|Strange, Surreal and Spectacularly Silly Signings|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 3rd Feb 2019 16:49
It’s 30 years since the startling signing of Sergei Baltacha, the first Soviet to play in English football.
This historic and somewhat absurd signing by Ipswich Town was recently recalled rather well in the super, soaraway Sun. Not surprisingly, in 1988 a 30-year-old, non-English speaking, Soviet international sweeper leaving the crumbling workers’ paradise for a declining English Second Division team with no need of a sweeper was big news to say the least.
Nowadays signings are two a penny but for the first 50 years of Town’s existence they were rare – and something to look forward to rather than dread. And the tendency to aim high for startling signings pre-dates Sergei by decades. It started before the war…
1. Scott Duncan
OK so the first signing to make waves well outside the confines of Suffolk was a manager rather than a player. But the poaching of Manchester United manager Scott Duncan was still something of a coup.
Granted, Manchester United were not quite the media darlings they are today – Duncan had just piloted them back to the Second Division. But Town weren’t even in the league. Ivan Cobbold was planning ahead and aiming high.
Duncan resigned from his duties at Old Trafford and joined Ipswich. Cobbold, with that touch of class missing nowadays, memorably sent two cases of port by way of apology and compensation.
Scott Duncan’s presence gave Town a certain gravitas which, coupled with Cobbold’s Old Etonian tie in the corridors of power, gave non-league Town some clout in the pre-war Football League hierarchy.
Town were duly elected to the league despite coming only third in the Southern League. A distant reminder perhaps that inequality in football is nothing new.
Scott Duncan got his timing wrong, thanks to Adolf Hitler. But once the war was over, he settled in for the ride. Years of steady progress culminated in winning the Division Three South title in 1953/54.
Alas he was to repeat his trick at Manchester United of following promotion with instant relegation and resigned to make way for a certain Tottenham full-back. He stayed on three more years as club secretary and his mark in Town’s history is profound.
2. Mick McNeil
A powerful northern defender so good he won nine England caps prior to his 21st birthday before a succession of injuries brought his career to a grinding halt can only mean one player, right? Yes, step forward Mick McNeil.
Town were in the doldrums mid-60s, having gone from champions to relegation in the twinkling of an eye. But the signing of Mick McNeil offered a vision of hope. He’d been quoted in The Eagle alongside Jimmy Armfield as the future of English football no less. Nine caps!! Even Ray Crawford only got two. This was some signing, another coup.
Alas, although he looked and acted the part, capable of playing at both full-back and in central defence, injuries always seemed to get in the way. He played fewer than 150 times in an eight-year Town career, retiring at just 31 in the early days of the Bobby Robson era.
He was on the periphery by the time Bill McGarry breathed new life into Town, losing out to the more agricultural style of Chopper Jefferson.
McNeil played in the top division on occasion. But try as I might, I can only remember one significant contribution. A cruel own goal in the sunshine after David Best’s heroics had seemingly single-handedly kept out Bobby Charlton in an FA Cup epic at Portman Road. A poor epitaph for a potentially great player and all-round good bloke. He went on to be the king of Suffolk sports shops.
3. Steve Stacey
You have to be of a certain vintage and not to have blinked at the appropriate time, to remember Steve Stacey. Signed, by Bill McGarry, presumably in a moment of blind panic, when Billy Baxter was injured (and Mick McNeil presumably too), Stacey has drifted into the mists of Town history.
This is something of a pity – as he is a figure of huge significance, the first African-American to play in this country. Astonishingly, he was born in an era when his mother and father were not allowed to marry by the US military because of the colour of his father’s skin.
So when Bill McGarry made a rare foray into the transfer market to sign Stacey for £22,000 from Wrexham he was unknowingly signing a real football pioneer.
Stacey made his debut against Liverpool and promptly got injured. He was to play only three games for Town as Baxter recovered and reclaimed his place.
Town managed to loan him to Charlton and Chester (where he played one game at each) back in the era when the loan market seemingly existed to divest yourself of aberrations. (And still is based on the evidence of some recent arrivals).
Stacey eventually partially resurrected his career in the West Country before drifting into non-league and then Australian football. He barely left an impression on the pitch but remained until relatively recently Town’s most ineffective and bizarre signing.
4. Mick Hill
Every now and again the local media gets very excited by a potential new signing. And back in autumn 1969 they were very excited indeed. So was I if the truth be told, because one of my all-time favourite players, John O’Rourke, had departed for pastures new.
Bobby Robson was shopping for a high-profile replacement. Southampton’s prolific young striker, Mick Channon, had been mentioned as a possible target – then allegedly, Robson was homing in on Alan Birchenhall or Sheffield United’s flaxen-haired midfield maestro Tony Currie. What a coup! Alas he came back with Mick Hill.
Mick who? Rather underwhelmingly, Mick Hill was an unknown Sheffield United reserve with just nine goals to his name. Robson forked out £33,000 on something only he could see – more than O’Rourke, a proven goal-getter, had cost less than two years previously.
