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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » The tale of Tad Nowak - Bolton Wanderers' first-ever foreign signing

The tale of Tad Nowak - Bolton Wanderers' first-ever foreign signing

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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Long before Djorkaeff, Okocha, Hierro or Campo, one man led the foreign invasion at Wanderers – and legend has it, he was signed for the princely sum of £50,000 and “three tractors”.

Tadeusz “Taddy” Nowak was the balding Polish winger plucked from military club Legia Warsaw in March 1979 as upwardly mobile Bolton looked to join with a wave of multi-cultural signings in the English game.

The dazzling colour and tickertape of the World Cup in Argentina had opened clubs’ eyes to the depth of footballing waters around them and within months there were exotic names for commentators to conjure with like Tottenham’s Argentines Ossie Ardilles and Ricky Villa, Birmingham’s Alberto Tarantini, Sheffield United’s Alberto Sabella – the Blades having decided that £400,000 for the teenage Diego Maradona was a bit pricey – and Ipswich’s Dutchmen Arnold Murhen and Frans Thijssen.

Not wanting to miss out on the trend, Wanderers acted on a tip from scout Jim Conway that players previously locked behind the Iron Curtain in mainland Europe were now becoming available.

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Nowak had been a first team regular for Legia for nearly a decade by the time he turned up at Burnden Park but had played just twice for his country, his caps coming five years apart against Switzerland in 1972 and Hungary in 1977.

He had been an unused member of the squad on several occasions but his lack of games said more about the quality of the Polish squad at the time than his own shortcomings.

Under Kazimierz Górski the Poles had become a quiet force in European football, winning Olympic gold in Munich in 1972 without losing a game and then famously knocking England out of the qualifying group for the 1974 World Cup.

The outcry in the English press spelled the end of Sir Alf Ramsey’s reign as manager but the overreaction owed at least something to the general ignorance of how good the Polish side had become.

Nowak was unable to shift talents like Kazimierz Deyna, Robert Gadocha and Grzegorz Lato to gain regular football for his country, who finished third in Germany, but helped Legia become a stubborn European opponent for the likes of AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

It was only after the 1978 tournament that the Polish military began to relax its rules on allowing players to play abroad and Denya became the chief beneficiary, signing a £100,000 deal to play for Manchester City the same summer.

His time at Maine Road was famously inconsistent. Six goals in six games at the end of his first season helped him gain some notoriety on the terraces – but injuries and a love-hate relationship with his manager, Tony Book, meant he was rarely out of the headlines.

At the same time, Wanderers were looking to bring a 30-year-old Nowak to England. Details of the negotiation must surely rank among the more bizarre in the club’s history.

Legia were unprepared to allow their player to leave the country without something sweetening the £50,000 deal, namely tractors.

Thankfully, Ian Greaves’ links with Huddersfield had seen him get friendly with a representative of the David Brown agricultural machinery firm in the town. He was able to sort exporting some of the machines, which paved the way for the transfer to be completed.

Deyna’s issues with consistency at City were also giving Nowak cold feet and it was only after several trips back and forth to Poland that a Bolton envoy including Greaves, a translator and secretary Des McBain were finally able to get pen on paper on March 29, 1979.

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Even then they were forced to wait for international clearance but Greaves was convinced he had landed a player who could make a difference, even though the manager would later admit he was sceptical about the age Nowak claimed on his birth certificate.

“He will take time to settle,” warned the Bolton boss. “But the main thing is that he is coming.

“He will be our second winger with Willie Morgan and that is just what we need.”

Depending on semantics, Nowak might not actually be the first foreign footballer to sign for Bolton. That honour goes to South African midfielder Jimmy Moncur, whose move from Durban City in the mid-1960s was held up by red tape, preventing him from ever making a first team appearance.

But the Pole was certainly something out of the ordinary for the thousands making the pilgrimage down the Manchester Road to Burnden and the buzz around the town was echoed in a daily update on the back pages of the BEN on how the new man was getting along.

