La Liga Lowdown’s Top 10 British & Irish Imports: The Ranking
Written by Sam Leveridge
A look back into the history of football in Spain brings up many theories of how the nation’s most loved game came to the Iberian peninsula. The most common is that it was Brits who brought the game to Spain, backed up by the fact that the first official game of football on Spanish soil, between Recreativo Huelva and Sevilla in 1890, featured 18 British players and just four Spaniards.
Nowadays, the legacy has continued, albeit in fewer numbers. A grand total of 38 British and Irishmen have had the good fortune of stepping out as a LaLiga player. Here, we narrow them down into a top 10 ranking. Using your votes, we created a ranking of the top 10 British and Irish imports into LaLiga. Tune in to our podcast here as Euan McTear counts down the selection with Paco Polit, Román de Arquer, Matt Clark, Sam Leveridge, Hasan Karim, Dan Parry, Gregor Chappelle and Alex Brotherton. Then read on to find out where your favourites have ended up.
10. Michael Owen
Club: Real Madrid
Goals: 16 Michael Owen’s stint at Real Madrid was brief, lasting just one season, but he still convinced 8% of voters to pick him among the best. Many think of Owen’s spell in Madrid as one of a bench-warmer, but there were only two matches in which he failed to appear and he actually boasted the best minutes-per-goal ratio of anyone in the Gálactico era of players. Not bad for a centre-forward who was regularly played out wide.
9. Vinny Samways
Clubs: Las Palmas, Sevilla, Algeciras, San Pedro (manager)
Years: 1996-2002 (Las Palmas), 2002-2003 (Sevilla), 2004-2005 (Algeciras), 2006-2008 (San Pedro)
Appearances: 100 (72 for Las Palmas, 10 for Sevilla, 18 for Algeciras)
Goals: 2 (1 for Las Palmas, 1 for Algeciras) Nicknamed “El Guiri”, a derogatory term for foreigners, by opposition fans, Vinny Samways’ move to Spain brought some tough tackling to Segunda, seeing red six times and yellow 32 times at Las Palmas. 10% of our fans believe that his controversial career was among the best in LaLiga.
He felt at home in the Canary Islands, waving his wages to continue at the club and eventually moving to Sevilla, but he continued to live there. When options dried up and he was forced to return to Walsall, he commuted from Gran Canaria and even missed a game against Coventry as he’d stayed in Spain. A career in the lower leagues and coaching followed, but Samways found more than a career opportunity in Spain.
8. Michael Robinson
Perhaps better known for his media career than his playing days, 13% selected former Osasuna striker Michael Robinson among their top picks. After leaving European champions and boyhood club Liverpool, he moved to Osasuna but a knee injury would cut his career short at the age of just 31.
7. Laurie Cunningham
Club: Real Madrid, Sporting Gijón & Rayo Vallecano
Years: 1979-1984 (Real Madrid), 1983-1984 (Sporting Gijón), 1986-1987 & 1988-1989 (Rayo Vallecano)
Appearances: 152 (66 for Real Madrid, 30 for Sporting Gijón, 56 for Rayo Vallecano)
Goals: 27 (20 for Real Madrid, 3 for Sporting Gijón, 4 for Rayo Vallecano)
Trophies: 3 (2x Copa del Rey, 1x LaLiga for Real Madrid)
West Brom to Real Madrid is an unusual career move, but it was just that which made Laurie Cunningham the first British player to feature for Los Blancos, also becoming one of LaLiga’s few black players. 19% recognised the importance of his legacy, despite injuries, with La Liga Lowdown’s Paco Polit even saying that he helped to change the perception of black players in Spain.
He returned to Madrid later in his career, playing in a holding midfield role for Rayo Vallecano as he adapted his game, keeping in mind the injuries which blighted him. After scoring a promotion-winning goal for Rayo in 1989, he tragically passed away in a traffic accident after a night out in Madrid.
6. John Aldridge
Club: Real Sociedad
More than just an Irishman in LaLiga, John Aldridge was the very first non-Basque player to ever don the blue-and-white stripes of La Real. At first, it drew criticism from fans, Aldridge being booed and spat at in the streets with graffiti against him at the training ground after he joined for a club-record transfer fee.
He soon won fans over by immersing himself in local culture and his impressive performances which fired Real Sociedad into the UEFA Cup. After two seasons, his family were struggling to settle and he requested a move back home. Dan Parry told La Liga Lowdown that to this day, the club look to players to share many traits of Aldridge when they join the club.
