As Roy Hodgson names an entirely English-based squad for the Euros, 3for3’s Dan “The Mekon” explores the phenomenon of the ‘English player abroad’, and why its lustre has apparently faded over the years.
With the Euros just around the corner, Uncle Roy has finally named the 23 that will fly out to the Ukraine for the group games, and in all likelihood then fly back in before the quarter-finals begin. It’s not a very strong squad, but the press will do its usual trick of injecting all the players with their own unique brand of performance-decreasing drugs – hyperbolic steroids – and the team will probably return as scapegoats once we fail to get out of our group. What’s notable is that, for only the third time since England took most of the Seventies off from major international competition, all 23 players will be returning to parent clubs in England.
England has a fine tradition of exporting quality players overseas. Whether it’s sending our past heroes for a payday in NASL, Kevin Keegan winning the Ballon d’Or and European Cup in Germany or Gary Lineker enjoying Spain so much he opened a chain of bars out there, the trend was a good one and pegged England as a nation that could produce players of the very highest quality. More to the point, every squad that England took to a tournament between 1982 and 1996 (inclusive) included at least one top-line player who plied their trade in a foreign league. The ban post-Heysel only served to heighten this trend, with players departing for foreign climes in order to experience European football. Even in the early 90s, when English football was considered to be somewhat in the doldrums before the Premier League became so wildly successful, international players like David Platt, Paul Gascoigne, Des Walker, and Paul Ince were finding success on the continent. The trend all but died off in the latter part of the 1990s and 2000s though, with McManaman’s and Beckham’s spells at Real Madrid and Owen Hargreaves’ decision to play for England while at Bayern Munich being the only examples of our boys being stationed abroad.
Well, that’s not strictly true. Our players did continue to seek opportunities abroad (and still do). The only real difference is that where we once saw Mark Hateley, Glenn Hoddle, Ray Wilkins and Gary Lineker heading to the airport, these luminaries were replaced with the likes of Rob Ullathorne, Stan Collymore, Jermaine Pennant, Matt Derbyshire and Jay Bothroyd. Indeed, Bothroyd is the most recent ‘new cap’ for England to have ever experienced football outside of England, and the beleaguered Scott Carson the most recent to play for England while a full-time employee of a foreign club (Turkey’s Bursaspor). The most famous English players playing abroad nowadays are men trying to extend their careers in MLS or the Middle East, fringe players like Joe Cole who have been frozen out at their parent clubs, or lesser-known names such as Kenny Pavey and Michael Mancienne who, let’s face it, are a million miles away from the England setup.
So what’s gone wrong? Why are we importing so much talent and exporting so little? It would be easy to point to the Premier League’s status as the ‘best league in the world’, but that has to be seen as a bit of a fallacy since leagues such as Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga attract as many foreign imports as we do. Is homesickness an issue? Leighton Baines is famous for feeling a bit sad and lonely while on international duty so there’s a case to be made on that front, but Cole’s recent sojourn out to Lille seems to suggest that this is a player-by-player issue and can’t be blamed for the lack of top-line English players striking out.
The third, and I’m afraid most likely, option is that English players simply cost too much money. Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain; these are all players who were bought for fees that dwarf their abilities, experience and achievements. Players of comparable skill and playing time from overseas can cost up to half as much, and seemingly no clubs outside the Premier League are willing to cough up that much money for that big a gamble. There’s not a doubt in my mind that players like Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, even Carroll and Cahill, would have been the subjects of interest from overseas had they been playing twenty years ago. These are all good-to-excellent players who would learn so much by going abroad and expanding their games with new training methods and tactics from some of the world’s best coaches, but who will never get the chance because the fees their clubs are likely to charge would price out all but the richest, most reckless footballing powers (see Anzhi and PSG).
Okay, I hear you cry, so why not send our youngsters out there on loan? That’s a very good idea – one I wholeheartedly endorse – but there’s one huge problem; the attitude of your average young player from a Premier League club is absolutely abhorrent. I realise it’s unfair to generalise and to tar everyone with the same brush, but the attitude of some young players these days is shocking. They seem to be getting into football not through a love of the game or a genuine aptitude for it, but because they know that if they get a pro contract they’ll be earning a wage they can live on from the age of sixteen. This is by no means an Engand-only thing, but certainly this is the country where it’s most prevalent in the youth football scene. A high percentage of these players are not good enough to make it at the top level and go on to enjoy successful careers in the lower leagues, but still they carry that attitude with them. In addition, and quite rightly, no foreign club expects to sign a loanee youngster who thinks he’s some sort of big-time Charlie because he’s come from Manchester City’s youth team to NAC Breda (or whatever). Yes, you’ve probably got a shred of talent. Yes, you’re probably looking at a four-figure monthly salary when you finally sign your pro deal. But yes, you can expect to be treated like an ungrateful little turd once you get somewhere which has no good reason to tolerate your bulls***.
The English player abroad is the kind of cultural phenomenon that made the game interesting when I was a kid. Getting the Italia 90 sticker album and seeing Chris Waddle’s club listed as ‘Marseille (FRA)’ was a big thing for me, as was tuning into Gazzetta Football Italia and watching heroes like Platt, Walker and Gascoigne wearing strange and unusual kits and playing in weird-looking stadia. There’s no denying that these players learned a lot from their trips abroad and it’s a shame that so few of our current crop have had that experience, something which I hope a few of them will look to change going forward and one that I hope the Premier League’s clubs won’t price their players out of.
Dan Shoesmith is the co-host of the 3for3 podcast and hosts the X-Calibre rock show on 1Radio – follow him on Twitter @BigDan_83 and @3for3_. He also thinks it’s awesome that Vinny Samways once played in La Liga.