“Hands up those of you who know this man,” demanded Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis as he introduced his new manager to the media. The assembled press pack responded with bemused silence. No hands were raised. It was August 1990. Graham Taylor had left the Birmingham club to take on the England job. His replacement was Dr Jozef Vengloš, a manager with a successful track record at domestic and international level. The reason no one had heard of him? He was a foreigner at a time when the English game was still resolutely English. Vengloš was the first overseas manager in the top flight but he was sacked less than a year later, derided as a failure, a bizarre experiment gone wrong. If anything he was ahead of his time, a trailblazer who paved the way for other foreign managers to follow.

Born in 1936, Vengloš grew up in Ružomberok, a small town in the central Slovakian region of Liptov. Lying on the crossroads of ancient trade routes running from central Slovakian mining towns to Poland the town is dominated by Čebrát Hill under the shadow of which the town’s football team ŠK Ružomberok play their home games. By the age of 16, Vengloš had already pulled on the club’s white jersey and made his first-team debut in the Czechoslovakian second division as well as becoming a youth international. “Being picked for the Slovak and later Czechoslovak youth teams was a significant breakthrough in my football life,” Vengloš would later recall. “From there it was a natural jump to ŠK Bratislava, although I wasn’t even 18 years old.”

ŠK Bratislava was a source of pride for Slovaks, challenging the dominance of Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague. 

Based in the Slovak capital, the club had significant financial and political backing and so had little problem attracting Slovakia’s best players. The 160-mile journey south west that Vengloš took was a path well-trodden by other players from Ružomberok such as Viktor Tegelhoff, the first Slovak to play in the Czechoslovak football team after the Second World War. The team won the first of three consecutive titles in 1949 and, despite his youth, Vengloš captained them to a fourth title in 1956. Speaking many years later, his former teammate Ján Popluhár, who was named Slovakia’s Player of the 20th Century, praised the dedication, firmness and tenacity Vengloš had displayed as leader. “He was a team player who fought for the success of the team,” Popluhár said. 

However, Vengloš’s time at the club coincided with the beginning of a lengthy title drought. Over the following 13 years, the club finished runners up on six occasions but would not be crowned champions again until 1970. They did however, lift the Czechoslovak Cup three times – in 1962, 1963 and 1968 – with Vengloš still captain for the first two successes. He also led them into the European Cup and a couple of Cup Winners’ Cup campaigns in which they were ultimately beaten by Spurs, who went on to win the trophy, in 1963 and then, the following year, Celtic.

Bratislava would go on to win the latter tournament themselves in 1969, beating Barcelona 3-2 in the final. It is still the only European success by a Czechoslovak team and coming just nine months after the Soviet invasion of the country, it cemented the team’s place not just as a symbol of Slovak national identity but also Czechoslovak pride. It capped what had been a golden decade for Czechoslovak football. Dukla Prague and Spartak Trnava reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1967 and 1969 respectively. 

The national team reached the semi-finals of the European Championship in 1960. Two years later they reached the World Cup final, losing to the defending champions Brazil, whom they had held to a goalless draw in the group stages. In 1964 Czechoslovakia finished runners up at the Rome Olympics, losing to Hungary in the final. Vengloš was a regular in the country’s B team but was not able to break into a talented first XI and so never received a full cap. By the time Bratislava had their moment of glory on the European stage Vengloš had already left the club, his career cut short by a bout of hepatitis in 1966.

Recognised as a cerebral figure by his contemporaries, the diligent Vengloš had been awarded a PhD in Physical Education at the University of Bratislava. It provided a platform for him to continue his involvement in the game, albeit from the dugout. Towards the end of his playing career he was already acting as a de facto assistant to coach Leopold Šťastný and when the club took a tour of Australia, Vengloš was offered the coaching job at FC Prague Sydney. He was just 30 years old. The club, formed by Czech expats in the late 1950s, won several trophies during his tenure and Vengloš was soon asked to coach the New South Wales representative team. Then in late May and early June 1967 he took charge of the Australia national team for a run of three games against Scotland. The Scots, triumphant after having beaten the world champions England at Wembley the previous March, were on “world tour”. They also travelled to Israel, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Canada, covering 30,000 miles in a month. However, the European success of Celtic, who won the European Cup, and Rangers, who narrowly lost the Cup Winners’ Cup to Bayern Munich, as well as Leeds United, who reached the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final, meant their best players were unavailable. It was in effect a Scotland B team. Nonetheless, some 34,000 turned out for the first game at the Sydney Show Ground. The Socceroos may have been part-timers but Vengloš had them well drilled and a first-half strike from Alex Ferguson was all that separated the two teams. 

