My Five: Foreign Football League Stars of the Nineties

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

As the Premier League began to attract increasing numbers of overseas stars in the nineties, the lower leagues remained a largely uncosmopolitan environment, so when a Dutch international, a former Juventus winger and a trio of Spanish ‘amigos’ showed up it tended to grab our attention. We remember five of our favourite Football League foreigners from those heady days…

IVANO BONETTI

Two-time scudetto winners were thin on the ground in England during the mid-nineties. Serie A was Europe’s glamour league at the time, where the best players from around the world went to test themselves, and those of us who didn’t have Sky often chose to watch Football Italia on Channel 4 over the Football League offerings from ITV on Sunday afternoons. However, while the likes of David Platt, Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince were turning out for Italian clubs, former Juventus and Sampdoria winger Ivano Bonetti decided to move the other way in October 1995. Even more surprisingly, the 31-year-old didn’t move to the Premier League, signing instead for cash-strapped First Division side Grimsby Town.

Even more incredibly, Bonetti was reported to have paid half of his own £100,000 transfer fee when he moved to Blundell Park, while the supporters raised money to pay for the other half. Unsurprisingly, he quickly became a hero with the Mariners fans, especially once they had seen him in action.

He made his Grimsby debut in a Coca-Cola Cup tie against Birmingham, during which he impressed as an emergency striker, creating chances for the likes of Paul Jewell and Paul Groves, even as a 1-1 draw saw the Mariners go out 4-2 on aggregate.

The goals followed soon after and by February 1996 he had bagged three in his 19 appearances, but it was his exhilarating play on the ball that made the fans fall in love with the man from Brescia. After scoring the winner against former manager Alan Buckley’s West Brom (below), the co-commentator for local TV crowed: “We’ll sell a few videos of that one!”

Despite his popularity, however, Bonetti’s short stay in Cleethorpes ended in explosive style, following a dressing room bust-up that left him with a fractured cheekbone and the club without one of their finest-ever players just four months after signing him.

At the time, it was said that Grimsby manager Brian Laws had been delivering a withering post-match dressing down to his team when he noticed Bonetti heading towards the cold buffet on the side. Furious, Laws was said to have launched a plate of chicken wings at his star player, but the former Nottingham Forest full-back has since denied that version of events, claiming that blows were exchanged but no food was thrown.

As for Bonetti, he returned to Italy, chastened but too angry to return to the club. In the summer, he agreed a deal with Tranmere, where he joined John Aldridge in a big-name attacking partnership, scoring a single goal in 13 league appearances, although that was a last-minute winner in a 4-3 triumph over Portsmouth that sent those present at Prenton Park berserk.

Bonetti also had a brief spell with Crystal Palace in 1997 and later acted as player-manager of Dundee for two seasons between 2000 and 2002.

JOHN DE WOLF

When a powerfully built centre-back called John De Wolf, with a wild blond mane and a bushy beard, signed for Wolves, it all seemed so perfect. Yet there was more to this move than mere nominative determinism.

The new manager at Molineux in 1994 was Graham Taylor, then looking to restore his reputation after a damaging spell as England boss had ended in failure to qualify for that summer’s World Cup. Taylor’s chances of leading his nation to the finals in the USA had all but ended when England were defeated 2-0 by the Netherlands in October 1993, but while Ronald Koeman’s part in that match has been well-documented, it is less well known that the other Dutch centre-back on the pitch that night was De Wolf.

Taylor didn’t hold it against him, though, splashing out £600,000 on the rugged former Feyenoord man in December 1994 and making him his captain as the West Midlands club set out on what seemed to be an annual failed attempt at promotion to the Premier League.

His aerial prowess and experience of marking some of the world’s best forwards (he had won the league and three Dutch Cups earlier in his career) meant that much was expected of De Wolf in the First Division. He had some high points too, bagging a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over Port Vale (below) and handling Chris Waddle in an impressive League Cup triumph over Sheffield Wednesday. However, the 32-year-old suffered a knee injury and missed the run-in as Wolves missed out on promotion through the play-offs.

Taylor moved on that summer and De Wolf didn’t hit it off with new manager Mark McGhee. It was no surprise, given that the latter’s Reading side had admitted to deliberately targeting the Dutchman by getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and pressuring him in possession as they defeated Wolves 4-2 the previous season.

“He’s a great player but he’s still adjusting to the pace of our game,” Jimmy Quinn had said after the Royals’ victory. “It worked a treat.”

After enduring a nightmare 1995/96 season under his new manager, De Wolf returned to his homeland.

ROBIN VAN DER LAAN

Signed from the Netherlands at a time when anyone with ‘Van der’ in their name jumped out from a Football League team sheet, Robin Van der Laan had the added advantage of resembling a wrestler when he arrived Port Vale in 1991. In four years with the Potteries club, he won the Autoglass Trophy and gained promotion to the First Division (as the Championship was then named) but he was best known for his jackhammer of a shot.

