The Romance of the Foreign SFL star

Football at the highest level is a global game – players are traded across continents as much for their ability to exploit new commercial markets as the space behind the opposition back four. Nobody thinks twice if a Barclays Premier League or Champions League match features ten or more different nationalities. Indeed, even the SPL can be a veritable United Nations, with two South Koreans, a Kenyan and an Isreali amongst those picking up winners medals last season.

However, the current Scottish Football League is unlikely to win awards for its ethnic diversity. A quick scan of the weekend’s line-ups unearths only a handful of non-Scottish names and many of them – Bolochoweckyj, Janczyk and Rutkiewicz, for instance – belong to players who will be more familiar with Tennents than Tyskie.

When your club is linked with a German-born Bosnian-Croat striker and a midfielder from Holland with international caps for the Philippines, it is a genuine cause for excitement. Forget Rory McAllister’s novel approach to career progression, or Gavin Swankie crossing the great Angus divide – these are the transfer stories that enthuse the imaginations of SFL supporters. The unknown is not feared; instead it is embraced. National footballing stereotypes come to the fore and we are convinced that these overseas imports must be good.

Why? Well, the assumption – for better or worse – is always that the foreign player has been trained from a different, more technical approach and has something different to offer to his team and its supporters. At the very least, the uncommon name intrigues.

One name standing out amongst the “Macs” this season is Ruben Garcia Rey. It is doubtful that Cowdenbeath supporters knew much about the Spanish midfielder a few weeks ago, but two substitute appearances in a pre-season tour of the Highlands and some forensic Google searches were enough to have supporters of the Blue Brazil certain they had unearthed a potential superstar. “Transfer News! Spaniard Signs!” proclaimed the Cowdenbeath website and one fan bullishly posted on Pie and Bovril:

“He is a player, he’s technically better than anyone we have in the squad and if he adapts he will be a star. He grew up playing in the Real Madrid youth teams, his ability isn’t in doubt. The only question is the lifestyle change”.

What is not to get excited about?! Real Madrid! Ruben (it is common for those from the Iberian peninsula to be called by their first name) was substituted after 45 minutes on his debut. And again in his second game. And didn’t feature against Fife rivals Dunfermline in Cowden’s league opener. And didn’t even make the squad in yesterday’s game with Dumbarton. Perhaps some further assimilation into life in Fife is required.

There are not too many Rubens in the lower divisions these days. Whether it’s the European labour market, less money in the game or the fact that clubs are now placing a greater emphasis on young, local players, the Scottish Football League can seem a less colourful place without the exotic talents of overseas stars, where names require an unconventional manipulation of the tongue. It wasn’t always the case – the late-nineties and early-noughties were a golden era for aficionados of foreign footballers and the SFL.

One of the first mass movements of overseas players into the lower leagues centred on Airdrie, where former Barcelona and Spurs striker Steve Archibald persuaded a host of Spaniards to swap Las Ramblas, Las Playas (and Las Ketchup) for Lanarkshire.

Within a week of being awarded preferred bidder status by the administrators running the financially stricken Airdrieonians in July 2000, Archibald had signed seven overseas players:

  • Javier Sanchez Broto
  • Antonio Calderon
  • David Fernandez
  • Ramiro Gonzalez
  • Fabrice Moreau
  • Martin Prest
  • Jesus Sanjuan

A number of these players became established names in Scotland – just not necessarily at Airdrieonians. Archibald ultimately failed to conclude the purchase, which led to his own departure and the foreign players’ exodus in March 2001. This ultimately marked the downfall of the the club, but not before Airdrie – featuring three Spaniards, a Frenchman and an Argentinean in the starting line-up – won the Challenge Cup in November 2000.

A few years later, Claude Anelka attempted a similar project at Raith Rovers. Ironically, it was one of the Spaniards brought to Scotland by Archibald, the elegant playmaker Antonio Calderón, who was player-manager at Starks Park at the time of the Frenchmen’s arrival. After leaving Airdrie, Calderon went to Kilmarnock, then took charge of Rovers. He guided them to the Second Division championship in 2003, before securing First Division safety on the penultimate day of the 2003-04 season with a team featuring a number of Archibald’s imports.

Things changed when Anelka entered the scene. Better known as “Nicholas’s brother”, a £320,000 investment gave the Frenchman the keys to Starks Park, where he installed himself as manager. A plethora of continental players arrived in Fife, but whereas Archibald brought in players with La Liga experience, Anelka was recruiting from the sixth and seventh tier of French football.

