The fourth and fifth century philosopher, St Augustine once said that “the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”.
Unfortunately, English players have for the most part simply read the page of the Premier League. Since 1990, only Owen Hargreaves, David Beckham and Fraser Forster have represented England at a World Cup whilst playing club football abroad. And Forster was just eighty miles north of the border in Glasgow.
This is, however, beginning to change. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for young English players to leave their comfort zone and begin their careers abroad, and this can only be seen as a good thing for English football as a whole.
Jadon Sancho had just turned seventeen when he decided to move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund last summer. This exemplifies the shift in mentality which is being seen in young English players, who are finally moving abroad to further their careers.
If we rewind just a few years, playing on foreign soil seemed to be reserved for outcasts of the English game. Joey Barton went to Marseille, Ashley Cole couldn’t make a mark in Roma and Micah Richards’ spell in Fiorentina was torrid.
Of course the likes of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard finished in the States, and a handful have chosen the retirement homes in South East Asia, but the tide is swiftly changing.
Sancho has impressed in Dortmund, and was perhaps unlucky to miss out on the latest England squad. Instead of moving on after his prime, like the aforesaid players, he has chosen to start out abroad; a path which would have been unheard of even just five years ago.
The reasons for his move are an indication on the current state of the English game for youngsters. Dortmund are famously a team who play and put faith in youngsters, and so the opportunities he is likely to get in Germany easily trump the ones he would get in Manchester. But why not move to another club in England?
Sancho wanted to move away from the pressure and the hype which comes with playing at the top in England. He said in an interview with The Mirror in March:
If I went to another English club wherever I’d go people would be talking…some people can handle it, some people don’t like it. I don’t really like all the passa (hype). I just like to be in my zone, playing football.
Sancho needs to be praised for this. The English media have infamously got on the backs of youngsters playing here. Moving abroad takes him outside of the toxic limelight which has got in the way of too many careers before.
Sancho is part of a much larger cohort who are emigrating under the radar, away from the constant scrutiny of the English press.
Highly rated 17-year-old centre-back Jonathan Panzo left Chelsea this summer to join Monaco, Chris Willock joined Benfica from Arsenal last year at 19 and George Hirst, son of Sheffield Wednesday legend David Hirst, left Wednesday to join Belgian side OH Leuven. All three of these represent England’s hugely successful youth teams.
Is it a coincidence that England’s U17 and U20 world championship winning sides contained players plying their trade abroad? It’s unlikely.
The fact is that playing abroad widens horizons both on the pitch and off it. It also helps that Gareth Southgate is a huge fan of it himself. He advocated in an interview last year his players moving abroad, saying that ‘the lads see one league, they see Sky Sports News … they think we’re the centre of the earth and we’re not’.
Perhaps English arrogance does affect players and their mentalities and the likes of Sancho, Panzo and Willock moving abroad can only do wonders for the national team.
The French winning squad from the 2018 World Cup contained fifteen players who played abroad, and the German 2014 winning squad had seven.
For the third World Cup in a row, the England squad was made up just of players playing in the UK.
It’s something which Premier League clubs seem to be well aware of. More and more of the English top flight are sending their young English talent abroad on loan.
Chelsea have an arrangement with Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch top flight in which the likes of Lewis Baker, Jake Clarke-Salter, Charlie Colkett and Mason Mount have enjoyed spells. Patrick Roberts at Manchester City was with Celtic last term, but has swapped Glasgow for Girona in Spain, and will spend this season lining up against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga.
Reece Oxford left West Ham to join Borussia Monchengladbach in the Bundesliga last year, and was joined in Germany by Everton’s Ademola Lookman at RB Leipzig and ex-Arsenal striker Kaylen Hinds who signed for VfL Wolfsburg.
This summer, Marcus Edwards has joined Excelsior in the Netherlands from Tottenham Hotspur, Sheyi Ojo is on loan from Liverpool at Stade de Reims and Reiss Nelson has gone to Hoffenheim in Germany for a year from Arsenal.
The standard of football abroad in a top flight is better than if they were loaned out to a Championship side, and so its becoming a much more popular route for young stars at Premier League clubs.
Playing abroad is arguably more beneficial than dropping down to the Championship, but it is definitely better than the reserve league in England.
Cam Melling runs the excellent blog and Twitter account englishplayersabroad.com / @EnglishAbroad and told me that ‘quite a lot of players see playing abroad as much more beneficial than playing in Premier League 2 or another development league’.
This is certainly something which the FA have been attempting to improve, and is something which Pep Guardiola has spoken about in relation to improving the English national team.
In Germany, for example, many of the big teams have reserve teams playing in the ‘Regionalliga’ which is the fourth tier of German football. Sancho, for example, featured last season for Borussia Dortmund II, and playing mens football at that age instead of the Premier League 2 is understandably much more attractive for a young player.
It’s perhaps too early to tell whether or not this trend is going to be successful or not. It is going to be a few years until these players head into their peaks, and it will soon become clear whether it was the right decision to move abroad. There are some examples, however.
John Bostock became Crystal Palace’s youngest ever player at the age of 15 in 2007, but after a move to Tottenham Hotspur and subsequent unsuccessful loan moves, decided to move to Belgium.
Under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Royal Antwerp he flourished, before moving onto OH Leuven where his performances earned him a move to RC Lens in France where he won the Ligue 2 player of the year award.
After a short stint in Turkey with Bursaspor, he returned to France with Tolouse in Ligue 1.
Tipped as a future England star, it took a move abroad, out of his comfort zone, for him to assert himself. He’s built himself up as a player to be reasonably respected on the continent, and has turned down moves back to England.
Bostock’s move was still a last resort. He’s been successful, yes, but it is massively different to the moves of those such as Sancho. This new generation of players are moving abroad to begin their careers as a first choice, rather than the older mentality of moving abroad once opportunities had run dry in England.
It’s exciting to see our homegrown talent showing what they can do abroad, and the success of the English youth teams have benefitted from the variety which comes with players branching out.
With opportunities for young English players scant in the Premier League, it is likely that the trend of moving abroad is just going to increase.
This, coupled with the success of players like Sancho, means that moving to the likes of Germany, Spain and Holland is an ever increasing prospect. It was unheard of just a few years ago, but now English players seem to be taking on Augustine’s words and beginning to travel the depths of the world.
Thus, moving abroad may well provide the solution to the game-time problem which Gareth Southgate has long been searching for an answer.