward to his new life in London. Arsenal had even found him some work as a chef, so when he landed in England it was as good as a ‘done deal’. Or so he thought.

The FA had other ideas.

There were complaints from other clubs who considered it ‘repulsive’ and ‘bad for team spirit’ if players couldn’t understand each other. They also saw it as a weakness to have to bring in players from another country. The government agreed and refused to let Hiden play. The Ministry of Labour Minister, Margaret Bondfield pronounced:

“The Ministry of Labour states that professional foreign footballers are not to be allowed to play for English teams. This ruling has been promulgated in the view of the unemployment throughout the country”

The FA subsequently introduced a strict ‘no foreigners’ rule.

This ban lasted until just after the 1978 World Cup in Argentina.

Several managers were keen to delve straight into the rich pot of talent from around the world. Initially, Argentina was the destination of their interest. You would’ve thought they’d go for English-speaking countries first but there was a belief the players could learn the language as they went along.

Sheffield United’s manager, Harry Haslam, was one of the first to drink from the poisoned chalice. He’d been following an exciting young player from Argentina who few in Europe had heard of. Seventeen-year-old Diego Maradona was in the initial squad of 40 which were holed up in a pre-tournament camp. National manager, Cesar Luis Menotti agonised for weeks whether to include his young star in the home tournament. Eventually he decided to wait. By this time, Maradona’s value was increasing at Argentinos Juniors and so Haslam had to concede he couldn’t afford him.

He turned his attention to another player. Alex Sabella was a 24-year-old attacking midfielder playing for River Plate. United paid £600,000 for him and he lasted two years at Bramall Lane before moving to Leeds United. His stay in England wasn’t a particularly successful one and he returned to Argentina in December 1981.

While Haslam was speaking to Sabella, the player told him of a friend of his who was interested in coming to England. Ossie Ardiles was a midfield player at Huracan and had been a regular in the Argentina side which won the World Cup. Haslam could only afford one player so he alerted Tottenham manager, Keith Burkinshaw, to the possibility there was a player to purchase.

Tottenham had only just won promotion back to the First Division after being relegated the season before. But the club was ambitious, or at least keen to hold onto their status this time and so Burkinshaw landed in Buenos Aires to sign his man. Once he had put pen to paper, Ardiles told him of a friend of his who was also keen to move to England. Ricky Villa had been a roommate of Ardiles during the tournament, but he’d only made two sub appearances. Ardiles introduced Villa to Burkinshaw and the Tottenham manager chose them both.

It was a major coup which no one in the press had had an inkling about. Spurs got the pair for £750,000.

The pair struggled at first, both with the language and the style of play. Villa scored on his debut against league champions, Nottingham Forest, but they both found it hard to adapt. With the two South Americans, the Spurs midfield looked quite attractive but the lack of any real bite in the middle meant they were never going to challenge for any league title. The cups, however, were where they were more suited. Both Ardiles and Villa were instrumental in the FA Cup run to the Final in 1981. Villa scored a brilliant goal in the semi-final against Wolves and then his goal in the final replay against Manchester City was one of the best cup final goals Wembley has seen. Spurs reached the final the year later but because of the Falklands War, Villa decided not to play. The conflict had also meant a premature end to Ardiles’ English career as he moved to France for PSG.

The buzz around English football also lead to other clubs choosing to take the plunge. Alberto Tarantini was playing at left-back for Argentina during the World Cup yet before the tournament, he had a contractual dispute with Boca Juniors and left. Boca put pressure on all the other Argentine clubs not to sign him either so when Birmingham City came sniffing, he was very interested.

Ironically, he made his debut lining up against a Tottenham side with Villa and Ardiles. Unfortunately, his time at St. Andrews wasn’t particularly auspicious. He lasted 23 games making his mark more through ill-discipline than any displays of magic with the ball. He flattened Manchester United’s Brian Greenhoff in one incident and his career in England ended with him wading into the crowd to punch a spectator.

A few years ago his contract was available on eBay and revealed the perks the club were prepared to give him, or the ones he had at least demanded. The fact they were going to pay any fines may have given him licence to behave badly. He returned to Argentina and then played in the 1982 World Cup side.

At the end of the 1977-78 season, Ipswich Town won the FA Cup against overwhelming favourites, Arsenal. Bobby Robson masterminded the East Anglian club’s rise to be one of the top sides in the country. At the start of the 1978-79 season, he sold midfielder Brian Talbot to Arsenal for £450,000. His replacement was a little known Dutchman, Arnold Muhren. The Twente Enschede player had a wonderful left-foot, was a good passer but as yet not recognised internationally. Once he moved to England that all changed for him. He made his debut for the Dutch national team later that season and was still in the side which won the European Championships in West Germany in 1988. With Ipswich, he won the UEFA Cup before moving to Manchester United to win the FA Cup.

