Coaches from outside Great Britain and Ireland are now commonplace in England’s Premier League, the richest in world football, but just 30 years ago they were unheard of. The man who broke the mould was a Slovak, Jozef Vengloš, appointed manager of Aston Villa in the summer of 1990.
When Graham Taylor left English first division team Aston Villa in the summer of 1990 to begin a doomed stint as the manager of the England national team, the club cast a wide net in search of a replacement.
The name that they eventually came up with was all but unknown in England: Jozef Vengloš, the erstwhile coach of Czechoslovakia who passed away on January 26 at the age of 84. He was the first person from outside the UK and Republic of Ireland to take charge of a club in the English first division.
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“Do any of you who know this man?” Doug Ellis, Villa’s owner, asked the journalists assembled to learn who was to succeed Taylor. The question was met with complete silence.
Clash of cultures
While Vengloš’s time with Villa was not successful, with the side finishing 17th in the table having ended the previous season under as runners-up to Liverpool, it had wider significance in paving the way for the influx of foreign managers that would follow.
His innovations, such as insisting that his players follow a healthy diet and embrace sports psychology (he held a doctorate in sport) went down poorly with the heavy drinking culture of English football at the time.
They are now ubiquitous.
“A renowned figure, an exemplary coach, holder of the FIFA Order of Merit, his legacy and achievements, and in particular his leadership, his personality, his work ethic and his human qualities will not be forgotten, and he will be truly missed,” said Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, football’s governing body.
Obituaries in the UK press have, all too predictably, concentrated on Vengloš’s lack of success at Aston Villa as well a similarly trophy-less tenure a few years later as manager of Celtic, in Scotland. By ignoring his career as a coach before heading to Britain, this does Vengloš a great disservice. It also betrays the insular mentality that, despite the large numbers of foreign coaches and players now employed by English clubs, persists.
As a player, Vengloš spent his entire 12-year career at Slovan Bratislava, but was forced to retire in 1966 at the relatively early age of 30 due to hepatitis.
He took up coaching, first in Australia with Prague Sydney, a club formed by Czech and Slovak émigrés, and later coached the Australian national team. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1971 as coach of the country’s under-23 team, before being appointed as head coach at his old club Slovan Bratislava, who he would lead to two league titles.
Between 1973 and 1978 he doubled-up as assistant to Václav Ježek, coach of the Czechoslovak national team, helping guide them to victory in the 1976 European Championships, beating the Netherlands in the semi-finals and West Germany in the final.
For two reasons in particular that final remains one of the most iconic matches ever played in international football. Not only was it the first major tournament decided by a penalty shoot-out, but the winning penalty, cheekily chipped in by Antonín Panenka, has gone down in football folklore, inspiring numerous attempts to emulate it, some successfully, others less so. The style of gently chipping a penalty is referred to as a Panenka to this day.
Four years later, this time as head coach, Vengloš led Czechoslovakia to third place at the European Championships, although his reign ended in the disappointment of a group stage exit at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. He then managed Sporting Lisbon from 1983 to 1984, before coaching in Malaysia.
In 1988, he was re-appointed to manage Czechoslovakia and took them to the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup.
After his spell at Aston Villa he moved to Turkey, before returning home to become the first coach of independent Slovakia in 1993. He later coached in Japan, and became an advisor to FIFA, lecturing at football academies around the world.
On arrival at Aston Villa, Vengloš said that although he was the first foreign coach in England’s top division, many would follow, and the English game would benefit as a result.
“There will be a great exchange of ideas, which can only be good for football,” he said.
Ever the visionary, he was right.
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