Why youngsters abroad offer hope at a critical time for English football
A few years ago, a young South American player moved to the Premier League on-loan. At the time, the club he joined didn’t employ a liaison officer and so the player, who didn’t speak any English and had come to this country without any friends or family, was left to fend for himself in a rental property in a featureless part of London.
The story goes, apparently, that after several months of not opening his post, curious bailiffs were knocking on his door, wondering why someone of such means was so reluctant to pay his bills.
The answer: it hadn’t even occurred to him.
The story has a dual purpose. An extreme example though it may be, it illustrates how cloistered the modern professional can be and how, left to their own devices, many of the fundamentals of adult life become the assumed responsibility of someone else.
It’s easy to understand how that happens. At the highest level of the game, players move from the family home to an academy and then, almost instantaneously, into the protection of long, lucrative contracts. With that money comes independence, of course, but the contract typically also provides a small army of fixers; players are assets, they’re to be protected, and an unwitting by-product is often the denial of useful life experience.
The other value in the example is to show the importance of stripping those protections away.
While the player was presumably panicked by the sight of hulking debt collectors at his door, he will at least have learned a valuable lesson. More broadly, the importance of preparing for and engaging properly with life in a different country – learning the language, understanding household obligations – will not have been lost on him.
His loan spell was ultimately unsuccessful and he no longer plays in the Premier League, but he will at least have departed with a series of useful reference points.
Lately, English players have begun a trend of moving abroad. Jadon Sancho is busy making progress at Borussia Dortmund, Reece Oxford and Ademola Lookman have both spent time on loan in the Bundesliga too, and Marcus MacGuane is trying to forge a career for himself at Barcelona.
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Beyond the normal flow of Chelsea prospects to Vitesse, Premier League clubs are also evidently seeing an increasing returning on placing their talent in European leagues.
Tottenham have dispatched Marcus Edwards to Holland’s Excelsior, Arsenal have packed Reiss Nelson off to Hoffenheim this year, Patrick Roberts and Samuel Shashoua are under the temporary care of Girona and Atletico Baleares, and Liverpool’s Sheyi Ojo recent joined Ligue1 side Reims.
The obvious lure is playing time. Whether it’s a club decision or a move driven by the player himself, the appeal of actually starting regularly is understandably attractive. It’s to the player’s benefit, but also of clear value to English football as a whole. The more players who are regularly starting, the more talent that is being incubated and the deeper the national selection pool ultimately becomes.
Whether unwittingly or otherwise though, these players are also exposing themselves to a range of secondary and tertiary benefits which will likely prove invaluable.
Within a traditional feeder club arrangement, familiarity is often built into any loan deal. When players move between Chelsea and Vitesse, for instance, they typically do so in groups.
Last season, Mason Mount and Charlie Colkett made the journey to Arnhem together and, although Colkett would bounce back to Stamford Bridge at the beginning of 2018, that was initially an arrangement which likely suited both and helped the former towards a highly successful season.
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In individual cases, the challenge and rewards are far greater. Spurs’s decision to send Edwards to the Eredivisie is transparently based on their need for the player to mature. Reports of poor timekeeping and entitlement have blighted his career to-date, last season’s loan spell at Norwich was terminated early as a result, and the logic now – presumably – is to jolt the player from his comfort zone.
Whether that works or not is up to Edwards. Tottenham have very deliberately moved him into an environment in which his reputation will offer no protection and where only professionalism will allow him to succeed. He is owed no favours in the Netherlands and there is no collective interest in his progress.
In other cases – in situations where there isn’t necessarily a correction to be made – a move abroad can still arm players with a complementary set of attributes.
When Dan Ashworth’s England DNA initiative began its life, one of the weaknesses it sought to remedy was domestic players’ inability to “problem solve”. It’s a tedious buzz phrase, the kind of management speak in which Ashworth is fluent, but it refers to a real concern: Is a player dependent on coaching direction, can he assimilate what happens around him and process a game unprompted.
Is he, for want of a better comparison, Jack Rodwell or Luka Modric? The ability to think clearly and decisively under pressure isn’t all which separates the two, but – in addition – one has a feel and intelligence for the game which the other has never shown.
Traditionally, English footballers have been over-coached and mechanical. As a consequence, they struggle to think their way through games or adapt to the changing circumstances within them.
Among the diagnoses offered and speculated upon, a lack of playing time at formative ages was certainly culpable, but so too the academy environment itself and its under-emphasis on education.
The true remedy for that lies in institutional reform. But in the meantime, experiencing a different culture and tackling the challenges involved is a worthy substitute. Learning a new language, for instance, is an emboldening exercise for any young player, allowing him to broaden his own world and develop a strain of confidence which cannot necessarily be derived from talent or adulation.
Being exposed to different training methods and alternative styles of play creates a very literal sort of benefit, too, but the overall experience – the lifestyle which demands these adjustments – is extremely nourishing.
Just as a well-travelled person tends to develop a broader personality, open-minded footballers will typically also become more cosmopolitan – smarter perhaps, endowed with a broader perspective and a more developed set of mental attributes.
Attributes which, as has been proven many times, transfer onto the pitch.
This is a very important moment in English football’s history. Of course, a couple of talented players picking up their passports and heading abroad isn’t going to cure a problem which has developed over decades, but this new generation’s open-mindedness is certainly setting a fine example.
The British game has always been insular, it has always believed itself to be the centre of the sport’s world, and over time that has helped to stunt the national DNA.
Look at the plight of the Dutch national team for a contemporary example of the damage ideological arrogance can do; rejecting outside influence and continually looking inwards is a dangerous game.
So this new breed is part of a movement against that. They are drawn to the diversity of the football world, not afraid of it.
On the one hand, they show that the English footballer is now a more universal commodity – excellent news in itself – but they’re also forging a path beyond the beaten track and, hopefully, will demonstrate the merits of such adventure in due course.