Vieira handed title of England's finest import

Comprehensive book puts Arsenal captain slightly ahead of Desailly as finest foreign player to grace these shores

By Tim Rich

Since Walter Bowman made his way from Berlin Rangers, Ontario, to Accrington Stanley in 1891, there have been 1,700 foreign footballers to have played professionally in England but none has made such an impact as a certain 20-year-old who arrived in London in September 1996.

Since Walter Bowman made his way from Berlin Rangers, Ontario, to Accrington Stanley in 1891, there have been 1,700 foreign footballers to have played professionally in England but none has made such an impact as a certain 20-year-old who arrived in London in September 1996.

Patrick Vieira was yesterday named as the best foreigner to have played in the Football League or Premiership by a panel of 20 experts, including three former England managers, interviewed for England Their England, a comprehensive book on the impact of overseas players on the domestic game, written by The Independent journalist, Nick Harris.

Vieira, who was virtually unknown when Arsenal signed him from Milan on the orders of their soon-to-be-appointed manager, Arsène Wenger, for £3.5m, won narrowly from Chelsea's Marcel Desailly and his Highbury team-mate, Thierry Henry. The panel was asked to select an all-time foreign XI and also to choose a captain or "best of the best". Vieira, Desailly and Henry - all, significantly, French - appeared in 17 of the 20 teams but Vieira won when the captaincy was used as a tie-breaker.

Vieira may have been the best but the most successful came from Zimbabwe not France. In the shadow of his trials for match-fixing, Bruce Grobbelaar's skills as a goalkeeper have tended to be forgotten, yet he won 13 major honours with Liverpool. Another goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, picked up 10 with Manchester United.

Wenger, and his great rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, who have spent a largely fruitless summer trying to entice overseas footballers to Highbury and Old Trafford, can take comfort from the fact they have each signed three of the 11 men who make up the All Time Foreign XI. Many eyebrows in Manchester and beyond will be raised by the appearance of Mikaël Silvestre instead of Ruud van Nistelrooy in the team, a result of many of the panel selecting a side in formation. There have been very few high-quality imported left-backs.

John Hewie would probably not class himself as high quality but the South African, who was part of Charlton's defence in the 1950s, won Sir Bobby Robson's vote. "He took no prisoners," the Newcastle manager recalled. "He rattled you. I didn't like playing against him and I didn't like him." Robson's selections are interesting in other ways. Of the two great Dutchmen he brought to Ipswich Town, he selected Frans Thijssen ahead of Arnold Mühren, although the latter makes it into the all-time team and the former does not. Howard Wilkinson, curiously, chooses Eric Cantona, whose sale to Manchester United threw a pall over his regime at Leeds United.

While Vieira's contribution to Arsenal's resurgence under Wenger has been unquestioned, many will regret that he was not pipped by Gianfranco Zola. For seven years at Stamford Bridge, Zola's play was consistently exceptional and nothing became him so much as the manner of his departure, refusing the roubles dangled in front of him by Chelsea's new owner, Roman Abramovich, because it would break a promise he had given to return to Sardinia to play for Cagliari in Serie B. One of the most remarkable things about England Their England is that Zola did not win a vote from his own manager, Claudio Ranieri, who selected Ruud Gullit, whose contribution to Chelsea as a player was more symbolic than concrete.

Given that Chelsea have fielded entire teams of foreigners, it will surprise few to learn that they have bought more overseas players (Harris excluded Irish players from the reckoning) than any other club - 63. It will surprise plenty that Manchester City, who when they were still called Ardwick signed Bowman from Accrington, were second with 59 while Coventry City have bought 58.

They were not all from the forgettable Viorel Moldovan years, either. One of the first was Emilo Aldecoa, a Basque refugee from the Spanish Civil War, who spent one season at Highfield Road in the Third Division South before returning to win two La Liga titles in slightly more grandiose surroundings at Barcelona. Coventry also signed the first non-white South African to play league football in England, Steve Mokone, whose career lurched between Barcelona, Barnsley and Torino and who ended up serving eight years in an American jail for an acid attack on his wife.

It may be a coincidence but of the 20 teams that make up the current Premiership, only Leicester City have signed fewer foreigners than Manchester United - even Stoke City and Walsall have fielded more. The key to Ferguson's rule at Old Trafford is that the spine of his side has been English-speaking with foreigners such as Schmeichel and Van Nistelrooy brought in to add something specific to the mix. As a formula for signing men who only have football as a common language, it can be said to have worked pretty well.

* All Time Foreign XI: Schmeichel, Desailly, Silvestre, Pires, Ardiles, Gullit, Vieira, Mühren, Zola, Cantona, Henry.

England Their England by Nick Harris is published by Pitch at £18.99.

CLUBS WITH MOST OVERSEAS-BORN PLAYERS 1888-2003

1 Chelsea 64
2 Manchester City 59
3 Coventry 58
4= Arsenal 56
4= West Ham 56
6 Liverpool 53
7 Newcastle 50
8 Crystal Palace 49
9= Bolton 47
9= Charlton 47
9= Derby 47
9= Fulham 47
9= Portsmouth 47

Selected others:
23= Middlesbrough 41
23= Tottenham 41
28= Leeds 38
28= Wolves 38
30= Everton 37
30= Manchester Utd 37

Includes players who have appeared in first team in the League or major cup competitions.

COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN WITH MOST PLAYERS IN ENGLAND 1888-2003

CountryNoFirst playerLeague club
1 France 183Eugene Langenove (1922)Walsall
2 Netherlands125Gerry Keizer (1930)Arsenal
3 S Africa122 Wilfred Waller (1900)Bolton
4 Australia97 John Cuffe (1905)Glossop
5 Denmark82Nils Middleboe (1913)Chelsea
6 Norway79 Karl Hansen (1949)Huddersfield
7 Germany76 Max Seeburg (1907)Tottenham
8 Italy60Rolando Ugolini (1948)Middlesbro
9 Sweden57 Dan Ekner (1949)Portsmouth
10 US51 Billy Andrews (1908)Oldham
11 Canada 47 *Walter Bowman (1892)Accrington

*The first foreign League player

 

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