THE GREAT LEAP FOR­WARD

The English young­sters who are tak­ing their tal­ent abroad

World Soccer - - Special Feature -

At a time when the UK is de­cou­pling from the EU, an ever-grow­ing band of young English foot­ballers are opt­ing to kick-start their ca­reers at clubs in ma­jor Euro­pean leagues.

In a not-too dis­tant past, the vast ma­jor­ity of emerg­ing Premier League prospects would have in­stantly re­jected the of­fer of a cross-bor­der ad­ven­ture; ei­ther un­will­ing to quit their “best league in the world” com­fort zone and its pe­cu­niary ad­van­tages or ren­dered twitchy by thoughts of learn­ing a new lan­guage and po­ten­tial cul­ture shock.

But at­ti­tudes change and over the last cou­ple of years the con­cept of fly­ing the do­mes­tic nest has sud­denly gained trac­tion among the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of An­g­los – so much so that some 20 English young­sters are presently ply­ing their trade in the up­per ech­e­lons of Euro­pean foot­ball. Talk about a brave new pi­o­neer­ing world. The old rules of insularity and fear of the un­known are no longer ap­pli­ca­ble.

“Above all, I wanted a new ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Ade­mola Look­man, who en­joyed a suc­cess­ful loan spell in the Bun­desliga with RB Leipzig last sea­son and was bit­terly dis­ap­pointed when his Ever­ton em­ploy­ers and the Leipziger could not agree on a per­ma­nent deal this sum­mer.

“RB Leipzig had been fol­low­ing me since I was 17-18 at Charl­ton and I was re­ally ex­cited to move to an­other coun­try,” adds the 21-year-old. “There’s a dif­fer­ent type of in­put, so many new things to learn. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

“I’m now much more of a striker than I used to be. I learnt to play in tight spots, find bet­ter po­si­tions in re­la­tion to op­po­nents, to drib­ble, to make space for oth­ers and to shoot for goal quicker.”

A hot-bed of pop­ulist pas­sion, the Bun­desliga has turned out to be a favoured des­ti­na­tion of the fledg­ling di­as­pora. Af­ter turn­ing down a £30,000-a-week con­tract with Manch­ester City last year, winger Jadon San­cho is now per­form­ing to such a high stan­dard for Borus­sia Dortmund that he won his first full cap for Eng­land in Oc­to­ber. An­other ex-Manch­ester City

academy pupil, at­tack­ing mid­fielder Den­zeil Boadu also plays for Dortmund, ex­cit­ing Arse­nal wide-man Reiss Nel­son is on a sin­gle-sea­son loan at Hof­fen­heim and Borus­sia Monchenglad­bach swooped for promis­ing 19-year-old Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur winger Keanan Ben­netts in May.

But Ger­many hasn’t been the only EU mem­ber to roll out the red car­pet for Eng­land’s Nex­tGen. Un­der-21 mid­fielder Ron­aldo Vieira re­cently swapped Championship side Leeds United for Serie A Sam­p­do­ria, while Tot­ten­ham academy prod­ucts Noni Madueke and Reo Grif­fiths left north Lon­don in the close sea­son for PSV and Lyon re­spec­tively. Around the same time, Chelsea cen­tre-back Jonathan Panzo de­cided that his best in­ter­ests would be bet­ter served at Monaco, and 20-year- old ex-Arse­nal youth-team winger Chris Wil­lock is cur­rently in his sec­ond cam­paign with Ben­fica B.

How times have changed. In the early 1970s an English foot­baller un­der con­tract in west­ern Europe was more or less a nov­elty act. Ask Nigel Page-Jones, an el­e­gant left-footed sweeper from Here­ford­shire who played with dis­tinc­tion for French side Brest for many years be­fore coach­ing at top amateur club Saint-Pol-de Leon. An in­for­ma­tion sys­tems man­ager for Brit­tany Fer­ries these days, he was the lone ranger.

Stripped down to ba­sics, this 21stcen­tury ex­o­dus is es­sen­tially a flight for the right to play. In a Premier League that is in­creas­ingly pop­u­lated by over­seas stars – more than two-thirds of the top tier’s pro­fes­sion­als are for­eign na­tion­als – homegrown young­sters find them­selves squeezed out.

Managers, un­der re­lent­less pres­sure to de­liver im­me­di­ate results, in­evitably tend to pri­ori­tise the es­tab­lished off-theshelf pro to the gifted but raw young­ster. Quick fixes are the name of the game.

And English kids have even less chance of play­ing time at the top end of the Premier League. Only a quar­ter of the Manch­ester City, Manch­ester United and Chelsea squads are made up of lo­cally sourced tal­ent. Tot­ten­ham and Liver­pool do bet­ter, with 31 and 34 per cent, while Arse­nal are the worst of the big six with just a 15 per cent take-up.

Is it any won­der that Eng­land boss Gareth South­gate so of­ten be­moans the ever-shrink­ing reser­voir of na­tional team can­di­dates?