Overseas footballers of genuine quality had played for Rovers in the preceding seasons: Nacho Novo scored 19 goals in 33 games after signing from SD Huesca in 2001, and Trinidadians Marvin Andrews and Tony Rougier are still held in high regard in Kirkcaldy. By contrast, Anelka’s appointment as manager was generally a disaster. After ten games, his record stood as:

Won 0, Drawn 1, Lost 9; Goals For 7, Goals Against 22; Points 1.

Rovers ended the season well adrift at the foot of the table having collected just 16 points. The indefatigable Turnbull Hutton, in resigning from his post as chairman, succinctly described Anelka’s recruits as “donkeys”.

Meanwhile, around the same time, it seemed as if every other week fans were treated to an on-trial Frenchman, Scandinavian or other foreign nationality at Ayr United. Some were good, some were bad and few lasted more than a couple of games – but each brought a new level of intrigue.

The Finn Tommi Paavola netted twice on his debut, but made just two more appearances before returning to FinnPa – not long enough for supporters to develop the theme of taking meringue-based desserts to away games in honour of the striker. Italian defender Claudio Valletta played five games before mysteriously disappearing without paying his hotel bill. Former French international Luc Sonor – he earned one of his six caps in Scotland’s famous 2-0 win at Hampden in 1989 – played nine games during the twilight of a career that had seen him win the French championship with Arsène Wenger’s Monaco. The idea of a former French internationalist ending his career in the SFL these days seems absurd.

Other overseas players left a more enduring legacy at Somerset Park. Franck Rolling was perhaps the most cultured defender to have played for the club before moving onto Leicester City for £100,000. Laurent Djaffo, the languid Frenchman, was a classy player, as was the diminutive midfielder Alain Horace. Horace played a huge part in Ayr last title, the Second Division championship in Season 1996-97, but a cruciate ligament injury suffered during the following pre-season ended his career.

Many overseas players have become cult heroes at SFL clubs. As part of Montrose’s 125th anniversary celebrations in 2004, Ivo Den Bieman was inaugurated into the club’s Hall of Fame. After moving to Scotland to attend Aberdeen University in 1990, the Dutchman played 78 games for the Links Park club at the start of a ten-year career in the SFL, where he also played for Dundee, Ross County, Falkirk, and most notably, Dunfermline. At East End Park, he was voted runner-up in a BBC poll of the Par’s all-time cult heroes (behind one of the best ever foreigner to play for a Scottish club outside the Old Firm, István Kozma). A Dunfermline supporter nominating Den Bieman for the accolade described him as:

“…the least natural Dutchman, who made up for his lack of skill by giving 110% effort every game. Funny way of running, couldn’t cross so didn’t make it as a winger, but as a converted centre-half he was the business.”

Another SFL cult hero from the same BBC poll was born in Glasgow, but sneaks into this account by virtue of Ugandan parentage. Victor Kasule, the son of a Ugandan Professor of Zoology and a Scottish teacher, signed for Albion Rovers as a 17-year-old in 1982, before going onto play for Meadowbank Thistle, Hamilton Academical and Montrose in Scotland.

Kasule was gifted midfielder, robust, quick and creative, and was described by The Guardian as “an armoured car of a winger with a cannon for a shot”. The player earned the nickname “Vodka Vic” (although he much preferred brandy), and it was reported in the Sunday Herald he was once disciplined by three separate clubs within the space of a few months.

Den Bieman and Kasule represent a more innocent era in Scottish football when foreign players arrived in the country because of their playing ability. During the mid-nineties and early-noughties, players were imported for commerical reasons, with a club or an agent hoping to quickly shift their client on to Rangers or Celtic or somewhere in England. In many respects, the increase of foreigners contributed to the decline of Scottish football – it is little coincidence Scotland’s last appearance at a major championship came towards the beginning of this influx.

In the current climate, the only foreign players likely to feature in the SFL are those through a quirk of fate, immigration or employment outside football. There is little economic sense for overseas footballers to come to Scotland’s lower leagues in the hope of securing a lucrative move to a bigger club – and this is perhaps why a foreign star heading for Scottish football’s lower reaches – like Ruben Garcia Rey – is still met with such wonderment.

Incidentally, neither German-born Bosnian-Croat striker Romeo Filipovic or Dutch-Pilipino international Jason De Jong ever played a first team match for Ayr United. It is not certain that De Jong even made it to these shores, but at least Filipovic took part in a warm-up ahead of a match in October 2009. Reports suggested he looked good.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Alistair Gemmell

Alistair Gemmell

An exiled Honest Man since birth, distance from Somerset Park has not diminished Alistair's support of Ayr United. A placemaker by profession, he contributes match previews to the club's online content and once saw Andy Walker in a furniture store in Tillicoultry.

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