The first Flying Dutchman
Discounting the Scots that were imported in the early days of the clubs history with the attraction of jobs at the Woolwich Arsenal the clubs first foreign import was a Dutchman. He was also the first continental European Footballer to play in the Football League though a Canadian who had played for Accrington in 1892 is considered the first foreigner.
Gerrit Keizer, a reserve 'keeper at Ajax at the time, came to England in 1930 to improve his English and pursue commercial interests in greengrocery. He was spotted by the legendary Herbert Chapman while playing for non-league side Margate. A club that shortly after became an official 'nursery` side for Arsenal employing players and a manager subsidised by the club playing on a pitch adapted to the same size as that at Highbury. Youth team players such as Reg Lewis, scorer of the goals that won the 1950 FA Cup final, cut their teeth at Margate before the FA banned 'nursery` clubs.
Chapman picked Keizer as first choice keeper in the opening games of the '30/31 season enabling him to collect a winners medal in that seasons Charity Shield game against Sheffield Wednesday. Though an Arsenal player he was still on Ajaxs` books and unlike our infinitely more famous Dutch import and former Ajax player, Dennis Bergkamp, didn`t have any problems with air travel. Even in those early days of commercial flights, this 'Flying Dutchman`, as team-mates and journalists of the time inevitably dubbed him, would play for us on a Saturday and fly to Amsterdam to turn out for Ajax reserves on the Sunday.
Maybe this form of pre-match preparation wasn`t the best as he failed to keep a clean sheet in any of the 12 games he played, was dropped and never played for us again. In truth it appears he was always a somewhat erratic 'keeper, the Ajax website recalls him as alternating between breathtaking saves and phenomenal blunders. Cliff Bastin described him as a 'crazy character` whose American sports car greatly impressed his other team-mates. He left us in July `31 to join Charlton Athletic and later moved on to QPR but his gunner connections were to prove of great benefit to the Ajax side to whom he returned in 1933.
Gerrit went on to become the Amsterdam clubs number one for 15 years also winning a couple of caps for the national side. But Ajax struggled with their finances in the austere period following world war two and it was Keizer who travelled to England to enlist the help of the Arsenal. He came back with a set of kit and footballs donated by the club and Ajax played their immediate post war games in the red and white strip of Arsenal. Keizers wife was responsible for washing the kits and did so until a mix up turned the white sleeves pink and Ajax stopped wearing them. A pink sleeved shirt is still proudly displayed in the Ajax Museum.
His cross channel ventures weren`t without it`s problems as he was discovered breaching the strict currency control rules of the time and in 1947 was convicted of smuggling British banknotes into the country in a set of footballs and sentenced to 6 months in a Dutch jail. His entrepreneurial instincts remained undimmed as he went on to become a successful Amsterdam greengrocer and was invited onto the Ajax board in 1955 for 7 years. Keizer passed away 1980 at the age of 70.
It seems appropriate that the innovative, ground breaking Chapman would be the first to introduce a European player and in fact had tried, earlier that same summer, to sign an Austrian Rodolphe Hiden, regarded at the time as the best 'keeper in Europe. Hiden was refused entry when he arrived at Dover by the Ministry of Labour, prompted by an FA concerned at the threat of foreign imports, Chapman outraged the FA when he instead recruited Keizer who was already in the country and signed as an amateur. Such was the furore at the time that a direct consequence of these events was that the FA introduced a rule in June 1931 banning all foreigners unless they had been resident in the country for a minimum of 2 years.
Chapmans actions were considered unreasonable by the FA at the time though they ignored the wisdom in the words of Shaw "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Little did Chapman and Arsenal realise at the time that in signing the Football Leagues first European they would spark a debate that would endure some 80 years later. Chances are, if he is looking down from the great dressing room in the sky, Chapman is doing so with a great big smirk on his face.