Nowak’s quality was quickly identified on the training pitch – but former team-mate Peter Nicholson admits there were teething troubles from the off.

“He was a good lad, clearly a good player, and he glided across the pitch – never seen anyone as quick,” he told The Bolton News. “But he was lazy.

“We’d created a team who really did work hard, they were grafters, even the wingers like Peter Thompson and Willie Morgan. But when we brought Taddy in he would be there waiting for the ball.

“If I remember rightly Jim (Conway) had watched him playing as a centre-forward but when he turned up he said he was a winger – so that’s where he stayed.”

But did Nicko believe the tractor tale?

"I think it's right," he told us. "It's certainly what the lads heard back then!"

Nowak played just twice in the final two months of the 1978/79 season, the first as a substitute in the 3-2 home defeat against Ipswich Town made famous by Frank Worthington’s amazing goal.

His first start came in a final day defeat to Spurs as Worthington netted for the final time in the league for Bolton, the 26th of a campaign that would see the “Working Class George Best” crowned Golden Shoe winner.

Pre-season would give Nowak a chance to acclimatise and indulge in his twin passions – music and learning the local lingo.

“He was always immersed in ‘learn English’ books and Pink Floyd on headphones,” recalled Wanderers fan – and Nowak’s mate, Phil Parker.

“He loved buying vinyl records to take back home and would walk around singing The Wall in a Polish accent.”

Nowak had been given the nickname “Ferrari” by the Polish press after his starring role in a UEFA Cup game at the San Siro, which is thought to have prompted AC Milan to make an unsuccessful bid for his services a few years before the Bolton move.

His taste in motors in real life, however, was a little more reserved.

“He had a friend, Ryszard Kowenicki, who played for Oldham at the same time,” Parker recalled.

“Before Tad bought a second-hand Toyota Starlet myself and Nicho (Peter Nicholson) used to pick him up from Walkden and take him over to see Rys play.”

In August 1979, Wanderers had the privilege of welcoming Dutch giants Ajax to Burnden – a pre-season friendly that Nicholson still regards as Nowak’s best game.

“He was brilliant that day,” he said. “The club had only opened one stand, I think was Manchester Road, but this was a team that had been European champions – they were queueing all the way into town to get a look at them.

“We lost the game 3-1 but he was a class above.”

Club historian and secretary Simon Marland has his own recollection of Nowak on the day.

“I can remember him during the national anthems,” he said. “Tad was totally oblivious that they were happening and he just went out on a one-man warm-up in the driving rain.”

Sadly, as Nowak did get fit enough to feature more prominently, Wanderers’ fortunes were on the wane.

He played in four out of the five Anglo-Scottish Cup games, scoring against Oldham and St Mirren, but got injured a few weeks into the season and struggled to get fit again.

Greaves was sacked by the end of January 1980, by which time the Pole had only managed four starts. He earned regular football under Stan Anderson and scored in a 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough at Burnden but failed to prevent Bolton from dropping out of the top division.

He played just twice more the following season, against Cardiff and Swansea, before returning home with Legia and moving into coaching with Piast Nowa Ruda.

The signing of Nowak only opened the door a crack for foreign players at Bolton. Yugoslav midfielder Dusan Nikolic came in from Red Star Belgrade in 1980 and unless you count the Malta-born Ian Stevens, it was not until the start of the 1994/95 season when Mixu Paatelainen, Richard Sneekes and Fabian DeFreitas were signed by Bruce Rioch that the club started to experiment with continental footballers again.

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Nikolic, recalls Nicholson, was a player who certainly enjoyed the freedoms of Western society after joining from Red Star Begrade.

“Nikolic was some player,” he said. “His problem was that he didn’t speak a word of English and in those days you didn’t have player liaisons or anything like that. Frank Booth or Gordon Sharrock (BEN journalists) were our link to the real world.

“He mated up with Dave Clement and Dusan’s problem was that he liked a drink, and his drink was shorts. He’d always be throwing parties and trying to get the lads back to his house in Bromley Cross but we’d be like ‘come on mate, there’s a game tomorrow!”

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