You might say the Dutchman has been damned with faint praise on Wikipedia, where the section entitled ‘Style of play’ consists of a single sentence: “Van der Laan was an excellent set-piece taker.” But let’s focus on the positives here and take a look at his prowess with the dead ball. Port Vale’s former goalkeeper and long-serving assistant coach, Mark Grew, knew what it was like to face a Van der Laan bullet and named him as one of the best free-kick takers he had seen in a Valiants shirt. “He was all about power and, if he struck one, he would either be trying to kill someone in the wall or the keeper,” he said.

Van der Laan moved to Jim Smith’s Derby in 1995, where he was one of three glamorous foreigners in the side, alongside fellow Dutchman Ron Willems and towering Croatian centre-back Igor Stimac. It was here that Van der Laan enjoyed his brief spell in the spotlight, scoring the goal that secured promotion to the Premier League. Now a cult hero, two years in the top flight followed and, with them, all the trappings of such status, including his own caricature collectors’ card. Disappointingly, he also chose to crop his flowing locks at this time, donning a more sensible crew cut for the latter years of his career.

Injury and competition for places meant that opportunities at Derby were limited during the next two seasons. He was loaned to First Division Wolves briefly in 1996/97 and in the summer of 1998 joined Barnsley – just relegated from the Premier League – for three final seasons. Over the course of his career, Van der Laan made 400 league appearances, about three quarters of them in the English Football League.

ROBERTO MARTINEZ

It says something about the excitement surrounding overseas arrivals in England during the nineties that when Roberto Martinez signed for Wigan Athletic at the same time as fellow Spaniards Isidro Diaz and Jesus Seba, the media dubbed them ‘The Three Amigos’ and wasted no time getting the sombreros out at Springfield Park.

All three players arrived from Real Zaragoza, where they had largely been playing for the ‘B’ team, although it was centre-forward Seba who had the most first-team experience. However, while Seba lasted just a single season and right-midfielder Diaz played in England for four years (including brief spells with Wolves and Rochdale as well), it was the central midfielder Martinez who became a household name here.

Over the next six seasons, he made 227 appearances for the Latics, helping them to the Third Division title in 1996/97 and the Auto Windscreens Shield in 1998/99. He was also named in the Third Division Team of the Year in both of his first two seasons in England.

When he eventually left Wigan in 2001, brief spells with Motherwell and Walsall were followed by the start of his second meaningful relationship on British shores, with Swansea City, where he was immediately named captain and helped to lead the team to safety as the prospect of dropping out of the league altogether raised its head in 2003. He remained at the Vetch Field for three seasons, playing a part as they were promoted to the third tier of English football in 2004/05 and winning his second Football League Trophy in 2005/06, this time in its LDV Vans guise.

That summer he made his final move as a player, dropping back down a division in his twilight years to play for Chester City before the opportunity to manage his old club Swansea presented itself in 2007. The rest is a story of an overseas manager in the 21st century and therefore belongs in another article altogether, but the beauty of Martinez’s subsequent success story is that it surely could not have been predicted by anyone when he showed up in Lancashire with his two friends from Aragon in 1995.

RICHARD SNEEKES

If the inclusion of Robin van der Laan and John De Wolf have proved anything it’s that Football League clubs loved a long-haired Dutchman in the nineties and Bolton continued that trend when they signed rapid former Netherlands Under-21s winger Richard Sneekes from Swiss club FC Locarno in August 1994.

A month after arriving in England, he was already being hailed as a “flying Dutchman” by one cliche-happy reporter at the Daily Mirror, who cooed about the wideman’s “thunderbolt” of a goal and two assists for John McGinlay in a 3-0 win over Luton, under the gloriously gibberish headline, “Hide and Sneekes”.

In his first season in England, Sneekes reached the League Cup final and gained promotion to the Premier League with Bolton, but the following campaign was a struggle for the Trotters and the Dutchman had been moved on to West Brom before relegation was confirmed in 1996.

It was at the Hawthorns that Sneekes became a bona fide legend, bagging 10 goals in 13 games immediately after arriving, prompting supporters to turn up to games wearing long blond wigs in his honour. He remained at West Brom until 2001, making over 250 league appearances before moving on shortly after losing out to his former club Bolton in the Division One play-off semi-final. Brief spells with Stockport and Hull followed, and then a variety of non-league cameos, both as a player and a coach. Such is his longevity in the English game that Sneekes – who has a son called Jamiroquai – now speaks with a noticeable West Midlands twang.

Dominic Bliss is editor of TheInsideLeft. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty.
Share your memories of overseas Football League favourites from the nineties or, if you disagree with our selection, let us know who you’d have chosen in the comments section below.

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