Well, I am a Spurs fan, and Villa’s magnificent goal in the 1981 FA Cup final replay against Manchester City is one of my earliest football memories. Rightly considered one of the greatest Cup final goals of all time and a celebrated part of FA Cup folklore as a whole, Ricky himself has said that people still regularly ask him about it – and, to this day, it is a big part of his status among the Lilywhite side of North London as a Spurs Legend.
It’s come to McKenzie. What a good tackle by Graham Roberts. And now Galvin. Spurs have got… two to his right and Galvin wants to go on his own. Villa…. AND STILL RICKY VILLA! What a fantastic run. HE’S SCORED! Amazing goal for Ricky Villa! – John Motson
It’s that famous commentary as much as the goal itself which makes the whole thing so memorable, I think. Listening to the legendary John Motson’s enthusiasm is infectious, and you can’t help but share in his delight at Villa’s talent and skills. Motson’s words have echoed down the decades since, and it seemed somehow appropriate to use them for the title of a new blog which begins its life at the end of this, his final season as a BBC commentator.
But the choice of Villa is about more than that. The somewhat unexpected arrival at White Hart Lane of Ricky Villa and his Argentinian compatriot Ossie Ardiles in the summer of 1978 marked a turning point in the history of English football – and we’re still feeling the impact of that unprecedented international transfer several decades into the 21st century.
Villa and Ardiles were, in their way, pioneers. We’re so used to players from all over the world at British clubs these days that it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t always the case. Indeed, there had been a ban on players from abroad for a large chunk of the 20th century, after Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman had attempted to sign an Austrian goalkeeper in 1930. Naturally, this had not gone down well with the English football authorities.
The Football League were distinctly unimpressed with Chapman’s unmitigated gall, pompously describing it as “a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club”. However, the FA was eventually forced to lift the ban in 1978 after a European ruling (probably implemented with much grumbling on behalf of its officials), and Spurs were quick off the mark in exploiting this new freedom of movement for players from other countries.
Although Ossie and Ricky weren’t the first foreign players in the English leagues by any stretch of the imagination (FA rules had allowed players like Manchester City’s famous German-born keeper Bert Trautmann to play if they met a two-year residency rule), the South American duo were among the first really big names to make the journey to the UK – and to succeed so very far from home.
At the time, English football was very insular. There was one way to play and it was not particularly our style. But we found a happy medium. Glenn Hoddle helped a lot with that because he played like us anyway – Ossie Ardiles on joining Spurs in 1978
They’d just won the World Cup with Argentina, and radiated South American poise and cool on and off the pitch (Villa, of course, scored on his Spurs debut), even famously being photographed outside White Hart Lane not long after their arrival in a pair of very 1970s sporty-looking cars!
In that respect, you might argue that very little has changed in the forty years since, but, shiny new motors or not, the then Spurs manager Keith ‘The General’ Burkinshaw’s instincts had proved to be good and the two Argentinians were a huge hit with the fans almost immediately.
We were the first ones arriving to the league and this was an honour for us. The first times in England were hard because we didn’t know the language, but the club supported us a lot and people were also very warm. This made us feel comfortable… I think that the arrival of foreign players gives the Premiership prestige. I also believe that the step of Ossie and mine was successful and it opened doors to future players – Ricky Villa on the impact of arriving at Spurs in 1978
But not everyone was happy, unsurprisingly. PFA secretary Cliff Lloyd sniffily announced that “[e]very foreign player of standing in our league represents a denial to a UK player of a place in the team.” And the PFA’s chairman, Gordon Taylor, added ominously: “There could already be two players out of a job at Tottenham.” Ossie’s description of English football in the late 1970s as “insular” certainly looks pretty spot on here…
You can still hear variations on such negative comments floating around in the game today, but it hasn’t stopped the influx of glorious footballing talent arriving in Britain from far-flung lands. And, in turn, that hasn’t stopped the development of a new generation of potentially world-class English players coming up through the ranks at clubs like Spurs in recent years.
The cosmopolitan nature of English top flight football as we know it now arguably truly began on that summer’s day in 1978 when two young and slightly confused Argentinians arrived in North London, and went on to win the hearts of a nation traditionally somewhat suspicious of ‘foreign’ players.
As Ricky says, their arrival “opened doors” for several generations of players from all over the world, which has resulted in what is now one of the most exciting (albeit often frustrating!) league structures anywhere. If Keith Burkinshaw had not taken the risk of signing those two young men from Argentina after the transfer ban was lifted, modern English football would be very different indeed.
So yeah, it’s still Ricky Villa…