I rather liked Mick Hill. There was something unorthodox about him on and off the pitch that appealed to me. And to be fair he was almost a very good player indeed. He had an uncanny knack of being able to outjump anyone and flick the ball on to… well almost anyone on either side. This penchant for aerial prowess earned him the nickname of 'Mick The Flick'.
You never quite knew what was going to happen next with Mick Hill, although goals were not really his strong point. Goals from Mick Hill were inevitably scarce but often fearsome headers. A sort of Trevor Whymark-lite if you like.
Mick Hill eventually scored 20 goals in 77 appearances – not a bad return in a struggling team. He even earned two caps for Wales. Alas Town was to prove the peak of his career. He played a bit on loan at Blackpool, including, startlingly, the Anglo-Italian Cup final against Roma, before going to Crystal Palace for £35,000.
Sadly, he passed away over 10 years ago aged just 60. Mick Mills provided this tribute, “Mick was an exceptionally nice lad who everyone liked. He was a decent player with a good touch but suffered somewhat for taking his off-field approach for life on to the park." Quite.
5. Mich D’Avray
Signing Mich D’Avray was not perhaps Bobby Robson’s finest hour. This is by no means a criticism of the wholehearted D’Avray who went on to play 200 times for the club and score a less than startling 40 goals.
He was a fine player – just not as good as the galaxy of stars we had been used to for over a decade. No, the problem with signing Mtch D’Avray was the other South African trialist who Robson didn’t sign.
He was born in Sweden, brought up in South Africa and undoubtedly homesick. But he went on to be at least the equal of any defender that Robson ever managed. Richard Gough.
6. Sergei Baltacha
Most football fans of a certain vintage fondly remember Arnold Muhren crossing for Marco van Basten to lash in ‘that’ volley in the 1998 European Championship final. Few noticed a rather slight, Russian defender who was nowhere to be seen at that fateful moment. But fast forward a few months and Sergei Baltacha was making headline news not just in Suffolk – but around the world.
It seemed totally bizarre at the time – and 30 years on, still appears utterly absurd. Glasnost had arrived and Russia was seemingly keen to let some aged pros loose in the western world. John Duncan had allegedly seen some videos. Sergei knew of Town’s recent European forays and a young director called David Sheepshanks sensed a golden opportunity for self-publicity. All the pieces were in place for a right howler to occur.
From memory he cost £200,000 – plus a Lada and a house. Quite an outlay – but this was the first Russian footballer to play in English football. Almost 1,000 saw him turn out against Southampton reserves – three times the average at reserve fixtures. This was big news. And then came the main event… history in the making.
Sergei’s debut at home to Stoke is probably a treasured memory for anyone who was there. A 5-1 scoreline surely heralded even greater moments to come. Sergei scored. He looked very excited, bless him as he was mobbed by his colleagues – all of whom were probably wondering why he was playing right wing (surely a communist should be left wing?)
Alas reality bit back rather quickly and Sergei never enjoyed such giddy heights in a Town shirt ever again. Hardly surprising really. You didn’t need hindsight to know a team that didn’t play a sweeper with a manager who probably didn’t even know what a sweeper was would struggle to incorporate this slight, and admittedly rather slow figure into a defence and division perhaps more suited to David Linighan’s gritty gifts.
He was a fish out of water from day one, but an immensely likeable person and player. It was hardly his fault after all. Today he is largely remembered as the father of his daughter and a more successful career in Scotland. And, somewhat uniquely is perhaps fondly remembered as both one of the most gifted players to pull on a Town shirt and one of the daftest signings.
7. Gabriel Batisituta
Fast forward to 1994 and we arrive at perhaps the ultimate absurdity in Town’s somewhat chequered transfer dealing history. Town had been chasing West Ham’s Tony Cottee (his allegedly homesick wife would be so much closer to Liverpool in Ipswich after all).
But then rumours began to surface in the normally reliable Independent about a global superstar – a legendary Argentine striker whose signing would shock the footballing world. It couldn’t be true could it, the fabled Batigol playing in Town shirt? But then… ‘It’s Batistuta!’ screeched the local rag apparently picking up on the Independent's story that a disgruntled Gabriel Batistuta was in talks for a £2 million switch to Town.
Alas when John Lyall returned from his South American sojourn, he brought with him not an Argentine demigod, but alleged Uruguay striker Adrian Paz. What did those excited journos make of that little bombshell I wonder?
Now football sophisticates like me, who watched pretentious James Richardson sipping cappuccino whilst presenting Football Italia on Channel 4 immediately smelt a rat. We were well aware of two gifted Uruguayan forwards plying their trade in Italy – Rueben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca. So who on earth was Adrian Paz?
Well he was undeniably Uruguayan, making him the first Uruguayan to play in English football. But he was hardly the swashbuckler that Gabriel Batistuta might have been. Paz was ridiculously lightweight, more noted for his mullet than his footballing presence.
