Bethnal Green is a tough place to grow up. At the heart of London’s East End, it is a little different to the beaches of Gran Canaria. Yet there is one thing that connects them: namely, Vinny Samways, a midfielder who was brought up in the East End before moving on to enjoy a distinguished career in Spain.
Prior to embarking on his journey to the Canary Islands, Samways had enjoyed a respectable career in England. Coming through the youth system at Tottenham, he would go on to play over 250 games at White Hart Lane before moving to Everton in 1994. Unfortunately, the midfielder was unable to settle on Merseyside and, after two brief loans to the West Midlands with Wolves and Birmingham, he was to make the bold move abroad.
Following in the footsteps of Dalian Atkinson, Gary Lineker and Laurie Cunningham, Samways was to represent something of a rule breaker. The aforementioned trio, who were later followed by the likes of David Beckham and Steve McManaman, were either renowned creators or goalscorers. Samways, meanwhile, was a combative central midfielder, with his £700,000 move to Las Palmas in 1996 going on to represent a huge anomaly.
One only has to look at his debut for Las Palmas to see this, where Samways would last just 13 minutes on the pitch before being sent off. This is something that would become a feature of his time in Spain, with the player renowned for being a tough hardman in the centre of midfield. Indeed, fans of other teams developed something of a dislike for the Englishman, nicknaming him “El Giri”, meaning foreign scum.
This, however, is the polar opposite of how Las Palmas supporters received the player. A group of fans insisted on bringing a British flag to every home match in his honour, going so far to name their fan club after him. The reasoning for such adulation can be seen in the way teammate Paquito Ortiz states Samways acted differently to other foreign players in Spain, giving his all from the beginning and not needing a period to settle in.
His all-action style would result in a disciplinary record that would prove to be one of the defining features of Samways’ spell in Gran Canaria. In his time in Iberia, he would pick up six red cards. Such poor discipline is attributed to his English background, with Paquito commenting: “Vinny is not monstrous, he is just a typical virile British player who wants to win every ball.”
The same sentiment was reflected by the man himself, who placed blame on the officiating of matches: “I’m not an animal like they say. The refs over here just don’t allow you to do anything. I used to think English officials were bad but, compared to this lot, they are sensational.”
Despite the seeming incompatibility of Samways and Spain, the two would mesh to form a fruitful relationship lasting seven years. In his first season in the Canaries, he would help Las Palmas finish seventh in the Segunda División, some 18 points off promotion. There would also be a run all the way to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, where Valencia and Espanyol were dispensed off before Barcelona proved too great an obstacle, in a 7-0 aggregate defeat.
Nevertheless, the following 1997/98 season would see an improvement in the league, although, despite ending in the playoffs, Las Palmas would narrowly lose 4-3 on aggregate to Real Oviedo. Promotion would finally arrive in the 1999/00 season, as they won the league, securing their spot in LaLiga for the first time since 1988.
Given his pedigree of playing in the Premiership during the 1990s for Tottenham, the experience possessed by a now 31-year-old Samways would prove invaluable. Las Palmas would finish 11th in their first season back in the top-flight. Predictably, the Englishman continued to be regularly cautioned, collecting 15 yellows across just 31 games.
Ironically, the most violent incident to take place during that season was something that occurred off the pitch, involving an altercation with Oktay Derelioğlu, one of Samways’ own teammates. Allegedly arising over gambling debts the Turk owed from travelling to away matches, the result was a training ground punch-up with repercussions.
There were two sides to this story, with Oktay claiming a group of English hooligans had turned up at his house and racially abused him following the incident; Samways stated the Turk was simply looking for a way out of Las Palmas. Either way, the result saw Oktay returning home to sign for Trabzonspor.
Samways’ persona had changed massively during his time in Spain. In England, he was always seen as a technical, talented player, but was derided for being too slight and too weak to withstand the physicality of the Premiership. His style saw him unfairly nicknamed ‘Vinny Sideways’ in some quarters, although this way of playing was much more suited to Spain. Samways would become the fulcrum of the Las Palmas side, even being made captain on several occasions.
Unfortunately, things would go wrong during the following 2001/02 season. Las Palmas struggled on the pitch, relegated in 18th place. Meanwhile, away from the field, mounting debts meant players went months without wages. As is the case with any relegated side, top-flight clubs circled like vultures, hoping to secure a bargain. Understandably, Samways was one of the prime targets and eventually signed for Sevilla.
This was a decision he struggled with personally, commenting upon leaving: “I’ve left a lot of good friends in the Canaries after spending so many years there. My reasons for leaving are purely professional.” Such was the love he felt for Las Palmas, Samways would waive the right to several months wages in order to ease their financial woes.
Unfortunately, a move to the mainland would not work out as successfully for Samways. Signed at the personal request of manager Joaquín Caparrós, he was initially entrusted as a starter, before a training ground altercation with an assistant coach led to him struggling to get back into the starting line-up. After just 13 appearances, he would move on in the winter transfer window.
It appeared for all the world this would come in the form of either a move to Córdoba or return to Las Palmas, however Samways instead returned to England, to help Walsall preserve their Division One status. “I’ve been looking for a new challenge for a while. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Spain and no doubt will end up going back there sooner or later,” said the midfielder upon signing.
As it transpired, a return to his adopted homeland would come extremely soon. Samways’ decision for his family to remain in Spain saw him commuting to the West Midlands, with one bizarre incident coming in January 2004, as he failed to show up for a match against Coventry. Manager Colin Lee was furious, commenting, “If he’s not in the country, we can hardly play him, can we?”
Following Walsall’s relegation at the end of the season, Samways returned to Spain, signing for Segunda B outfit Algeciras. The Englishman would play a solitary campaign in the port situated on the Bay of Gibraltar, choosing to retire at the end of the season, aged 36. He would then prolong his stay in Spain further, coaching amateur side San Pedro for two years, prior to settling in Málaga.
The career enjoyed by Vinny Samways is something of an oddity. He remains far more renowned in Spain than England, being revered today as one of Las Palmas’ finest players in recent decades. That his style was the antithesis of the technical approach appreciated in Spain makes the situation all the more bizarre, but it is such uniqueness that makes him loved in Gran Canaria to this day.
By James Kelly @jkell403