Dr Josef Vengloš’ brief stint in charge of Aston Villa is remembered, if at all, as a failure. But 30 years on, it can be seen also as a crucial moment in the transformation of English football, says Roger Domeneghetti.
On an unseasonably warm night in October 1990, Elton Welsby welcomed the viewers of ITV’s The Match to Villa Park for a UEFA Cup tie between Aston Villa and Internazionale.
The match generated huge interest both in England and abroad. It was the biggest game played by an English team in European competition since the ban imposed after Heysel was lifted. It also pitted English and Italian teams against each other for the first time since the tragedy five years earlier.
The match was notable for another reason. In the Villa dugout was Dr Josef Vengloš, the club’s new manager and the first man not born in the British Isles to take charge of a top-flight English team.
The teams both had pedigree. Villa had won the European Cup just eight years earlier and Inter twice in a row in the mid-1960s. The visitors, who had three of Germany’s newly crowned World Cup winners in their ranks – Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme – plus five of the Italian team which reached the semi-finals, were the favourites.
Yet they were taken apart by their hosts who were superior in every department and secured a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Kent Nielsen and David Platt. A win and draw in their next two matches meant Villa saw out October unbeaten. Vengloš was crowned Manager of the Month and suddenly an appointment which the Times had labelled ‘a brave gamble’ two and a half months earlier appeared to have paid off.
Born in 1936, Vengloš grew up in central Slovakia. A gifted midfielder, his playing career was cut short when he was only 30 due to bout of hepatitis. However, he had already earned a PhD in Physical Education and moved into coaching. He was the assistant manager of the Czechoslovakian national team that won the 1976 European Championships, beating Don Revie’s England in qualifying.
He managed Sporting Lisbon and had two spells as the Czechoslovakian national team manager, reaching the quarter-finals of Italia 1990, where they lost 1-0 to eventual winners West Germany. This success caught the eye of Doug Ellis, the chairman of Aston Villa who needed a new manager after Graham Taylor, the man who had taken the club to second in the league, was poached for the England job.
But Ellis wasn’t just attracted by Vengloš’ tactical acumen. He also wanted to capitalise on his new manager’s knowledge and contacts of the European game.
Four years earlier the European Community had agreed to form a single market and the freedom of movement that would bring from 1992 onwards meant more foreign players would inevitably enter the English game.
Thus when Vengloš joined Villa, the UK was asking itself searching questions about its place in Europe. Margaret Thatcher’s resistance to greater European integration cost her her job within months of Vengloš’ appointment, her anti-EC stance was encapsulated by the Sun’s front-page headline ‘Up Yours, Delors!’ in November 1990.
It is little wonder that in this atmosphere the English game was resolutely inward looking. With the likes of Danish defender Kent Nielsen and Dwight Yorke from Trinidad and Tobago, Villa arguably had one of the First Division’s most cosmopolitan squads in 1990.
Yet the players, who in an era before social media, 24/7 sports news and even Championship Manager had to rely on the papers for information about foreign football, had no idea about their new manager’s previous successes.
When he arrived in the Midlands, Vengloš tried to develop the team’s technique and tactical approach, saying ‘I want to improve the improvisation of players. Also I want to improve their passing and encourage more interchange of position.’
He also changed the team’s diet with Tony Daley, who went on to work at Wolverhampton Wanderers as fitness coach, recalling: ‘In terms of nutrition he was ahead of his time, particularly in English football. I remember eating steak and chips the night before the game when I first started playing. That went out of the window overnight.’
Vengloš later acknowledged that his English was not strong and this meant it was hard for him to communicate his ideas to the players – a problem compounded by the fact his innovations both on and off the pitch were met with some scepticism. Within a decade they would be commonplace within the English game.
The victory over Inter was the high point of the season. The Italians won the return leg 3-0 and went on to win the trophy. For Villa it was all downhill. They won just one more away game all season and were dumped out of both cups within a week in mid-January. Despite just one win in their final 10 league matches, they did enough to stay up but not enough to save Vengloš. He was sacked a fortnight after the season ended.
Don Howe, who was QPR manager at the time, and who Ellis had turned to for advice before appointing Vengloš, had little doubt why the Slovak had been unsuccessful. ‘Joe is one of the greatest coaches in the world,’ he said, ‘but it is no use trying to use continental methods in the English game. He has been brought up on a continental game that is almost entirely built around possession. But that is something we don’t worry about in England. Joe needed to get used to the English game – just like foreign players have to when they first come over.’ It was an emphatic message and one that spoke volumes about the attitude of the English game, at the time, towards foreigners. They had nothing to offer and everything to learn, they were the ones that has to adapt.
Vengloš returned to Britain to manage Celtic in 1997. In the intervening years he had spent a couple of seasons at Fenerbahçe and in 1993 became the first manager of the Slovakian national team following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. However, the Daily Record greeted him with the front-page headline ‘Celtic sign a blank Czech’ – his season at Villa Park eclipsing the rest of his CV.
An early 5-1 defeat of Rangers was a highlight but the Bhoys finished runners up to their cross-city rivals in both the league and Scottish Cup and Vengloš was sacked after one season again.
His brief spell with Villa is widely regarded as a failure, yet it in reality it was the first crack in English football’s isolationism. The following season France’s enfant terrible Eric Cantona said ‘non merci’ to Sheffield Wednesday before helping their Yorkshire rivals Leeds secure the title. Twelve months later Cantona moved to Old Trafford to kickstart Manchester United’s dominance.
The influx of foreign players Doug Ellis had predicted was under way and it intensified with the Bosman Ruling in late 1995.
Then, in September 1996 Arsène Wenger was unveiled at Highbury as Arsenal’s new manager. The press pack was predictably sceptical, their response best summed up by the Evening Standard’s dismissive headline ‘ARSENE WHO?’
By the end of the season Chelsea’s victory in the FA Cup meant Ruud Gullit, the epitome of the new-look, cosmopolitan Premier League, became the first non-British manager to win a trophy in England. A year later Wenger’s Arsenal went one better securing the double. The dam had burst, English football’s parochial outlook was being washed away.