The late Autumn of a glittering career and the local scrap metal merchant that owns your club, "This is an important day for (insert name here) FC". It rarely goes well, but leaves some great stories. Here's Adam Bate.
As if Edgar Davids turning up at Selhurst Park wasn’t enough. This week we’ve had rumours of Robert Pires strutting his stuff for Crawley Town. These are strange times my friend. And yet, this is not a new phenomenon. Foreign stars have been making the incongruous journey to the lower leagues of English football for some time now.
I’m not talking about the blatant publicity stunt that brought 50 year old Socrates to Garforth Town. I don’t even wish to include the brief appearances of stars like Fabrizio Ravanelli and Attilio Lombardo – these men found themselves in the murky world of what is now the Championship thanks to relegation and a failure to extricate themselves from contracts.
There have been the young starlets making their way in the game. I often wonder if Enzo Maresca thought back to his formative days with West Bromwich Albion when he lifted the UEFA Cup with Sevilla. Did he nod quietly to himself in the knowledge that those were the experiences that made the man?
And what of the ludicrous case of Samuel Okunowo – the Nigerian full-back who went from Barcelona’s first team to trials with Northwich Victoria, all well before his (official) 30th birthday. Did he have the opposite emotion? That moment when the old physio arrived to nurse his latest dead leg armed with nothing but a sponge and a smile. Did he wonder how it had all come to this?
But mainly I’m fascinated by the stars of yesterday who arrived in English football with a suitcase and a whole heap of memories - only to find that English football could be a harsh and unforgiving place for the ageing maestro with a storied past.
That’s what Edgar Davids is finding out right now. How he laughed when buying his own tube ticket to travel to a game. Amused by the quaint Englishness of it all – the fact that thousands of fans cared just as passionately about football played outside the cosseted world of the Premiership. Unfortunately for Edgar, English football down the leagues is just about the last place you want to go in search of a friendly kick-about.
Just ask Damiano Tommasi. In all fairness, the Italian midfielder should have known better than most what lay in store. Tommasi was never the same player after being on the receiving end of a brutal Gerry Taggart challenge in a ‘friendly’ versus Stoke City in the summer of 2004. Even so, the man who had helped Roma lift the Scudetto in 2001 found himself lining up for QPR in 2008. A stint that lasted a matter of months before the contract was cancelled by mutual consent.
A decade earlier, another Scudetto winning Italian had endured a more celebrated but equally fraught stay in England. Ivano Bonetti had been part of the Sampdoria squad that shocked Italy by topping Serie A in 1991. The shock was all Bonetti’s five years on when he rocked up at Grimsby Town. The Italian’s skills were lauded by the fans but less so by his manager – the story of Brian Laws throwing a plate of chicken wings at Bonetti raising more questions than answers.
Bonetti’s stay, whilst dramatic, has arguably been the template for the fading foreign star in the English lower leagues. Turn up to much fanfare and intrigue, not to mention bemusement. Startle the fans with skills they’ve only seen on the television and, of course, for someone else’s team. And then leave shortly afterwards amid mutterings of “not tracking back” and being unaccustomed to the “hurly and burly” of a 46 game campaign.
Fernando Gomez was one such player. The Spaniard turned up at Wolves after enjoying a glorious career with Valencia. He had represented Spain in the 1990 World Cup and remains to this day Valencia’s record appearance holder and, indeed, 4th highest ever goal scorer. However, in the pre-internet days of the late 90s this counted for little in Wolverhampton – he was the funny bald bloke from Spain. As such his career there followed a familiar pattern – a couple of spectacular early goals before being ushered out the fray and never seen again.
If Fernando Gomez had a right to wonder what on earth he had let himself in for then he wasn’t alone. Had these foreign stars been misled as to what division they would be playing in? In the case of Roger Boli this would appear to have been a literal truth. Rumours abound that the French forward had been tricked into joining Walsall by being told they were a Division Two club – not realising this actually meant he would be playing in the third tier of English football. As a result, Boli found himself playing at the Bescot Stadium just three years after being joint top scorer in Ligue 1.
For all the travails, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom for the fallen heroes. Even amid the muck and nettles of the lower leagues, it has still been possible to prove that the class will out. This was never more so than in the 2001-02 Division One season. That year, Ali Bernarbia helped guide Manchester City to the title, winning the club’s Player of the Year award in the process as City passed their way out the league.
Meanwhile, at Portsmouth, Robert Prosinecki was thrilling the crowds with the genius that had seen him lift the European Cup for Red Star Belgrade as well as play for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. While his displays for Pompey may not represent the high watermark of the Croat’s career they are unlikely to be forgotten by anybody on the South coast who witnessed them.
When you throw in the case of Peter Hoekstra – Stoke City’s classy winger who’d played for Holland in Euro ’96 – you begin to realise just how much unexpected joy these visitors to the English lower leagues have provided over the years.
Edgar may not be enjoying it. But long may it continue.
You can follow Adam on Twitter @GhostGoal