Argie invaders

In 1978, players from South America started to revitalise our game

In August 1978, on the first day of the new season, I went to Nottingham to see Ardiles and Villa, who had already been given pronounceable first names, Ossie and Ricky. It felt as if something unusual was happening. Little did we know it at the time, but it was a trickle in what became a flood.

Keith Burkinshaw, one of Spurs's many non-memorable managers, had surprised the football world by popping over to Argentina, just after their World Cup success, and signing the two of them for £700,000. "It was as if the janitor had gone off to buy a pot of paint," reported the Guardian, "and had come back with a Velázquez."

More than 10,000 amazed Spurs fans turned up to watch them training. I spoke to several Spurs players about their own feelings (I'd done a book about the team and still knew many of them). Some were worried that their places were in jeopardy; but most were on their toes. "No one wants to look a mug in front of the new lads," as Steve Perryman put it.

Ossie surprised them all by his English, though at first he pretended not to know any. "Pass the salt," they'd say to him at lunch. He'd pass the pepper. "No the salt, dum dum." And Ossie passed his knife. One move ahead, you see.

Behind his back, they'd been calling him the Little Fella, until they decided it was a bit rude, so he was asked what his nickname was back home. "Lalo," he replied. None of them had O-level Spanish, so he translated for them: "Little fellow."

They were not the UK's first foreign players, but, coming as a double, they made the biggest impact. They had been expected to go to a Spanish or Italian club, with closer cultural and linguistic ties, bigger wages, better weather. There was no tradition of South Americans playing here, though there had been the odd European washed up on these shores. A German called Max Seeburg turned out for Chelsea, Spurs, Burnley, Grimsby and Reading between 1907 and 1914.

From 1931 to 1976, the FA banned foreign players unless they'd lived here for two years. It was one reason Bert Trautmann, Man City's goalkeeper who helped them win the FA Cup of 1956 with a broken neck, managed to get a game. He'd been a German prisoner of war. Which probably hadn't been a lot of fun, but it did give him residency.

Last Sunday, despite the heatwave here in Lakeland, I was in front of the telly to see West Ham's two new Argentinians. As with Spurs, there must have been several players well pissed off by the arrivals, so it was smart of Alan Pardew to start them on the bench. Mascherano stayed there. Tévez, who looked good in the World Cup, with the raw energy of Rooney, came on for the last half-hour. He was nervous at first, but then made some good bursts. It ended 1-1, the same score as Forest-Spurs 28 years ago.

Back then, Spurs had just come up from the Second Division. The Argies were an attempt to introduce a bit of excitement and glamour, show that Spurs were back. Judging by the crowds and press coverage, that bit did work.

On that first day, no one was sure if it would pay off, football-wise. But it did, oh it did. Villa didn't last that long, but his goal in the Cup final replay of 1981 against Man City will be shown as long as we have television. Ossie played for Spurs for nine years, taking a diplomatic break during the Falklands war, and then became manager. His name lives on in a Spurs song, "Ossie's Dream", and I still smile when I hear myself saying "Tot-ing-ham" in his memory. Will the new lads become such legends? Or even stay? Doubt it.

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