Thirty years ago this summer, between 15 and 17 August 1992, the Premier League kicked off. Heralded as ‘a whole new ball game’ by its primary backers, Sky Sports, in retrospect this has been viewed as the re-birth of English football. One surprising aspect might be the number, or lack, of foreign players. Looking at the opening fixtures of 2022/23, well over half of the players – 170 in total – involved are from outside the UK (not to mention managers or owners). This was not the case in 1992, when only 13 foreign players featured in the new competition’s first games.
There were none from Africa, South America, Germany, Italy or Spain; not all of them were established internationals and very few ‘superstars’; four of them were goalkeepers. For the record, the first goal by a foreign player in the Premier League was scored by Robert Warzycha on 19 August 1992, for Everton in a 3-0 win at Manchester United.
So who were the 13 trailblazers for a new era of English football?
Jan Stejskal (Queens Park Rangers, Czechoslovakia) – Stejskal was one of three Czech goalkeepers in England in the early 1990s, preceded by Ludek Miklosko at West Ham and followed by the late Pavel Srnicek at Newcastle. He joined QPR from Sparta Prague after playing for Czechoslovakia at the 1990 World Cup, their last tournament as a nation. He left for Slavia Prague at the end of the 1993/94 season and won 2 caps for the Czech Republic to add to his 29 for Czechoslovakia.
There were of course more overseas players with the 22 Premier League clubs (reduced to 20 in 1995/96) during the 1992/93 season. 46 appeared throughout the campaign, but for various reasons these 13 were the only ones to feature in the opening fixtures. Liverpool used the most foreign players of any Premier League team over the season – six, among them long-serving Bruce Grobbelaar and Jan Molby. Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United fielded none at all.
There were players who went on to make significant contributions, and many who were only fleeting visitors. Henning Berg went on to win titles with both Blackburn Rovers and Manchester United, and Dwight Yorke impressed for Aston Villa. Oldham’s fantastically-named Dutchman, Orpheo Keizersweerd, managed 45 minutes at Anfield and was never seen again. Yugoslav Predrag Radosavljević (or ‘Preki’) signed for Everton after playing indoor soccer in the US, later becoming an American citizen and playing at the 1998 World Cup. Scandinavia provided 15 players, while nations represented for the first time in England included Bulgaria (Boncho Guentchev at Ipswich Town) as the league became steadily more cosmopolitan. There were no foreign managers (until Arsène Wenger in 1996) but the trickle of overseas signings was soon to become a flood.
For the next season, 1993/94, the number of foreign players had nearly doubled, with 24 featuring on the opening weekend. Ten years after the Premier League’s inception, there had been an almost complete transformation, with over half the players on view now from outside the UK. 2002/03 kicked off with 126 foreign players, representing countries right across the globe. By this time the Premier League had truly gone worldwide, aided by the Bosman ruling of 1995 which opened up full freedom of contract (and movement) and prevented leagues from imposing restrictions on the number of non-nationals. Money was flowing and players such as Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit, Thierry Henry, Juninho and Gianfranco Zola arrived in England; Wenger was followed by Houllier and Ranieri. This was the seismic shift in the Premier League – by 2012/13, the number of foreign players was more or less stable at 136 on opening day, while overseas management structures and ownership were commonplace. Mid-August 1992 already seemed like a distant world.
This piece was kindly written for @TFHBs by Paul Whittle - Born in Leeds at the start of the 1973/74 season, Paul has spent much time playing and watching football ever since. He writes about the game’s history at www.the1888letter.com and is the author Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades (2021)
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