“Sta­tis­ti­cally, last year we were pick­ing from a pool in the Premier League of 33 per cent English play­ers,” South­gate re­vealed at an FA press con­fer­ence this sea­son. “This year, we are down to 30 and as far as the top-six clubs are con­cerned we are on a down­ward curve.

“There are [good] young play­ers there. We re­ally have to think se­ri­ously about how we in­crease those op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“None of our un­der-20 team which won the World Cup has man­aged to es­tab­lish them­selves in a first-team. If they have proven them­selves as good as any young play­ers around the world then that op­por­tu­nity has to be there.

“For any player, play­ing foot­ball is im­por­tant but even more for young­sters. You want them to have the ex­pe­ri­ence of big matches.

“I think it’s worth us hav­ing this de­bate, get­ting peo­ple around the ta­ble to dis­cuss that miss­ing piece. We have some ex­cit­ing young play­ers which we will lose if they are not given the chance.”

South­gate is quite cor­rect in us­ing the term “miss­ing piece”. It’s all very well Eng­land boast­ing a cut­ting edge youth-de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme, a fine Premier League academy sys­tem, a co­her­ent plan of ac­tion for all young rep­re­sen­ta­tive age groups and a swag bag of sil­ver­ware in 2017: world un­der20 and un­der-17 ti­tles, and the Euro­pean un­der-19 crown. But what good does it

“We have some ex­cit­ing young play­ers which we will lose if they are not given the chance” Eng­land man­ager Gareth South­gate

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’m now much more of a striker than I used to be” Ade­mola Look­man on his time at RB Leipzig

ul­ti­mately serve if the fruits of those labours, the teenage play­ers, are not al­lowed to show­case their abil­ity in the do­mes­tic top flight? Sitting on a first-team bench or turn­ing out for their club’s un­der-23 side is of no use.

Left in a kind of parochial no-man’s land, English ty­ros are jump­ing at the chance to plot a con­ti­nen­tal es­cape route. San­cho, for ex­am­ple, did not move to Dortmund on a tetchy, ego­tis­ti­cal whim. He pledged his fu­ture to a club

with a solid rep­u­ta­tion for pro­mot­ing young­sters to the first team.

For Ger­man, French and Dutch clubs, shop­ping for tal­ent in Eng­land rep­re­sents good busi­ness. Un­able to pay megabucks for foot­balling A-lis­ters, re­cruit­ment chiefs in those coun­tries now see con­sid­er­able value in raid­ing the Premier League wannabe mar­ket. All they have to do is of­fer reg­u­lar match ac­tion and ca­reer ad­vance­ment to land ex­cep­tional tal­ent at a dis­count – San­cho cost Dortmund just € 7.8mil­lion, Gladbach paid € 2.25m for Ben­netts – with ev­ery chance of mak­ing a sell-on killing.

“We have no­ticed that tal­ented English

young­sters are more ready these days to make a move to the Nether­lands,” said PSV di­rec­tor of foot­ball John De Jong at the un­veil­ing of Madueke. “With us, they feel they can make a first-team break­through at an early age, whereas in Eng­land their chances are more lim­ited.”

Of course, not ev­ery young mi­grant is go­ing to blos­som like a San­cho or Ma­son Mount, the 19-year-old Chelsea mid­fielder who af­ter pol­ish­ing his reper­toire at Dutch club Vitesse last

sea­son is now star­ring on loan for Derby County and has claimed a place in the Eng­land squad. Wolfs­burg re­cently sacked 20-year-old ex-Arse­nal and Eng­land striker Kaylen Hinds for go­ing AWOL, while for­mer Tran­mere Rovers

winger Dale Jen­nings sank with­out trace dur­ing a stint a few years ago with Bay­ern Mu­nich re­serves, where in­jury and a lack of progress in the Ger­man lan­guage lead to a loss of con­fi­dence.

When it comes to foot­balling mi­grants, there are no guar­an­tees. A player ei­ther re­sponds to a dif­fer­ent set of pa­ram­e­ters or loses his bear­ings. For ev­ery hit, there’s a miss. The likes of Kevin Kee­gan (Ham­burg), Gary Lineker (Barcelona), Chris Wad­dle (Mar­seille) and Steve McMana­man (Real Madrid) were all able to em­brace their new world. A chal­lenge, un­for­tu­nately, which proved im­pos­si­ble for Ian Rush (Ju­ven­tus), Mark Hughes (Barcelona and Bay­ern), Luther Blis­sett (Mi­lan) and Des Walker (Sam­p­do­ria).

On tar­get... reiss Nel­son (in blue) scores for Hof­fen­heim against ein­tra­cht Frank­furt

De­vel­op­ment... ade­mola look­man played for rB leipzig last term

Por­tuguese job... Chris Wil­lock

Cham­pi­ons...Eng­land’s world beat­ers

learn­ing...Ma­son Mount at Vitesse

Bar­gain...Keanan Ben­netts (right) with Gladbach’s di­rec­tor of sport, Max eberl

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