His reported million-pound signature yielded precisely one goal. Quite what Lyall thought he was getting is unclear to this day, but the happy or unhappy accidents that many transfers become, is perhaps best illustrated by the makeweight in this ridiculous deal – Mauricio Taricco. One of Town’s best ever signings came as the afterthought in the deal that brought in perhaps their very worst signing. What are the chances of that?
8. Bontcho Lyubomirov Guentchev
By now Bobby Robson was long gone, but he came back to haunt us with Bontcho. Another first. This time Bulgarian. And our first dubious signing to be seriously questioned by the Football League, perhaps mindful of Adrian Paz’s doubtful provenance.
And lo it did indeed seem that Bontcho’s CV had been a bit exaggerated, shall we say. The confirmation from the Bulgarian FA contained a few phantom caps that nobody could verify. No matter, he was recommended by Bobby Robson who was doing something of a clear out at Sporting Lisbon – and ever helpful, he also threw in Vlado Bozinoski into the mix to act as translator.
Vlado managed nine appearances, presumably on his linguistic ability. Bontcho by contrast became something of a cult hero by being both an amiable showman and somewhat useless.
It mattered not one jot that if you saw him notch a hat-trick against Grimsby, you saw half the goals he was to score for Town. Bontcho bizarrely had a star quality of sorts. He even appeared in a World Cup semi-final, perhaps confirming the view that you don’t necessarily have to be that good to reach a World Cup semi. After three years and six goals he was gone. To Luton.
Like Sergei Baltacha before him, Bontcho left a lasting impression that outweighs his impact on the pitch. I remember, briefly, he ran ‘Strikers’, a Bulgarian eatery, somewhat misplaced in Kensington, that was surely years ahead of its time. And two sons played for Lowestoft Town
9. Take your pick
George Burley brought in a strange and eclectic mix of wrong-uns long before he started flailing around in the Premier League. So for me you can forget your Matteo Serenis, Andy Marshalls, Ulrich le Pens, Finidi Georges, Amir Karics, John Scales, Chris Makins et al.
For connoisseurs of the truly questionable deal, you have to go back further, beyond even Gary Croft, Lee Chapman, Gerry Creaney and Samassi Abou. For there at the very bottom of the barrel you will find Marco Holster.
I am not quite sure what Burley saw in Holster. Perhaps there was something in the coffee when the fateful deal was done. Suffice it so say, against all the evidence of his own eyes, Burley put Holster straight into the team against Grimsby. Alas I was there and rarely can someone so ineffectual have played for Town.
Even now, I shudder when I recall all the enthusiasm for the 1998/99 season sucked out on day one by a grim 0-0 draw at even grimmer Blundell Park. He played a few times more. For the life of me I cannot recall why.
10. Too many to count
Since Town became part of The Marcus Evans Group the revolving door has twirled so fast and so often that this article is utterly redundant. You could write an encyclopaedia on who has come in and gone in recent years.
From the moment Jim Magilton first went shopping on the Marcus Evans’s millions like a kid in sweet shop, through Bowyer, Thatcher, Bullard and dozens of other absurdities, there are way too many horrors to mention. But, for me as I try to blank out the last decade, two signings stand out as spectacularly and staggeringly inept. Michael Chopra and Janoi Donacien.
10.1 Michael Chopra
The ghastly threat of Chopra pulling on a Town shirt first surfaced in Roy Keane’s dismal reign. He was after all exactly what we needed – ‘a 20-goal a season striker’. Well, no, he wasn’t. He’d managed to get 20 goals just once (and some time previously) in his entire career.
Worse still it was well known that he came with a certain amount of baggage attached. Thankfully the Chopra rumours went away.
Then, like a particularly bad smell, the Chopra rumours returned. One change of manager and a drop in price for the tarnished 20-goal-a-season striker later and yippee, he was ours.
Rumours of staggering gambling debts and Northern heavies coming a calling, came with him of course. He actually managed 18 goals as his career seemingly spiralled out of control, which isn’t too bad. Just not as good as Mick Hill.
10.2 Janoi Donacien
The sad, sorry and ongoing Janoi Donacien saga is surely so bizarre that it perhaps deserves top billing for absurdity in Town’s entire transfer dealing history.
Brought in with much fanfare in Paul Hurst’s all too brief honeymoon period, Donacien, was either a full-back or central defender (we and two managers are still unsure which).
Incredibly, he couldn’t actually sign, something to do with the Home Office no less. Rather than walk away, Town dug themselves into a bigger hole and brought him in on loan.
Then Hurst was stabbed in the back (‘Et tu, Marcus?’) and in came Paul Lambert, who quickly, perhaps even wisely, made it his mission to ostracise anything associated with Hurst.
So Donacien, who started off as something we so desperately needed – one of those lower league players we’d yearned for, spotted by ace star maker Hurst, was now lost in limbo. And not given the sniff of a chance, despite results not improving.
Then Eureka, after a few months the Home Office ticked some boxes and he was ours. Only he wasn’t. The poor guy, once signed, was promptly loaned back to Accrington. Proof, if it were needed that Town are still well capable of some strange, surreal and spectacularly silly signings.
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