They moved on to Adelaide’s Norwood Oval three days later when Scotland ran out 2-1 winners. The visitors won the final game in Melbourne 2-0 thanks to a brace from Ferguson but they were under no illusions that they had been pushed all the way by their hosts.

Following his successful spell in Australia, Vengloš returned to Czechoslovakia to manage the Slovak team VSS Košice. In 1971 they finished top-flight runners-up, still their highest ever league position, and qualified for the Uefa Cup. At the same time he coached the national Under-23 team to success in the 1972 European Championship. His burgeoning reputation as a dynamic and gifted young coach saw him poached by his old club Slovan Bratislava. A league and cup double in 1974 was followed by another league success in 1975.

Vengloš also became assistant to the national team boss Václav Ježek, a fellow Slovak, ahead of the 1976 European Championships. The Czechoslovaks were drawn against England, Portugal and Cyprus in the qualifying stage. None of the teams had played at the World Cup two years earlier and Geoffrey Green of the Times described the group as “a comparatively mild sector at present-day values”. Only the winners would progress to the two-legged quarter-finals and England, under their new boss Don Revie, were the favourites. Little was expected of Czechoslovakia particularly after they were beaten 3-0 at Wembley in their opening game. By the time Ježek’s team took to the pitch again England had played all their home games. They had beaten Cyprus 5-0 but crucially could only draw with Portugal. This opened the door for Czechoslovakia who duly dispatched Cyprus 4-0 and then Portugal 5-0 before hosting England in Bratislava. 

The game was abandoned after 17 minutes due to fog with the score at 0-0. 24 hours later, the teams tried again, a year to the day since the Wembley game. Mick Channon put the visitors ahead but two goals in two minutes either side of half time, from Zdeněk Nehoda and Dušan Galis, saw the Czechs run out winners. The Daily Express report complained about “blatant, calculated intimidation, wilful tripping, holding and shoving” from the home side. But David Lacey, writing in the Guardian, was magnanimous, suggesting that although the match had been “extremely tough” it was “generally good tempered” and that England had been “beaten on skill”. Both teams then drew with Portugal, allowing the Czechoslovaks to overtake England with victory in their final match against Cyprus.

While England were left to contemplate a prolonged spell in the international wilderness, Czechoslovakia looked forward to a quarter-final against the Soviet Union. Just eight years after the Soviets had sent tanks into the country to quell the Prague Spring, the Czechoslovaks exacted symbolic revenge with a 4-2 aggregate victory. This booked them a place in the four-team mini tournament along with the Netherlands, West Germany and the hosts Yugoslavia. A Dutch side led by Johan Cruyff and comprising the likes of Johan Neeskens, Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep were dispatched 3-1 after extra time in a semi-final which saw the Dutch reduced to nine players and Czechoslovakia to 10. This set up a final against the reigning world champions, West Germany. The Czechoslovaks raced into a two-goal lead but the West Germans recovered to take the game to extra time and then penalties. Antonín Panenka won the trophy and wrote his name into history with an audacious spot kick, which he chipped straight down the middle over a diving Sepp Maier. It was Czechoslovakia’s 21st consecutive unbeaten match since their defeat at Wembley. It also meant they had beaten both the 1974 World Cup finalists in consecutive matches1.

Despite being assistant coach, Vengloš’s contribution to Czechoslovakia’s success should not be understated. The Bratislava team he had built provided six of the Czechoslovak starting XI for the final. Furthermore, Vengloš had a transformative effect on several players’ careers. He had converted Anton Ondruš, Czechoslovakia’s captain, from a striker into defence. As a result Ondruš became widely acknowledged as one of the best defenders of the 1970s and was labelled “the Beckenbauer of the East”. Vengloš had also moved Jozef Čapkovič from midfield to centre-half. Players like Marián Masný, whom Kevin Keegan described at the time as "one of the world's most skilful wingers”, and Ján Švéhlik, who scored the opener in the final, all benefitted from Vengloš’s management.

