In 25 years of the Premier League, starting XIs comprised entirely of foreign footballers have become a common theme. But on the opening weekend of the competition there were just 13 players from beyond Great Britain and Ireland who lined up across the new top flight.
The likes of Manchester City’s Michel Vonk, Oldham’s Gunnar Halle and QPR’s Jan Stejskal paved the way for the influx that was about to follow as the Premier League grew to the behemoth it is today.
Those early pioneers who emigrated to England to expand their horizons knew little about what would become of the league as it changed the face of the game. Now 70 per cent of those playing in the Premier League come from foreign shores.
Dutchman Vonk moved to City in the spring of 1992, just months before the Premier League changed everything, heading to Maine Road for £500,000 after a successful trial under Peter Reid.
“As a young player I looked to leagues abroad, which ones I’d liked to play in. Obviously you look at the big leagues like England, and it was a surprise but a great advantage for me to go,” Vonk told The Set Pieces.
“At first it was not known, like it is now, for a player to go from Holland to England, so it was quite big news.”
Just down the road at Boundary Park, Norwegian full-back Halle had been snapped up by Oldham after scoring a wondergoal in a trial match against Scunthorpe.
“We were watching English football every Saturday as it’s very popular in Norway, but I wasn’t really thinking about it so much,” Halle recalls.
“When the offer came I didn’t hesitate at all, even though my wife was pregnant at the time, so she came a few months later in the summer. Everything went well for me, so I was very happy that I did it.”
Adapting to English football in the old First Division, the foreign contingent realised the steep learning curve in the change of styles. QPR goalkeeper Stejskal could see the challenges immediately as he adjusted to his new surroundings after moving from Sparta Prague to Loftus Road in 1990.
“The difference between what I was used to and the football in England was huge. It wasn’t comparable,” Stejskal told The Set Pieces. “The biggest differences were the game was more faster, aggressive, and of course the atmosphere at the stadiums was outstanding.”
Things would change drastically for all three once the Premier League came into effect in the summer of 1992.
Both Vonk and Stejskal featured in the first televised Monday Night Football of this new era as Manchester City hosted QPR. It was a warm August evening at Maine Road, consisting of loud music, Richard Keys, cheerleaders and parachutists.
“[It was] the announcement of the start of the Premier League by Sky Sports,” Vonk recalls. “It was a big festival. I can remember all the cameras, a man landing on the pitch in a parachute, and all things like that, so it was a big spectacle and it was something new. Now every game is like that!
“I still remember the first day when there were just 13 foreign players in the 22 teams, but if you see the teams now each squad will have 13 foreigners or more.”
Within the dressing rooms few could foresee how the alterations to the league system would change the game forever. On the pitch, not much changed in the short-term, but gradually the impact could be seen further afield.
“It got even more attention from abroad, so more foreign players wanted to play in the Premier League,” Halle explains. “But even in the early days some big players started coming over.”
The trio of Vonk, Halle and Skejskal would go on to have long careers in England, along with many of their early foreign counterparts such as Peter Schmeichel, Anders Limpar and Eric Cantona.
All three would become cult figures at their respective clubs, standing out for their continental attributes but, most importantly, backing up the faith shown by their managers on the pitch.
“I arrived at City and did my job. I was a good defender, my game was something that people liked. I was an aggressive defender, I was strong, I was good in the air and it suited the game City wanted to play whether you’re a foreigner or a homegrown player,” says Vonk.
“It didn’t matter [where you were from]. I remember when Uwe Rosler came over later on. He scored goals and the fans took him to their heart.”
Halle stayed for a further ten years, including spells at Leeds and Bradford, and witnessed the Premier League’s evolution first hand.
“It changed dramatically over the ten years I was there. I don’t know how many foreigners are there now but it was growing every year and you saw that from the first year, with the 13 who started, and then more and more came in.
“The league was popular, so good players wanted to come over and play in the Premier League, and [the clubs] could pay good wages, which was probably part of it.”
When Vonk started life in England, the Manchester City chairman was Peter Swales, who wasn’t known for his enormous spending. To see what has become of the Premier League now, summed up by the changes at his former club, has been surprising for the Dutchman.
“It’s amazing. If you look at the clubs owned by foreign investors, [they are] so wealthy. I can remember Peter Swales being the club owner and if you look at it now it’s such a big, big difference. Every club has so much money to spend. It’s crazy really.
“Nobody could have imagined the amount of money spent on players [today]. If you were a good player at that time, like Alan Shearer who went for £15 million from Blackburn to Newcastle [in 1996] … if he was sold now you’re looking at £90 – 100 million, it’s ridiculous.”
For Halle, the fact that he could always watch English football in his homeland was perhaps a sign of the appeal that was about to explode. Now the Premier League reaches audiences around the globe every weekend, with the new season set to command a greater following than ever.
“It’s unbelievable how big it is,” he reflects. “You see all the clubs going to have pre-season in China. It’s a sign of how quickly it has grown worldwide. Now almost every country watches Premier League football.”