Admiration has persisted, particularly for the English fervour for the sport, from external areas for decades. Regardless of the charted decline of tri-national fortunes since 1966 – a late 1980s to early 1990s niche aside – prying, flirtatious eyes have remained fixated on this scepter’d isle from environs near and afar; coveting the talent produced, and so often toiled away by a lack of direction. It was a form of admiration that adopted a particularly individual basis and selected the finest of riches from a failing system, so emerged in its own conceit to realise otherwise, and retained the principles of these ambitious, self-motivated characters. It seared beneath the surface after David Beckham, Michael Owen, Jonathan Woodgate and Owen Hargreaves’ era, but existed nonetheless in many an upwardly mobile foreign land; birthed on slight observations of the holy – not to mention profitable – British configurations of the sport. Avoiding the instances in which an overseas excursion appeared sensible as the expiration of trophy-laden careers approached – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and to lesser extents Jermaine Defoe, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Carlton Cole – alongside the protractions of misguided careers – Ravel Morrison the most prominent example – an extensive plethora of British talents are finding their penchant on foreign soils. Is this a transient trend, or a sustainable future, replicative of economic tendencies towards acute globalisation? Could a pivotal aspect of the potential accomplishments of a future senior national team be divulged under this instance, or in fact prove a hindrance in forming collectives at times of heightened expectation? Such are the relative unknowns of the culture, and meaningless the extrapolations of former generations, that charting these matters is an uneven course.
Where better to start then, but with the individual stimulus for this piece; Reece Oxford, after a meagre series of outings ever since the once-boundless capabilities that garnished his name with a man-of-the-match performance on Premier League debut against Arsenal two and a half years ago, linked dubiously with a permanent transfer to RasenBallsport Leipzig. To regale his teenage achievements is to forget his present state, however; skirting around the edges of a competitive Borussia Monchengladbach outfit, and with little of the respect many of his prodigious youth’s feats would usually garner elsewhere in respects of selection policy. Potentially bolstering the existing eleven nationalities present, in both playing and coaching staff, at Leipzig – although reportedly only after David Moyes, understandably reluctant to sell, has himself observed the 19-year-old with first-team Premier League outings beyond the seven he was granted in the 2015-16 season – Oxford has considerable influence heaped upon his young shoulders, potentially even to become the first of a meagre, but significant, contingent to break into the senior Three Lions team while playing overseas.
This is very much a divergent phenomenon from the one witnessed in British squads at the past three decades’ international tournaments; England’s Beckham (Real Madrid, 2006 and 2004), Hargreaves (2002, ‘04 & ’06, Bayern Munich), Steve McManaman (Real Madrid, ’00), Paul Ince (Inter, 1996), David Platt (Bari, ’92), Trevor Steven (Marseille, ’92), Chris Waddle (‘90, Marseille), Gary Lineker (Barcelona, ’88), Glenn Hoddle (Monaco, ’88), Mark Hateley (AC Milan, ’88 & ’86) and Ray Wilkins (also AC Milan, ‘86), alongside Scotland’s Graeme Souness (Sampdoria, ’86), Steve Archibald (Barcelona, ’86), Murdo MacLeod (Borussia Dortmund, ’90), Alan McInally (Bayern Munich, ’90), John Collins (Monaco, ’96) and Scott Booth (Utrecht, ’98), and Wales’ Gareth Bale (Real Madrid, 2016). Each of these representatives, on the highest stage imaginable, had fled overseas after at least establishing themselves in the top tier of English or Scottish domestic football; their average age, upon exit, was 26.82 years, at least when discounting the Canadian-born and German-tutored Hargreaves. None of these exalted figures were reared on the renowned technical demands of Spanish football, an Italian ability to orchestrate the tempo of any match situation, or the versatility expected of German or Dutch youngsters, and nor did they last long, relatively at least, at any of their chosen clubs; Beckham’s four years at Real Madrid equalling Hoddle’s four at Monaco, Archibald’s at Barcelona and McInally’s at Bayern and paling only to Bale, in the current era, who I believe it is fair to say has failed to reach the heights of his Galácticos predecessors. To challenge these nations, who themselves profited greatly in the expanse of commercial efforts and inspiration of youth products present at the turn of the century, the respective FAs of the British Isles – certainly, at least, an English establishment keen to emulate the successes of their continental contemporaries – have opted to encourage this migration of talents, rather than remain steadfast in their status quo.
Or have they? There is no overt or assertive evidence of their involvement in the exploits of Oxford, Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund), Jack Harrison (New York City), Chris Willock (Benfica B), Isaac Buckley-Ricketts (FC Twente, on loan), Kaylen Hinds (Wolfsburg), Ryan Kent (Freiburg, on loan), Mason Mount, Charlie Colkett and Fankaty Dabo (all Vitesse Arnhem, on loan), Matty Willock (Utrecht, on loan), George Dobson (Sparta Rotterdam), Dan Crowley (Willem II), James Horsfield (NAC Breda) or Todd Kane (Groningen, on loan). Had they not only selected Harrison for under-21 duty when he rose to public relevance across the pond, allow Sancho to skip straight beyond under-18 level after his brief time spent at the successful U17 World Cup campaign before Dortmund obtrusively recalled him, or decided to recall Hinds to international action – bypassing under-19 level to be promoted from under-18s to U20 after a two-year absence – following his stint in Lower Saxony, they may have appeared genuine in their intentions. Yet they are fortunate, a cynic may observe, to have exploited the advantages of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool’s liberal youth loanee policies – much more so in the former’s case, lest we forget Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker, Izzy Brown, Dominic Solanke and Josh McEachran, all former Vitesse loanees – and to have claimed the talents blooded on senior, top-tier stages, as opposed to those satiated with evidently ineffective youth-grade competition, as the true successes of their policies.