A year after Muhren thrilled the public at Portman Road, his former Twente teammate Frans Thijssen joined him. The two would add some much welcome panache to an unfashionable club. Muhren was Ipswich’s Player of the Year in 1979, with Thijssen picking up the award a year later. Robson had spent £350,000 of the Talbot money on the two Dutchmen and collectively they offered far more.

Not to be outdone by all this transfer excitement, Southampton’s manager Lawrie McMenemy was keen to make sure his club didn’t fall behind. Yugoslavia’s communist authorities had a rule that no player could move abroad before the age of 28, and McMenemy had highlighted a right-back at Partizan Belgrade who he believed could improve his team. Ivan Golac was a swashbuckling type of defender who would make surging runs along the touchline. McMenemy paid £50,000 for him and he soon became a crowd favourite. After initial complications with his work permit, he made his debut against Bolton Wanderers in August 1978. He was part of the team which lost in the League Cup Final to Nottingham Forest a year later. Overall he played almost 200 times for the Saints and was voted Player of the Year in 1981.

A contract dispute threatened his career at the Dell in 1982 but he eventually returned to help them run Liverpool close for the title in 1984. He had a loan spell at Portsmouth before retiring in 1986.

The television coverage for World Cup 1978 was a huge event, even with England failing to make it to the finals. But it gave us a window into the world of other footballing nations. Through the coverage, one player was picked up by a club after an off-the-cuff remark from commentator Barry Davies – Kazimierz Deyna, the captain of Poland. During one of the group games Davies said on commentary that Deyna was keen for a move to Europe. Word got back to Manchester City Chairman, Peter Swales, who made his move for the player. He was part of the Poland side which won the gold medal at the 1972 Olympics when he was joint top scorer. He won the bronze medal four years later. In 1974 he was ranked third in the European Footballer of the Year behind Cruyff and Beckenbauer.

Once City made their interest known there were plenty of hoops to jump through first. Deyna was a captain in the Polish army, so they had to secure his release from military service first. Then they agreed a deal with his club, Legia Warsaw, which took time too. Eventually, the two clubs settled on £100,000 and he made his way to Maine Road to make his debut on November 1978.

The transfer fee was not your usual fare either. The Polish FA delayed his registration until a train arrived bearing photocopying machines and medical instruments and some US dollars. Apparently the US cash was used by the Poles to send their athletes to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Unfortunately, his stay in England wasn’t as successful as his reputation promised, since injuries took their toll. In 1980, manager Tony Book was sacked and in came Malcolm Allison. Deyna spent most of his time under Allison in the reserves, but he outlasted the flamboyant manager. However, when John Bond took over he was again sidelined, so a move seemed inevitable. He went to North America to play for the San Jose Earthquakes. For some in England, his finest hour was an appearance in the film ‘Escape to Victory’. Tragically he lost his life in a car crash in 1989 aged just 41.

A trickle, not a flood

You’d have thought there would be a flood of players coming to our shores after the ban, but it was more of a trickle. Much of this can be blamed on the suspicion still held within the country that foreign players were more mysterious and less trustworthy than their English counterparts. This combined with the fact that with the suspicion from other countries of the style of English football not being conducive to what they saw at home.

Ossie Ardiles admitted years later he was discouraged from coming to England by many around him who highlighted England’s penchant for the long ball game.

You’re a midfielder”, they said, “the ball spends so much time in the air it bypasses midfield”.

Instead of being put off, Ardiles saw this as a challenge. However, in practice he was more challenged by the physical nature of the game.

The 1978 World Cup certainly put some players in the shop window, but it is telling how few real ‘stars’ came over here. Generally, the players who came over were unknowns. This added to the excitement for the local fans that their club may have unearthed a gem no one else discovered.

The stars from the World Cup were all playing elsewhere in Europe. Mario Kempes, Hans Krankl and Johan Neeskens (Spain), Paolo Rossi (Italy), Karl-Heinz Rummenigge (West Germany), Robbie Rensenbrink and Arie Haan (Belgium).

Many overseas players became crowd favourites at their clubs. Being from another country added a certain attraction for locals. Their mannerisms, their ability to have a go at the language, and particularly their work rate singled them out for fans’ admiration.

Gradually as the ’70s moved into the ’80s, more players made their name over here, with a wave of Scandinavian players making their mark. Of course, things didn’t really take off until the formation of the Premier League.

On the first weekend of the Premier League, just 13 non-British and Irish players were selected. These days some clubs struggle to find a place for English-qualified players.

Gone are the calls against overseas players taking local jobs. Gone is the worry the country looks weak if it cannot produce local talent instead. England is even comfortable with employing a non-English born man as national manager.

It is still the case that few players come over here when they’re at the peak of their game. They either make their name here before moving elsewhere, or they come here in the twilight of their years.

Another feature in recent years is how few players from these shores ply their trade abroad. Back in the ’80s, there was a wave of players from here moving to different countries. This could be part of another piece in days to come.