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?
(Leeds United, France) – The enigmatic Frenchman remains one of the Premier League’s most controversial, and influential figures. Moving to England in the winter of 1991/92 after a series of disciplinary issues in France, Cantona cut short a trial with Sheffield Wednesday to join Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds United. He played a part in their first title win since 1974, scored a hat-trick against Liverpool in the 1992 Charity Shield and another early in the season against Spurs. However a series of run-ins with Wilkinson resulted in a £1 million transfer to Manchester United in November 1992. The rest is English football history – in five turbulent seasons at Old Trafford, Cantona won four more league titles and two FA Cups (including the winner against Liverpool in 1996). His last French cap was won in 1995 after several disputes with national team managers, and he was the only French player in the Football League on his arrival. Hardly any French players had played in England before him.
(Ipswich Town, Canada) – Canadian goalkeeper Forrest spent his entire playing career in England, arriving at Ipswich as a 17-year-old apprentice in 1984. Part of an Ipswich team returning to the top flight after a six-year absence in 1992, he was in goal for a record 9-0 defeat by Manchester United at Old Trafford in March 1995. He made his debut while on loan at Colchester during the 1987/88 season and had a later brief loan spell at Chelsea in 1997, before moving to West Ham in the summer of 1997. He made over 300 league appearances, the bulk of them in over a decade at Ipswich, and won 56 caps for Canada.
(Oldham Athletic, Norway) – One of the first of Egil Olsen’s powerful Norway squad of the 90s to play in England, Halle arrived at Oldham during the 1990/91 season for £280,000. After helping them to promotion to the top division for the first time in 68 years, the versatile Norwegian remained at Oldham until 1996, when he moved to Leeds. His later English clubs were Bradford and Wolves, before he returned to his first club Lillestrøm in 2002. Halle made over 300 league appearances in England, and appeared at the 1994 World Cup among his 64 Norway caps.
(Manchester United, CIS/Russia) – Speedy winger Kanchelskis was one of very few players from the former Soviet Union to play in England when he signed for Manchester United towards the end of the 1990/91 season. He played a major part in United’s successive title wins in 1992/93 and 1993/94 before a surprising £5 million move to Everton in the summer of 1995, where he scored 16 goals in his first season. He was later involved in further big-money moves to Fiorentina and Rangers. His last appearance in English football was for Southampton in 2002. Kanchelskis, born in Ukraine, represented the USSR, the short-lived CIS and finally Russia at international level, appearing at the 1992 and 1996 European Championships.
(Arsenal, Denmark) – Midfielder Jensen moved to Arsenal from Brøndby fresh from scoring in Denmark’s European Championship final win against Germany in June 1992. He was only to score once in 99 Premier League appearances, though he did win the League Cup, FA Cup, and Cup Winners’ Cup while at Highbury. He returned to Brøndby in 1996 and had a spell as assistant manager at Blackburn Rovers in 2011. He played in the 1988 European Championship before the 1992 triumph, among 69 caps for his country.
(Arsenal, Sweden) – Limpar joined Arsenal from Cremonese for £1 million after playing for Sweden at Italia ‘90. He was a league title winner in his first season and impressed with his creative wing play. He moved to Everton for £1.6 million in March 1994 and won the 1995 FA Cup with them. His last English club was Birmingham City for a brief spell in 1997, before returning to Sweden and playing Major League Soccer in the US. He won 58 caps including the 1992 European Championship and was part of the Sweden squad which reached the semi-finals of the USA 1994 World Cup.
(Sheffield Wednesday, Sweden) – Right-back Nilsson was already an established Swedish international when Sheffield Wednesday signed him from IFK Gothenburg for £375,000 at the end of 1989. He was part of a team promoted back to the top division in 1990/91, when they also lifted the League Cup, and stayed at Hillsborough until 1994 and a return to Sweden. Nilsson had a second spell in England with Coventry, again signed by Ron Atkinson, in the Premier League between 1997 and 1999. He was Coventry player-manager in the 2001-2002 season after their relegation. His 116 caps for Sweden included four major tournaments – the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, and the 1992 and 2000 European Championships.
(sub) (Liverpool, Israel) – Israeli striker Rosenthal arrived at Liverpool on loan in the closing stages of the 1989/90 season, scoring seven goals in eight games to help secure the title. Signed permanently from Standard Liège for £1 million, he followed countryman Avi Cohen who had been at Anfield a decade earlier. He made many appearances as a substitute, including the opening day of the Premier League. He joined Tottenham during the 1993/94 season and ended his career at Watford. Rosenthal was capped 60 times during a long international career for Israel between 1983 and 1997.
(Manchester United, Denmark) – Schmeichel was starting his second season at Old Trafford in 1992/93, after signing from Brøndby in summer 1995 for a bargain £505,000. His reputation was enhanced by the role he played in Denmark’s 1992 European Championship win, and he became the Premier League’s top keeper during the trophy-filled 1990s, culminating in the ‘Treble’ of 1999 and his departure to Portugal with Sporting. He returned to play his final two seasons in the Premier League, with Aston Villa and Manchester City before retiring in 2003. Schmeichel played at four European Championships between 1988 and 2000, and the 1998 World Cup, ending with 129 international appearances. His son Kasper was also a Premier League and FA Cup winner with Leicester, and the Danish national team goalkeeper.
(Wimbledon, Netherlands) – Dutch goalkeeper Segers had been playing in England longer than any of the other 12 overseas players appearing on opening day, having been signed from PSV Eindhoven by Nottingham Forest in 1984. He struggled to establish himself under Brian Clough, going on loan to Stoke, Sheffield United and Dunfermline before a permanent move to Wimbledon in summer 1988. He stayed for eight years, usually as first choice, though he faced match-fixing allegations in 1994 and a criminal trial three years later. He was a reserve keeper at his last clubs, Wolves and Tottenham, making his final Premier League appearance in 1998/99. Unlike his predecessor in goal at the City Ground, Hans Van Breukelen, he was never capped by the Netherlands.
(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.
(Manchester City, Netherlands) – Vonk was a tough defender signed by Manchester City from SVV Dordrecht towards the end of the 1991/92 season for £500,000. He played 91 times in the league for City before a short spell at Oldham in 1995, who sold him on to Sheffield United. He moved to MVV Maastricht in 1998. Vonk never made it to international level in an era when the Dutch were spoilt for choice.
(sub) (Everton, Poland) – A number of Poles had played in the Football League after restrictions were lifted in 1978, but Warzycha was the first for a decade. Everton bought him for £500,000 from Górnik Zabrze in 1991, and when he scored at Old Trafford four days later, it was not only the first goal by a foreign player in the Premier League, but the only one scored by a Polish player until January 2015. A stylish winger, Warzycha left Everton at the end of 1993/94, playing in Hungary and then US Major League Soccer. He was capped 47 times by Poland during a barren period for the national team, failing to qualify for any major tournament.
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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