It was little wonder then that after the team failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup the Czechoslovak FA turned to Vengloš to replace Ježek. Progress to the finals of Euro 1980 was secured thanks to five wins out of six in qualifying. The tournament was expanded to eight teams, placed in two groups of four. However, there were no semi-finals, the winners of each group progressing to the final and the runners-up competing in the third-place play-off. This meant that defeat in the tournament opener to West Germany effectively ended the Czechoslovaks' chances of retaining the trophy. They did, however, finish second in the group and went on to beat hosts Italy in the third-place play-off. Qualification for the 1982 World Cup in Spain followed. Czechoslovakia were drawn in the same group as England, but there would be no repeat of their 1976 heroics. Defeat to Ron Greenwood’s men plus draws against France and Kuwait saw them fall at the first hurdle. Vengloš left to join Sporting. They finished third in the league and reached the semi-finals of the Taça de Portugal but it was deemed not enough for a club used to lifting trophies, especially just two years after Malcom Allison had led them to a League and Cup double2. 

Vengloš then spent a couple of seasons working for the Malaysian FA and coaching the country’s national team before he returned home to re-take control of the Czechoslovakia national team, steering them to Italia 90.

The tournament came just seven months after the end of one-party Communist rule in the country. With the borders to the west opened, fans were free to travel and support their country abroad in large numbers for the first time in nearly 50 years. It was also the last tournament the team took part in before the dissolution of the republic into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “The atmosphere was great,” the midfielder Václav Němeček told Radio Prague 20 years later. “I couldn’t say exactly how many were there, but it was definitely in the area of 30,000. Previously there would have been only a few hundred fans at away games. It meant a lot to us players, because our fans created a kind of home atmosphere.” Spurred on by this support Vengloš’s side memorably despatched the USA 5-1 on their way to finishing second in their group behind hosts Italy. Costa Rica were then put to the sword 4-1 in the round of 16 before Czechoslovakia lost to Germany 1-0 in a cagey quarter-final. 

In a tournament best remembered for its cynicism and lack of goals, Czechoslovakia, who scored 10, were veritable entertainers. Only the eventual winners West Germany hit the net more often and the only other team also to reach double figures was Italy. Both played two games more than Vengloš’s team. Salvatore Schillaci only overtook Tomáš Skuhravý in the race for the Golden Boot in the tournament’s penultimate game; the Italian’s sixth goal, the one that took him past Skuhravý, was the winner against England in the third-place play-off. It was also Bobby Robson’s last game in charge of England. A tumultuous eight years had ended on an unexpected high. His replacement was to be Aston Villa boss Graham Taylor, meaning there was a managerial post that needed filling in the Black Country.

Vengloš was not the first foreign coach to manage in English football. Eddie Firmani, who was born in South Africa and played a handful of times for Italy, had managed Charlton in the late 1960s and Ossie Ardiles was managing Swindon Town when Vengloš arrived at Villa Park. But the Slovak was the first foreign-born manager in the top flight. Significantly, unlike both Firmani and Ardiles, he had not played in England, leading to the accusation that he didn’t know the English game. As his predecessor Graham Taylor would later tell Barney Ronay for his book The Manager: “Vengloš is a very nice man but the players weren’t ready for him. And he had massive problems understanding what Second, Third and Fourth Division football was about. When he went to watch a game, that type of football was so foreign to him he didn’t know who or what he was watching.” 

Doug Ellis, the chairman of Aston Villa, explained that the rationale for bringing Vengloš in to replace Taylor wasn’t just about what the coach could do on the training pitch, his European pedigree and contacts were important too. “We looked beyond the end of our noses in appointing him,” said Ellis. “There will be a freer passage of players to and from Europe after 1992. We are sure with all his knowledge on the Continent, that this is the way.” It was admirable foresight from Deadly Doug. In 1986, the European Community had agreed to form a Single Market. However, the freedom of movement that would afford workers was not due to come into effect for another couple of years. At the time of his appointment the UK was becoming increasingly uneasy about its place in Europe. Margaret Thatcher faced down members of her cabinet over her resistance to greater European integration, a move that would cost her her job before the end of the year. Her anti-EC stance was best encapsulated by the Sun’s xenophobic front-page headline “Up Yours, Delors!” Thus when Vengloš arrived at Villa Park, the First Division was still resolutely English and inward-looking. Few were aware of his CV.

