Thirty years ago today, Denis Smith was looking to bolster his team defensively as they struggled to come to terms with the harsh realities of top flight football – and he was casting admiring glances in the direction of Scandinavia.
Early performances were good – we’d impressed with an attacking brand of football that earned plaudits, and Marco had announced his arrival in style, with stunning strikes at Norwich and Chelsea in particular.
However, we’d struggled to put points on the board. The brilliant home win against Manchester United when Benno turned into Pele was our only three points from the first nine games, and after a heavy 3-0 defeat at Villa – in which Tony Norman had let an easy one inexplicably slip through his fingers – we were in 16th position with six points.
In the four fixtures away from home we’d conceded 11 goals, and it was clear defensive reinforcements were needed, however money was tight – as it typically was under Bob Murray, We’d signed Kevin Ball and Peter Davenport, both for around £350,000, and Bally had struggled to add any solidarity to the defence.
At fullback, Reuban Agboola had started the season on the left, with Paul Hardyman playing in front of him on the left of midfield – in an attempt to, presumably, add some defensive strength.
Still it hadn’t worked and Smith was looking for a new left back. In truth, throughout his time at the club, he was continually looking for a new left back.
So a number of full backs were being looked at, and Scandanavia seemed to offer a number of options.
20-year-old Norwegian Stig Inge Bjornebye, had joined the club on a two-week trial, while scouts were being sent to Sweden to watch two other players; Gunnar Halle and Dennis Schiller, both of Lillestrom.
“To be honest, Halle was the one we had our eye on first, but both he and Schiller can play on either side of the field,” says Smith.
Kongsvinger’s Bjorneby had made one reserve team outing, and was primed for another. Smith said, “As the Norwegian season is over we’ve got him as long as we want him, but for both our sakes we’d like to make a decision as soon as possible.
“He’s strong, reasonably quick and has a good touch, but he has realised the difference between part-time and full-time football.”
Permanent moves for the trio never eventuated, of course.
Halle joined Oldham the following year, and had a good career at Boundary Park before playing for Leeds and Bradford. Schiller, who played 14 games for Sweden in his career, stayed at Lillestrom until 1996, chalking up over 200 appearances for them.
While Halle and Schiller never actually came on trial, Bjornabye, of course, did and having failed to impress was sent on his way. Two years later he turned up at Liverpool, after a brief spell with Rosenberg, and had a long and successful career in English football.
Two other left backs did come on trial around the same time as Stig – Bulgarian Alexander Markov of Slavia Soifa and Yugoslavian Slobodan Marovic of Red Star Belgrade.
Neither were deemed of sufficient quality, and like Bjornabye, weren’t offered a contract.
As for Smith’s left back search, it didn’t ever really reach a conclusion. Youngster Anthony Smith was drafted into the team and Dunfermline’s Ray Sharp continually linked, however we played the season out with Hardyman primarily playing left back.
Later that season Marovic played in the European Cup Final. In what was one of the poorest Finals on record, the tough tackling full back kept Chris Waddle quiet as Marseille failed to breakthrough the Red Star defence, and the Yugoslavs winning the Cup on penalties.
Still, he missed out on playing in front of that crowd at Maine Road on the last day of the season. So who’s the real winner, eh Slobodan?