No matter how much money Sky and BT Sport find down the back of the studio sofas of Chris Kamara or Fletch & Sav to grease the alloy wheels of the Premier League, there may never be a more thrilling time for transfers than smack bang in the middle of the 1990s.
It was a boom period not defined by quantity but by the sheer quality of thoroughbreds suddenly attracted to England by the promise of playing alongside Carlton Palmer, Paul Furlong or Kevin Pressman. No-brainer Bosman signings were far cooler than setting transfer records, and the idea of knowing or caring about agents’ fees was but a glint in modern football’s eye.
This was the Foreign Influx™. Soon to be blamed for most of English football’s woes, ranging from the dwindling pool of native young talent to shirt-pulling at corners, it nevertheless promised a short-to-medium-term elixir for a domestic game still finding its feet since the breakaway of the elite clubs (and Oldham Athletic) in 1992.
Only 13 non-British players kicked off the inaugural Premier League season (consisting mostly of a clutch of reliable Scandinavians, a couple of vaguely adventurous eastern European wingers and Eric Cantona) and, whether they knew it or not, fans craved something rather more exotic than Micky Quinn.
A shop window was needed, and the 1994 World Cup fit the bill perfectly. With some money to spend and a new TV deal to justify, Premier League clubs treated USA ‘94 like an Argos catalogue. In flew an increasingly intriguing platoon of new blood: Bryan Roy, Philippe Albert and Stefan Schwarz piqued the interest. The stakes were upped with the immaculate Dan Petrescu, the explosive Daniel Amokachi and the curious collection of words that was “Ronnie Ekelund, Barcelona to Southampton (loan)”.
All fine additions, in theory at least, but not a world-renowned name between them. Then, from his yacht moored in Monaco, Tottenham’s Alan Sugar took a punt on a 30-year-old A-lister. With a recent CV of Milan, Monte Carlo and Die Mannschaft, Jurgen Klinsmann’s arrival to the Premier League was a clear boost to its planned trajectory for the footballing stratosphere.
But these were rather simpler times for the English game, and Klinsmann had an immediate issue to address before he could get started – namely, that English football hated him.
“When flesh meets flesh he’s down in a flash”, Manchester United’s Paul Parker apparently said out loud to the Daily Mirror, with that soul-sapping night in Turin against Klinsmann’s Germany four years earlier still fresh in the memory. Retired referee Keith Hackett pre-emptively harrumphed: “He went down like a sack of coal in one World Cup match. That won’t be stood for here. He won’t get away with any nonsense.”
No matter about its complicated history with gamesmanship itself, English football could not abide a diver. Klinsmann admits to being slightly bewildered by his reputation on arrival – a sheepish enquiry about London diving schools cracked the ice a little at his Tottenham unveiling – but he began Premier League life almost under probation. Henry Winter wrote in the Independent before a ball had been kicked that “it can only be a matter of time before ‘He’s big; he’s blond; he practises in the pond’ is heard around Highbury.” Arsenal fans, one hopes, resisted that temptation.
Pantomime villain status confirmed, Klinsmann was now ready to get down to business. Ten seasons of top-flight goalscoring in Germany, Italy and France (averaging a goal every other game) – not to mention a stellar showing at the World Cup just weeks earlier – suggested he would hit the ground running, rather than rolling.
His debut looked like a reasonably representative first taste of mid-1990s Premier League rough and tumble: a trip to Hillsborough to face Sheffield Wednesday, who themselves had seasoned a largely English squad with some World Cup talent in the shape of Petrescu and Swedish midfielder Klas Ingesson.
An unshakeable footballing idealist, Spurs manager Ossie Ardiles was rolling out his preposterously bold five-man forward line. Klinsmann took his place in the middle of a comic-book quintet with Dumitrescu, Darren Anderton, Nick Barmby and captain Teddy Sheringham, distracted briefly by some (arguably ahead of its time) A4-sized banter among the home support:
“We were welcomed at Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium by all the diving signs – 5.9, 5.8, all that sort of thing – and we were laughing about it.”
Match of the Day on the BBC gave the match a featured highlights slot, and it would fully justify the decision. Commentator Jon Champion immediately tapped into the prevailing mood – “we’ve heard what English spectators’ attitude towards Klinsmann will be” he observed, as the new man’s first touch was met by a near-perfect balance of whistles and boos.
Dumitrescu roamed from left to right, Barmby bustled around like a supermarket-brand Peter Beardsley, while Klinsmann caught the eye with that bounding gallop of a stride (deliberately honed while seeking an athletic edge as a Stuttgart youngster) as Spurs raced into a 2-0 lead by half time.
But Ardiles’ neglected defence – Justin Edinburgh and Stuart Nethercott were no Maldini and Baresi, after all – would begin to creak. Petrescu found himself with the freedom of the penalty area to slot nervelessly past Ian Walker to pull one back. Full Spursiness was then restored when Colin Calderwood belted the ball into the roof of his own net from 12 yards. Twenty minutes remained, a promising two-goal lead had been thrown away, and now a Klinsmann intervention went from being a bonus to an urgent necessity.
First, he distracted the Wednesday backline with his mere presence in a Spurs counter-attack to allow Barmby to arrow the ball into the top corner. Sugar awaited the first repayment on his £2m outlay, however, and Klinsmann had established a habit of scoring on his debuts. Finally, his moment presented itself. A hopeful cross into the six-yard box found the no.18 all alone at the near post…and he sidefooted a volley hopelessly wide, eliciting the piercing and unmistakably 90s taunt of “AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!” from the home fans.
Undeterred, he bounded back on to the shoulders of the defence. Anderton found space on the right and drilled a cross into Klinsmann’s natural habitat. The German instinctively pulled away from Des Walker, leaving his marker caught hopelessly under the flight of the ball, and contorted his wiry frame into a typically emphatic shape for the header. From eight yards, Pressman hadn’t an earthly chance of reacting in time to the force of the finish.
Klinsmann wheeled way and…you’ve seen the celebration. Literally nobody has somehow managed to avoid seeing that celebration. The BBC man’s commentary – “oh, and yes he does have a sense of humour!” – somehow found itself giving and taking away in the space of ten words.
Spurs teammates happily joined in with the celebratory diving routine, but Klinsmann’s first Premier League goal had summed him up perfectly: a chance sniffed out, a defender stealthily evaded, and a finish gleefully, emphatically buried. It was the sort of absurdly over-the-top header you’d see performed in slow-motion by a generic footballer in the opening credits of a midweek highlights show.
Twenty-nine more goals would follow in the 1994/95 season, most of which following a similar theme of pick-that-one-out assertiveness inside the penalty area. His home debut against Everton was marked with an even more spectacular goal, one that moved the (sadly unidentified) commentator to a distinctly sub-Martin Tyler exclamation of “OH BABY!”:
The mischievous celebration persisted throughout the campaign, at the end of which Klinsmann announced he was leaving to join Bayern Munich. The mild acrimony that followed – Sugar said the no.18 shirt wasn’t fit to wash his car with, showing an impressive understanding of the poor absorption qualities of polyester – was a natural reflection of the impression Klinsmann had made in just nine months, not to mention how the Football Writers’ Player of the Year had managed to turn all the preconceptions on their heads. A lower-ley return in 1997 – where he still managed nine goals in 15 games to stave off an unthinkable relegation for Spurs – fortunately kept his well-poised legacy intact.
His contribution to the evolution of the Premier League may have been fleeting, but the door to foreign players – only slightly ajar in 1994 – was flung open by Klinsmann’s impact. Within a year, Shoot! Magazine’s poster pull-outs would boast such other-worldly names as Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianluca Vialli, setting the English game well on the road out of its age of innocence.