Such is the sentiment commonly held by those pessimistically deriding English institutions, and customs now rendered largely incomparable. Who may profit from this exportation are the psychologically resolute individuals, but for those not amongst this rare breed, and with a less adaptable mental approach, it can be a daunting practice under which little benefit is immediately obvious, or even evident upon their potential return to British shores. Widely, this is a tendency commonly referred to amongst youth coaches at both national and club level, but for some in other prominent positions, as well, unfortunately, as for vast sections of a media in sections often prone to wild slander, it is an incompatible quality. What may be applicable to one national team, and more poignantly sporting culture, is not certain to apply elsewhere, and nor should a ‘one size fits all’ approach be taken when filtering these impressionable individuals into careers hopefully comprising more triumphs than toils. It would be totally irresponsible, especially with the lives and careers of such vulnerable entities entering into an industry that already exists as highly volatile, to impose this form of national policy.
Thus, it was never, and can never have ethically been, the true intention of the FA to forge this fact. It is an alignment of circumstance, in the partly-altruistic, partly-exploitative exports of youth players from England’s elite academies, and the free will of a brave contingent of intrinsically self-aware teenagers either deeming themselves too restrained by English academies, in some cases at their boyhood clubs – Sancho, Hinds, Willock and Dobson – or doomed to encounter an eviction from their academy, and with greater opportunity abroad, after previous loan spells there; Crowley and Horsfield. We can but commend their spirit. If doing so, however, we threaten to reopen the chasms of the 1990s and early 2000s’ foibles; lavishing high-profile players with admiring praise for vacating home soil in an effort to compete more consistently on the continental stage. A certain hubris was cultivated in these individuals, arguably a key contribution to the fractured ambitions of their remaining international careers, and this must not be again considered as a responsible or productive process.
I am strongly inclined to argue that it is even further irresponsible of the journalistic industry to fixate on foreign-based youngsters for the sheer reason of their choice to ply their trade abroad. Upon these players’ prerogative, it is a sensible career option to alone shield themselves from the callous tendencies of the English media, which are only projected more divisively by a regurgitative public, and develop in perhaps more forgiving, certainly rational environs. An example in which this is immediately recognisable is that of Jack Wilshere, who has been so universally praised by Arsenal fans, and naïve individuals who consider themselves the long-suffering subjects of Gareth Southgate’s England side, after completing four consecutive Premier League matches – 90 minutes in each occurrence – for the first time since March 2014, with an assist and an average 88.58% pass completion rate to boot. To argue his cause, certainly, is an acceptable response after these performances, but to undermine the presence of Jordan Henderson, Jake Livermore, Eric Dier and Harry Winks, in current occupation of midfield roles in Southgate’s system, if you fail to recognise the demands of the former Middlesbrough manager’s tactics, is a futile provocation that may even lack statistical substance.
Wilshere, after all, is a different player to those he is compared to. From 34 prior Three Lions caps, only two goals and two assists have been procured by the Londoner, yet only six of these appearances have been from the first whistle to the 90th minute. Both of his goals, it should be noted, came in June 2015’s 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana, while the aforementioned assists arose against Switzerland and Scotland in June 2011 and November 2014 respectively; these appearances lasted 90 minutes, 90 minutes and 87 minutes, in individual respect. He is certainly at his best when granted – both by his body and his manager – the ability to see out an appearance, and exert the full extent of his creative influence, and this requires reciprocal trust. To indulge his attributes, without referring to consistent statistics, fails the institution that is international football; completing only 56.5 passes on average in the past four matches, he has never exceeded a position beyond sixth among each individual in the Arsenal side’s total passes tally (sixth in three matches, seventh in one) and failed, even amongst Arsene Wenger’s notoriously pass-happy outfit, to maintain his position when including players from either side; ninth against Liverpool on 22nd December. Surely if he commanded such a position in Southgate’s plans, he would have to be close to the forefront of such statistics, and the fulcrum of creative influence. Besides, this an entirely different argument to pose.
Avoiding the invasive, often misguided swirling opinion of a culture so prone to immoderation in England is an ambition few could have conceived realistic many seasons ago. Very few appreciate its complexities, and the ability to guard against its barbs is a closely shrouded secret. Yet this is what has been defied by the Bundesliga and Eredivisie’s English contingents. No ego, or cult, fashioned by the English media or public is larger than the national team’s cause, and the ability to earn a position in any England team based on sheer productivity and the communication of club managers is one that can only bolster esteem of the player who takes this apparent risk.