5. Steve Archibald
Clubs: Barcelona & Espanyol
Years: 1984-1987 (Barcelona), 1990 (Espanyol)
Appearances: 70 (55 for Barcelona, 15 for Espanyol)
Goals: 29 (24 for Barcelona, 5 for Espanyol)
Trophies: 1 (1x LaLiga with Barcelona)
Known as ‘Archigoles’, Terry Venables brought Steve Archibald to Camp Nou to replace Diego Maradona. Today, that seems unbelievable, but 25% of fans included him in their top choices for a reason. A debut goal against Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu certainly helped that reputation.
Crucial goals for Barcelona were not enough as a foreign player limit of two held him back when he returned from injuries, with Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes for company. He would eventually move on, later returning to Barcelona, where he lives today, with a spell at Espanyol in Segunda to help them earn promotion back to the Spanish top flight.
4. Steve McManaman
Club: Real Madrid
Trophies: 8 (2x Champions League, 2x LaLiga, 2x Copa del Rey, 1x Intercontinental Cup, 1x UEFA Super Cup) An iconic figure for many Madridistas, 36% of fans include the Scouser in their top picks of British imports into La Liga. Spending many of his best years at the Bernabéu, he joined on a free transfer after a switch to Barcelona fell through not long before. A fine Champions League final volley against Valencia was the highlight of a successful spell.
Fans were desperate for McManaman to stay when Florentino Pérez sought to move him on to start the Gálactico era, as his integration into Spain, his impressive Spanish and his workrate had won the hearts and minds of Real Madrid supporters.
3. Gary Lineker
Trophies: 2 (1x Copa del Rey, 1x UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup)
Beating Maradona to the Golden Ball at the 1986 World Cup, Gary Lineker was poached from Everton to join Barcelona and scored twice in a 2-0 win on his debut, becoming the first Englishman to play for the club. 42% of voters remembered his spell fondly, including a hat-trick against Real Madrid in a 3-2 victory at the Camp Nou in that first season.
In the end, he would not fit into Johan Cruyff’s system, the Dutchman shifting the centre-forward into wide areas where he was not as comfortable. Venables had brought him to Barcelona and he would bring him back to London in 1989 too, signing him for Tottenham.
2. David Beckham
Club: Real Madrid
Trophies: 2 (1x LaLiga, 1x Spanish Super Cup) The ultimate Gálactico, 55% of fans define Beckham as the ultimate import. An iconic player who changed Spanish football in the same way that he had changed the celebrity image of players in the UK too. Costing €37 million, it was clear that his signing went beyond just football, with his number 23 shirt selling over one million times in his first year, accounting for more than 50% of shirt sales.
He scored on his home debut to win the Spanish Super Cup and performed well on the field, despite frequent changes in the dugout affecting the team’s consistency. After agreeing a move to LA Galaxy in 2007, Beckham was adamant that he would give his all until the very end, winning the LaLiga title for the very first time in his final game for the club. For the remarkable full story of Becks’ story in Spain, check out our podcast on him here.
1. Gareth Bale
Club: Real Madrid
Appearances: 249 (and counting).
Trophies: 14 (4x Champions League, 4x Club World Cup, 3x UEFA Super Cup, 1x LaLiga, 1x Copa del Rey, 1x Spanish Super Cup)
Gareth Bale tops the voting with 67% of our audience including him as one of their top picks. Real Madrid had their work cut out to negotiate a deal to bring Bale in from Tottenham for a world-record transfer fee of €100 million in 2013, but it was certainly worth it. A year later, he had scored crucial goals against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final to win big titles against the club’s biggest rivals.
Forming part of the team’s legendary “BBC” front line with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, injuries would impact Bale’s career and see him struggle to maintain that early form. Under Zinedine Zidane, his travails have continued and a departure now seems likely, with injuries and a love of golf turning some influential figures in the media against him. With 14 trophies and 105 goals under his belt already though, no British or Irish player can compete with what the Welshman has achieved in Spain.
Do you agree with our ranking? Think Ian Harte or Kieran Trippier should have made the cut? Let us know and read more on all of these British & Irish superstars, by taking a look at our Twitter thread running through the ranking here.
If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or just want to learn more footballing Spanish than Gareth Bale - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown.