THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD
The English youngsters who are taking their talent abroad
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 The old rules of insularity and fear of the unknown are no longer applicable.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