Ian Ormondroyd, signed by Taylor from Bradford in 1989, remembers that the players were non-plussed by the new arrival. “All the lads were sitting in the dressing room and a few people saying: ‘We’ve got a new manager called Josef Vengloš.’ We all looked at each other and not one of us knew who he was. Of course, nowadays you’d get your phone out and Google him and see that he’d been manager of the Czechoslovakia national team and some good sides. But nobody knew that. The only information you could get was from the newspapers and that didn’t help him.”

Villa arguably had one of the most exotic squads in the top flight thanks to the presence of the Danish defender Kent Nielsen and Dwight Yorke, who had only recently joined after Taylor spotted him during a club tour of Trinidad and Tobago. However, the rest of the players all hailed from Britain and Ireland with the overwhelming majority being English. Ormondroyd believes the squad’s make up made it difficult for Vengloš to impose his methods: “If we’d had quite a few foreign players, I think it might have been different because they would have bought into what he was trying to do a lot more; they would have been used to working the way he was used to managing. It was the wrong group of players at the wrong time.”

Furthermore, despite being a polyglot fluent in several languages including Russian and Portuguese, Vengloš’s English was not strong and he later acknowledged the communication difficulties this created. This often left the players bemused by what the new coach asked them to do. “Some of the training was strange, we’d never experienced anything like it,” said Ormondroyd. “I always remember at the start of a session he used to line us up on the dead ball line and shout ‘Go!’ and we had to hold our breath and run to the end of the pitch. He did that a lot and we couldn’t quite get our heads round why.” 

The players found his methods strange in other ways too. Vengloš didn’t rely on the hairdryer treatment commonly used by many British managers. “I just remember him being a really nice guy,” says Ormondroyd. “He was fairly calm. Very rarely did he get angry and shout and bawl and throw things. He wasn’t the aggressive type but that’s what we were used to. It’s changed now. Managers reflect and contemplate before getting angry. He was fairly before his time with that.” He also introduced dietary and conditioning methods now commonplace in the game but then unheard of. Tony Daley, who went on to work at Wolverhampton Wanderers as fitness coach, would later recall, “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 also tried to change the team’s tactical approach although he was keen to stress his respect for the English game and his desire for evolution, not revolution. Speaking to Clive White of the Times the month after he was appointed, Vengloš insisted “I want only to add, not to change. I want to add something from our training methodology into your game. Mostly, I want to improve the improvisation of players. Also I want to improve their passing and encourage more interchange of position.” 

Ormondroyd believes this was always going to be difficult with the squad Vengloš inherited. “We had a good team ethic and everyone worked well together,” he said. “Obviously we had David Platt who was an outstanding goalscoring midfield player and Paul McGrath was probably the best player I played with in my career. Then we had other lads in the squad who were just good workmanlike professionals. I think when Jozef came in there was more of an emphasis on passing through midfield but obviously you’ve got to have the right types of players and I’m not sure we did. You’ve got to change a lot of your playing squad to be able to do that and he didn’t really have the time to do it while he was with us.”

The team got off to a poor start under their new manager. Defeats to Arsenal and Real Sociedad in the pre-season Makita tournament at Wembley were followed by a draw and two defeats in the first three League games of the season. Then they began to find some rhythm. Seven wins and just one defeat from the next ten games in all competitions saw them climb to eighth and go into the home leg of their Uefa Cup second round tie against Inter in confident mood. It was the tie of the round not just in the Uefa Cup but in all three European competitions. Both teams were former European champions and Inter could boast three of West Germany’s newly crowned World Cup winners — Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Andreas Brehme — as well as five of the Italy team which reached the semi-finals. It was also the biggest match played by an English team since the end of five-year European ban imposed on English teams following the Heysel disaster in 1985. 

Hooliganism had been significant reduced in the English game but the threat of violence lingered on, not least because the tie brought together English and Italian fans, just as in Heysel. In the end those who joined Elton Welsby on ITV were treated to a football master class, not from the Italians but from their hosts. Villa out-fought and out-thought their opponents in a 2-0 victory. Tony Daley terrorised the Italians with his pace, Kent Nielsen and David Platt provided the goals. 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 labeled “a brave gamble” two and a half months earlier appeared to have paid off.

In the return leg at San Siro two weeks later, Inter took the lead after seven minutes. Then Tony Cascarino missed a header that would have left Inter needing to score another three. It was a sliding doors moment. Inter steamrollered their way to a 3-0 victory and in May lifted the trophy, the first of a hat-trick of Uefa Cup successes during the 1990s. By contrast Villa would win just once more in the League before the turn of the year. “If we’d gone over there and managed to win through somehow that might have been a turning point,” said Ormondroyd. “Beating a team like that over two legs would have been an amazing achievement and might have given everyone a bit of confidence to go on from there, but it wasn’t to be.”

The downturn in form saw Vengloš sack John Ward, the assistant he had inherited from Taylor, and bring in Peter Withe, who had scored the winner in the club’s 1982 European Cup triumph. “I think behind the scenes they thought Jozef was a bit soft and that we needed ‘a good cop-bad cop scenario’,” said Ormondroyd. “Peter started to lay the law down a little bit, but that didn’t really work either. It didn’t get the best out of a lot of the players, like it was meant to.” 

In the space of a week in mid-January Villa lost in the FA Cup third round to Wimbledon and then in the League Cup quarter-finals to Leeds. The rest of the season was a slog to the finish line, made more difficult by the fact Platt and Daley both suffered injuries which saw them miss a significant number of games. Villa won just one of their final ten League matches but it was enough to see them finish four points clear of the drop in 17th place. A little over a fortnight after the end of the season, the axe fell.

Don Howe, whose advice Ellis had sought before appointing Vengloš, was sure what the problem had been. Speaking just after the Slovakian’s sacking, he said: “Joe is one of the greatest coaches in the world, 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.” The message was clear: The English game had nothing to learn, it was Vengloš who needed to change.

Yet, while Vengloš’s time at Villa is dismissed as a failure, it was also the last hurrah of English isolationism. The following season Eric Cantona burst on to the scene and was instrumental in Leeds United winning the title. A year later he moved across the Pennines and repeated the trick at Old Trafford. The steady influx of foreign players Doug Ellis had predicted had begun and following the Bosman Ruling in late 1995 it became a torrent. By the time Arsène Wenger arrived in North London in 1996 the landscape of English football had changed irreversibly. The blood-and-thunder First Division had been usurped by the cosmopolitan Premier League. Even unfashionable Middlesbrough had plucked Fabrizio Ravanelli from European champions Juventus. 

There were still raised eyebrows when Wenger was unveiled at Highbury but the idea of a foreign manager didn’t seem so odd anymore. By the end of the season Ruud Gullit had become the first non-British manager to win a trophy in England after Chelsea lifted the FA Cup. The following season Wenger’s Arsenal did the Double. Suddenly it was the English game which was having to learn and adapt.

There was still resistance. When Christian Gross was sacked by Tottenham in 1997 after just one season in charge, the club’s chairman Alan Sugar made it clear where he felt the blame really lay. At a press conference to announce the Swiss’s departure he took aim at the journalists present: “I think one has to say we were faced with an untenable situation created, with all due respect, by the media, and we the board felt that Christian – no matter how professional or how good he is –had been destroyed by the media, it is as simple as that.”

A few months before Gross left White Hart Lane, Vengloš had joined Celtic. Since leaving Villa he’d spent at couple of seasons at Fenerbahçe and in 2003 became the first manager of the Slovakia national team following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. That counted for little. The Daily Record greeted him with the front-page headline “Celtic sign a blank Czech”. It seemed that his brief spell at Villa Park eclipsed all his achievements. Not only that, the paper couldn’t even be bothered to get the Slovak’s nationality right. Vengloš’s time at Parkhead was arguably more successful than his time in Birmingham and similarly it was marked by an early standout performance—a 5-1 defeat of Rangers in November. However, for a club where second is nowhere, finishing runners-up to their cross-city rivals in both the League and Scottish Cup wasn’t good enough and Vengloš was sacked after one season.

Other than a brief spell in Japan with JEF United Ichihara he spent the rest of his career working as a coaching guru with both Uefa, as chair of their Technical Development Committee, and on Fifa’s Technical Study Group, along with the likes of Roy Hodgson, Andy Roxburgh and Roger Milla. Reminiscing about his spell at Villa Park many years later Vengloš showed no bitterness. “I enjoyed my time with Villa and I enjoyed working with Doug Ellis,” he said. “It was only for a season, and maybe I should have gone to Villa a few years later, but I look upon my time there with a lot of good feeling.”