The story of the ex-England prospect who has found a new home in Asia
Earlier this year, on the same day that Luke Shaw was busy scoring in Manchester United‘s 2-0 win over Manchester City, one of his former team-mates was 6,000 miles away, on the other side of the world, helping Ratchaburi Mitr Phol to a goalless draw in the Thai League.
Luke Woodland used to share a pitch with Shaw for the England Under-17s, back in 2012. Their careers have gone in radically different directions since then, but Woodland, who has played club football across Asia and won 23 caps for the Philippines, still considers himself one of the fortunate few.
Thousands of promising players drop out of professional football each year, many disillusioned with the industry, whereas Woodland has continued to make a good living from the game he loves. He doesn’t take it for granted.
“You have these talks where the PFA come and sit down with a roomful of 10 to 15 young professionals and they’ll say, ‘Only 2% of you boys will make it as a professional footballer.’ And it’s true,” he says. “When I look at my reserve squad, I’m one of the lucky ones to still be ticking over. It’s crazy.”
Born in Abu Dhabi to an English father and a Filipino mother, he speaks with a strong Scouse accent because the family moved to Ormskirk when he was just two. Six years later, he signed for Bolton Wanderers.
An energetic box-to-box midfielder, he made his presence felt all over the pitch. As Woodland rose through the ranks, there was interest from Everton, and he wonders if his career might have been better served by moving on.
“Bolton was good, but, looking back on it now, I wish I’d left when I was 16 or 17 to try to go to a bigger team because, in life, it will help set you up a lot better,” he says. “If you go to Chelsea or Arsenal and get released, you’re going to fall down to a Championship team, rather than somewhere lower than that.”
He was persuaded to stay at Bolton by the promise of first-team opportunities which never came to fruition. His colleagues in the England youth set-up – the likes of Shaw, Calum Chambers and Will Hughes – started breaking through at their clubs and Woodland felt like he was being left behind.
“I didn’t really understand it,” he adds. “I got to train with the squad a little bit, but they were never that serious about playing the kids. They could have if they’d wanted to, but it just wasn’t a club that would do that.”
Woodland remembers impressing at the Nike Cup and being invited to England trials at St. George’s Park. He made his debut at Under-16 level and was a regular over the next couple of years. In February 2012, he helped the Under-17s beat a talented France team featuring Clement Lenglet, Adrien Rabiot, Thomas Lemar and Anthony Martial.
“I was obviously very proud,” Woodland says of his involvement with England. “Luckily, I got into most of the squads until I got injured when I was 18. After that, the next age group was the Under-20s or Under-21s. All the lads who got called up were playing regular football, but I never got thrown onto the pitch.”
From his England experiences, Shaw is the one player who stood out above the rest. “He was just so quick, and he got the job done. He was different. You could tell he was very mature for his age. He wouldn’t make any mistakes.”
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Bolton’s reluctance to field young players held back Woodland’s development at a crucial stage, and an injury compounded matters. Momentum was lost, and he suddenly became expendable. The transition from hot prospect to just another academy dropout was brutally swift.
“I did my ACL when I was 18. I was playing really well and still getting England call-ups. That injury just set me to the side. We got a new coach at Bolton Wanderers, and he killed the players’ confidence. There was no path for me to keep pushing on with them,” he recalls.
“Within two years I went from being one of the top players of my age in England to needing to find another club and not knowing where I was going. I feel like if certain things went a different way, I’d still definitely be playing in the UK, but I don’t what level.”
Woodland finally made his professional debut during a loan spell at Oldham Athletic, where he enjoyed the backing of manager Dean Holden. Despite showing that he could handle life in League One, he was released upon his return to Bolton.
“I feel like I was a bit hard done by, for sure. It’s tough. Whoever was responsible for handing out new contracts just didn’t fancy me. Nowadays, if you’re making those moves at that age, you’re getting offered a long-term contract. I don’t regret anything or wish I could change anything in my past, I think that’s just how football has changed.”
— Daniel Houlker (@Daniel_Houlker) June 26, 2015
The next two years were spent unhappily bouncing between lower league clubs, including Chester, Bradford Park Avenue and York City, on short-term contracts. He never had the chance to find his groove and play on a consistent basis.
Despite Woodland’s pedigree, a desire for more experience meant that he was always on the fringes. He took drastic action to reinvigorate his career. In February 2017, he joined Ceres-Negros in the Philippines, taking the first step on his Asian football adventure.
“That was a really frustrating time, but it also helped me to realise what options I had and how lucky I am to have the background I have,” he says. “If I didn’t have the Philippines passport, I wouldn’t have played in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines over the last few years. I’d probably be scrapping away in League One, League Two or the Conference.”