An individualistic tendency, however, is not always productive in an international environment. What may be perceived as the arrogance of Sancho, in deferring from Manchester City’s prestigious academy and conscripting to action in Dortmund, may disrupt any dressing room atmosphere he enters upon a return to British shores. These close confines, so often granted only two weeks together other than in critical tournament conditions, often prove much more volatile than club settings; the hopes of a nation, as the adage goes, are pinned upon these few individuals, in much vaster quantities than those of a single city, or as the case may now be, club fans dispersed across the globe. Take the implosion of Raymond Domenech’s French team in 2010, only four years after capitalising the world title with Zinedine Zidane’s infamous offence, and the series of struggles faced at Euro 2008 and in World Cup Qualifying, thus contributing to a tense atmosphere fracturing on the discontent particularly of Nicolas Anelka and Patrice Evra in South Africa. As proven there, a fine line exists at elite levels of the sport between confidence and egotism. To be praised so lavishly for their decision to jump ship, and possess the excuse of a language barrier, cultural alienation or gradual adaptation to foreign climes, has the promise to be a truly fortunate circumstance for any such individual – that is, when alleviating the realistic extents of each of these hindrances. For it is never as simple as to argue alone the benefits of coaching in alternate nations, if undermining the quality of facilities in the nation of their birth.
The tone of these articles, if adopting a cynic’s observation, applies these rising stars as the altruistic figures bestowing their obvious talent upon inferior divisions, who miraculously have superior opportunity and development programmes at this stage in time. The rhetoric has shifted from even two years ago, when a series of national journalists attempted to explain why there was an existential reluctance to make the fêted move. Seizing upon the few examples who have since upped sticks to Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands, the same sources hail the experiences of these formative careers as a major aspect of the redemptive period of English football. Such a striking influence, however, is yet to materialise, and will require many years before we could possible first bear witness; that is, to condemn Eric Dier’s influence on the national team to date, having relocated to London following 11 and a half years – interrupted by 18 months on loan to Everton’s under-18s and academy – spent under Portuguese tutorship. Granted, he has acquitted himself commendably in the era’s defining lack of overriding English midfield talent, and contributed to a cause that he can only ever be as good as in its entirety. All but four of his 22 caps, accumulated in just 24 months, have been for the totality of each game played, while three of the aforementioned four reduced appearances ended in defeat – on debut against Spain, a late introduction against the Dutch and when hooked off at half-time against Iceland, but not in a predictable pre-Euro 2016 friendly win against Australia, ironically when he scored an own goal within two minutes of his introduction. Since, he has gained Gareth Southgate’s unwavering faith; captaining an admittedly ‘injury’-stricken, youthful side against Germany and Brazil, most recently, although without displaying much of the calibre of consistent assurance of his compatriots N’Golo Kanté, Leon Goretzka, Marco Verratti and Casemiro, of whom only Verratti – by one – he has fewer caps than. Such is our carefully managed perception, at least.
While Dier may have had a similar influence on his national team as these French, German, Italian and Brazilian entities, his resonance has not been of the sums envisaged by some quarters. Nor would it be if he were joined in Three Lions duty by fellow foreign-trained Englishmen. The sport can never be dictated by individuals, and it is very much in the vein of our age of individualism and conceit, and of the praise quickly attributed to regular goalscorers, rather than admirable defensive performers – just view the Ballon d’Or winners, England call-ups nominees and most inflated transfer fees of recent seasons – for team contribution and cohesion to be undermined. It is not the factor of these players’ foreign employment that will galvanise the national team, upon their potential instalment to its senior ranks. In reality, it may even act as a form of disruption to the continuing processes and ambitions of the side, with the pride of these players acting as an ideological barrier. And these frustrations can run deep. Just imagine how you would have felt as a member of England U17’s World Cup squad had you witnessed Sancho depart after the group stage to take up a position at the forefront of one of Europe’s leading reserve sides, and on the verge of senior Dortmund action. Though one such event may be forgiven, especially after the squad eventually held aloft the tournament’s glittering trophy, repeating these attitudes could prove fatal. Then again, you’d hope players like these, perhaps easily swayed by their agents at this stage, would mature through such experiences.
Thus, any hopeful or cynical conclusions at this formative stage are effectively void. In an unprecedented account for the FA’s many global playing representatives, the evidence will not even be conclusive upon the potential introduction of Sancho, Willock, Hinds, Harrison or Oxford to senior international action. It will only be one aspect, and a minor one at that, in comparison to the instillation of a defined national identity through each English age group squad, or the investment in St George’s Park as the fully-equipped host to this development, in eventual tournament success, as drawn in the pipeline by Dan Ashworth and his superiors, and will typically pale into insignificance once serious action commences. If that warrants such a conversation, it says much more about the culture of English football than even I could care to note. What more contribution to the status of the sport now could it be, other than embellishing the narratives broadcasters wish to project, and the answers they grapple for in the often-clumsy explanation of success? It should come as no surprise, and is long overdue; no phenomenon, or sudden realisation, has infiltrated the system. As you were, then.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!