When it comes to looking at English players who have played abroad in the past, tales of mix fortunes are ever present. On the one hand, you’ve got the success of players such as Gary Linekar at Barcelona, Kevin Keegan at Hamburg (winning two consecutive European player of the year awards during his time there) and Glenn Hoddle’s successful spell at French side Marseille, but on the other hand you’ve got many who have struggled to adjust to playing in a foreign league. Michael Owen had a very slow start to life at Real Madrid and only managed 18 goals from 41 games; Jonathan Woodgate had one of the worst starts in history, scoring an own goal and then being sent off for two bookable offences on his debut, in an equally torrid spell for the Spanish giants, both seeking refuge quickly back to English football at Newcastle and Middlesbrough respectively. Back in the early days, when perhaps we as nation weren’t so open minded about European football, calling Ajax, A Jax and so forth, Paul Gascoigne arrived in the capital of Italy, signing for Lazio and greeting the chairman with an Italian phrase ‘tua figlia, grande tette’, which translates to ‘your daughter, big tits’.
After a few punch-ups with reporters and belching down a microphone, it didn’t seem to be quite the match made in heaven they were after, and they soon parted ways and Gascoigne joined Rangers. Examples like these go on, Beckham’s fluctuating time at Real, Paul Ince (despite having a successful two years at Inter Milan, quickly wanted a return back to England) and Welshman Ian Rush’s complete failure at Juventus. Perhaps it’s these tales of misfortunes that make England players of today so reluctant to move abroad. It is true that in the past, we have not liked to venture out of our home comforts, but as of today, going into the European qualifier against Lithuania, we currently have NO ONE playing outside of the Premier League. In fact, apart from Forster (who has incidentally been ruled out through injury) we have no one who has ever played outside of the Premier League, and Forster played in the Scottish Premiership, which is not exactly abroad.
When you look at other top European footballing nations, such as World Cup winners Germany, European Championship holders Spain or 2006 World Cup winners Italy, you start to see that we are one of the only nations whose players don’t play abroad. In a post World Cup disappointment many pundits blamed the way in which we coach our youth and the system of bringing them up through to the senior side. They looked at the German model and how that has worked so well, the total football philosophy in Holland and the tiki taka style of Spanish players. All of this is very true, but perhaps one thing we should consider is our ignorance and reluctance towards playing in foreign leagues. The invaluable experience of actually playing with these players day in and day out, living and training with them everyday, Paul Lambert, albeit Scottish, called his time at Borussia Dortmund ‘life-changing’ and many of our players could hugely benefit from ‘European footballing knowledge’.
A lot of our players decide to stay in the Premier League and fight for there place in their respective teams. This is all well and good, but the only way you can improve as a player is by playing on a regular basis, surely? An alarming stat was recently released by the FA, which showed that our U-21’s get less than half the playing time of their German, Spanish and French equivalents across top European leagues. You can blame foreign imports, or maybe say that it’s because our Under 21 players aren’t good enough, but if a player is not getting the playing time that he desires, why not look abroad for that? Given the choice and the hindsight, wouldn’t Jack Rodwell been best served fighting for a place at a top French, Italian or German team instead. Scott Sinclair is another example of a player who saw the big lights of Manchester City, but has since fallen by the way side and is now trying to regain some of that early form at Aston Villa. Barriers such as different cultures and languages can be easily torn down. If German players can adjust to foreign lands then why can’t our players, who come from a similar culture, even more so because English is such a well-known language, and with football being a universal language in itself anyways.
The high profile move from Welshman Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and David Moyes managerial appointment at Real Sociedad are encouraging signs. As are Chelsea’s young starlet Josh McEchran’s decision to play for Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, instead of sitting on the bench at a side like Swansea again. Ravel Morrison is currently at Lazio; Micah Richards on loan at Fiorientina and although now retired from International football, Ashley Cole is currently at Roma. Two defenders who are a part of Neil Dewsnip’s u18’s England side play their football abroad, Taylor Moore is at RC Lens in France and Danny Collinge joined Stuttgart in Germany last summer, so perhaps times are changing.
The well-travelled guidance and encouragement from England head coach Roy Hodgson won’t go a miss, having managed in a number of countries, from Sweden to Italy, he can be the perfect instigator to change our reluctance to playing abroad. It seems we are becoming more and more conscious to these facts and the signs for the future are looking good. The more our players can experience other footballing nations styles firsthand, the more we as a national team can grow, and with this, hopefully our fortunes.
First published: March 31, 2015