Trading places – the growing number of Brits venturing to Belgium for success

This week it emerged that Ryan Taylor is in preliminary talks with Belgium-based club Standard Liege after being released by Newcastle.

Taylor is currently a free agent after being released by Newcastle United over the phone, along with former teammate Jonas Gutiérrez. The incident triggered widespread outrage from football fans, but the versatile Liverpool-born defender is looking to put it behind him.

 

“I didn’t expect to get offered a new contract but it’s not about that, you have to move on,” Taylor told Sky Sports News earlier this month.

The thought of heading to Belgium may be a surprise move to many, but Taylor would not be the first Brit to move to the Jupiler Pro League.

The number of British footballers taking the step of moving to Belgian football has risen in the last few years, coinciding somewhat with the vast increase of Belgians moving to the Premier League from their national division.

Belgian football’s resurgence in recent years is represented by the volume of players that currently ply their trade in the English divisions, with over twenty Flemish or Walloon-born footballers playing in the Premier League, the Championship, League One and the SPFL. These range from title-winning internationals such as Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard to the lesser known likes of Franck Moussa and Florent Cuvelier.

While the number of British players in Belgium doesn’t quite match the number of Belgians in Britain, the increase is promising.

Some moves have reignited a player’s career. One player whose career has been turned around by a move to Belgium is John Bostock. In October 2007 he became Crystal Palace’s youngest ever player, in November 2008 he became Tottenham Hotspur’s youngest ever player, in 2013, after five loan spells in England and the US, he joined Royal Antwerp in Belgium on a free transfer.

At the time, Antwerp were managed by current Burton Albion boss Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and the Dutchman was one of the main draws in bringing Bostock to Belgium. In his first season in Belgium, Bostock scored two goals and notched sixteen assists as Antwerp finished seventh in the Belgian second division – propelling him to an almost immediate status of fan favourite.

After the end of the 2013/14 season Hasselbaink left for England. This resulted in the departure of Bostock, moving to newly relegated side OH Leuven. In a recent interview with Adam Bate of Sky Sports News, Bostock discussed his Belgian adventure so far:

The thinking behind it was that I’d had a year at Antwerp under Hasselbaink and really enjoyed that, it allowed me to get my grounding and gave me that platform to just play really.

 

But he left and Leuven had just come down from the first division and I knew they had aspirations to go straight back up with the way they are set up there. I just figured that if I wanted to get promotion from the second division, they would probably be the best club. They were interested so I managed to get the deal through and thankfully it worked out.”

This year Leuven were promoted straight back to the Jupiler Pro League, rejoining the likes of Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Club Brugge. Bostock finished the season as the club’s top scorer, with 11 goals and 15 assists over the course of the season, eventually winning the Proximus Division Player of the Year.

 

But Bostock isn’t the only man to move out to Belgium after not renewing a contract at a North London club. Chuks Aneke was a stand-out player at League One side Crewe Alexandra while on loan from Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Having also been loaned to Preston and Stevenage in previous years, Aneke’s contract was not renewed by the club at the end of the 2013/14 season.

That summer Aneke joined Zulte Waregem in the Belgian third division, a transfer that would see him join up with Kylian Hazard, younger brother of PFA Player of the Year Eden Hazard, as well as Jonathan Benteke, younger brother of Aston Villa’s star man Christian Benteke.

Unfortunately for the ex-Gunner, his move has not worked out so far. Aneke has struggled to make the impact that had been expected in the top division of Belgian football, scoring two goals and not obtaining a single assist all season. Despite this, there have been the occasional signs that he could excel soon, including this Robin van Persie-esque volley against Mouscron Péruwelz:

Other players to have moved to Belgium in recent years include Tony Watt – the bloke that scored against Barcelona, now playing for Charlton Athletic alongside Belgium-born Igor Vetokele. As well as former Wigan Athletic full-back Jordan Mustoe, now patrolling the left side for KVC Westerlo.

Somebody that saw the potential of a move to Belgian football early on is Jonny Rowell. After being released by Newcastle United’s academy Rowell joined up with Hartlepool United, but was released by caretaker manager Chris Turner in 2010.

In July that year he joined Belgian Third Division B side Olympic Charleroi, where, like Bostock at Royal Antwerp, he quickly became a fan favourite. Again similarly to Bostock, he left at the end of his first season at Charleroi for Proximus Division side Waasland-Beveren, where he won promotion in his first season and has just finished his third season in the top flight of Belgian football.

In 2013 Rowell gave an interview with the International Business Times discussing his position as the only Englishman in Belgian football – now he is one of eight. The rise in number of Brits venturing to Belgium to develop their careers can be summed up by some Rowell’s words in that interview:

I had the opportunity to do it (move to Belgium) but for other young players maybe in a similar situation, it’s not easy, they’ve got no real connections. Those connections that see players from abroad brought to England from Germany, Spain or France are there, but when you’re young playing for a side in England, you don’t really think about playing abroad. If you think about how many players actually play abroad, you could count them on your hands.

 

But if a young kid asked me of what I’d done I’d definitely recommend it, you progress so much. I got injured at the end of last season and have just started to come back now so I haven’t really played that much, but last year when I was, I was getting a few Championship teams asking about me, a few more in France and Holland.

 

That all comes from been given the opportunity and the platform to show what you can do you can play at a higher level in a different country. To play in the Premier League now is almost impossible.

While most of those that travel to the historical country acknowledge that they do not intend to stay in Belgium for the rest of their career, they recognise it as an important step in rejuvenating careers that have stalled in England and you will struggle to find anyone that wouldn’t recommend it.

The excellent full interviews with John Bostock and Jonny Rowell can be found here and here.

Author Details

Ellis King

Love football anywhere in the world, always watching, playing or writing about it. Partial to a bit of La Liga and South American football. Arsenal fan. Sorry.

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