In Asia, he encountered a different type of football – much more open and attacking. “You tend to find, in the second half of games over here, it’s very end-to-end. There’s less control over the tempo. It’s just fast-paced. That’s the hardest thing for any player who’s played in Europe to adapt to.”
Because of his height and physicality, Woodland has typically been fielded as a centre-back in recent years. He’s more than willing to assert himself on the pitch but has learned not to in the dressing room. In Asia, the manager’s word is final, whether or not you agree with it.
“You’ve just got to adapt to the culture,” Woodland says. “Sometimes just keep your mouth shut and get on with it. It’s different to back home, where, if a gaffer was giving me grief, you’d fall out with him. Balls and boots would be thrown at each other, but after the game, you’d be best mates. Over here, they take it personally.”
While there are some clear differences between the two football cultures, which Woodland has gradually reconciled himself to, he was quick to embrace life in Asia. He travelled out with his partner, and they soon felt at home.
“Moving to the Philippines was quite easy because the city that we were living in – Manila – is extremely westernised. Everyone speaks English. We didn’t find any barriers whatsoever. We were just enjoying ourselves.”
This much-needed change of scenery boosted Woodland’s career too. After making his senior international debut against Yemen in June 2015, he started representing the Philippines on a regular basis. Two years ago, he was part of the squad that made history, competing in the country’s first-ever Asian Cup.
“It was massive, especially with it being hosted in Dubai,” says Woodland. “A lot of Filipinos get jobs out there, so we still had a lot of support. It was fantastic. For the Philippines, it’s the best thing the national team has ever done. We’re getting better and better at sourcing players, like myself, from all over the world.”
— Luke Woodland (@LukeWoodland_) April 25, 2021
Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge. “He was good. A very nice guy. He spoke to me individually. He knew I’d played for England youth, so he was asking me what players were in my squad and who our coaches were.”
Woodland played every minute of the Philippines’ three group games, which ended in defeat to South Korea, China and Kyrgyzstan. But just qualifying for the tournament was a clear sign of progress, and he believes there’s more to come.
His Filipino heritage has been an advantage in club football too. Clubs in Southeast Asia are required to register a certain number of players from the region. With his Philippines passport, Woodland meets the criteria. Last season, he made 16 appearances for Ratchaburi as they finished eighth in the Thai League.
“It’s a good family club,” he says. “The facilities are fantastic. We have a good squad. I think we’ve got the most foreigners of any team – three French boys, a Spanish Filipino, an American Filipino, a Dutch Filipino and a German lad. They’ve all played in Europe or the United States, so we’ve got a really good bond.”
— Luke Woodland (@LukeWoodland_) February 4, 2020
For all the positives, coronavirus presented some unwelcome complications. “The last year has been a disaster. There’s been no schedule. It’s been unpredictable. You’re waiting for the next move. You can’t plan anything,” he laments.
“People’s families were asking questions – ‘When’s the season going to start? Where are we living?’ The stuff off the pitch was tough because nobody knew what was going on. Financially, you had to be very careful. You were losing time through quarantine, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Woodland has already played in four different countries, but he’s hopeful of adding to the list. He’s been approached by a couple of clubs that are aware of his links to the United Arab Emirates.
“At the moment, I’m trying to gain the UAE passport because they’re allowing dual citizenship. I’ll be able to hold three passports and hopefully, in the next few years, I can play under the local player rule in the Middle East. That’s my next step. It’s something that I’m looking at.”
He acknowledges that returning to England is also a possibility, but there are plenty of factors to consider before making that decision. Woodland has a partner and young daughter to think about, as well as his own ambitions.
“With the player and manager connections I have, I’d never rule it out. I’ve got to think about these things and my family. My daughter’s three now, and eventually, she’s going to go to school, college, whatever. Playing out here is great, but family comes first,” says the 25-year-old.
“It’s my job. I’m not a Premier League player. I’m not earning ridiculous amounts. My career could finish in 10 years’ time and then what? I’ve got a lot of decisions I need to make in the next couple of years for my family and myself.
“It’s tough. If I go home, you’re scrapping like every other player. If you drop down to the Conference North, there are players who have played in the Football League for years. There are good players everywhere.”
Football is a global game and Woodland has made the most of that. He’s grateful that his background enables him to explore opportunities that are closed off to others who graduated from an often-unforgiving English academy system only to fall by the wayside back home.
“It gives people options when they want to recruit me. It shows that I can adapt to different leagues,” says Woodland. “I’m not stuck in one place. It gives me more contacts and references. It only benefits me with future moves.”
By Sean Cole