Between 2nd and 9th October 2010, six English players played somewhere other than the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. The next time domestic football returns, hundreds of English players could take to the field all over the world; from the dizzy heights of the Bundesliga to the rather more modest surroundings of the Icelandic fifth tier; branching beyond Europe to the Colombian top division and the domestic league in New Zealand, England is represented in 47 countries outside of the British Isles.
So, what is behind the sudden out-pouring of English players elsewhere? Who are the players making a name for themselves on the continent? Will any of them be making their way back to England any time soon?
For a start, one of the key features of moves abroad, be it the most high-profile – Jadon Sancho at Dortmund – or the former Manchester United youth captain now winning titles in Iceland, is the high level of football being played in England in particular, and the quality coaching in the academies. Many young footballers forgo a career in the lower leagues in order to pursue top-fight football elsewhere and many are plucked from non-league obscurity and become key players in the top league in their country.
ABBA, Ikea, and English Footballers
One of the biggest homes for English exports is Sweden. There are currently nine players contracted to Allsvenskan teams – Sweden’s top-flight – and over fifty present in the country altogether. A lot of this is to do with current Brighton manager Graham Potter’s eight year stint at Östersunds FK. His success is well documented as he took the team from the fourth division all the way to the top-flight and into Europe. Potter took a lot of Englishmen with him and many are still there today but he did not start the revolution.
Of those six players in 2010, three of them were playing in Sweden – James Keene, Kenny Pavey, and Calum Angus. All three had good careers in Sweden playing for multiple clubs across multiple levels and all three had their footballing careers extended by making the leap abroad.
The English Premier League is considered one of the best in the world. Teams are able to spend hundreds of millions on transfers and youth academies are used less than they may be elsewhere in the world. This was certainly the case with Keene, who left then Premier League Portsmouth five times on loan between 2004 and 2006 and only managed two league games for them. His last loan spell was a GAIS where he played for a full season finishing as the team’s top scorer and securing a move to Swedish champion’s IF Elfsborg. He spent three full seasons there before being loaned out three times – the third to former club, Portsmouth.
James Keene went from Premier League reserve player to top-flight regular for a team playing European football and this is the appeal that playing in the Sweden in particular appears to have. Kenny Pavey had two spells at AIK after leaving Millwall for Sweden via Southern League Premier Division side Sittingbourne. This is a familiar path for many of the British exports in Sweden. Alex Purver, Blair Turgott, and Noel Mbo were all most recently playing non-league football before making the leap to the top division in Sweden whilst players such as Charlie Colkett and Francis Baptiste decided to seek a move to Scandinavia rather than seek their fortunes in England’s lower leagues.
The Movers and Shakers
A lot of moves abroad are made by those players who are maybe struggling to break into a Premier League squad. Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham are high profile player who have decided they had better opportunities at Dortmund over the Premier League; Sancho left from Manchester City as a 17 year old and Bellingham moved from Birmingham allegedly rejecting a host of Premier League clubs. Sancho is now a key player for England and Bellingham, who has started all three of Dortmund’s games so far, could well have an outside shot at England’s Euro 21 squad. The pair, along with Kieran Trippier, Ashley Young, and Chris Smalling are the high profile names how have made permeant moves abroad but who are the ones that may have slipped off the radar? Who can claim to be the ‘best of the rest’ after leaving England for pastures new? The accompanying attribute overviews (courtesy of SofaScore) show the performance of the players compared to other players in their positions
Max Clark is a rare breed of footballer: an Englishman playing for Vitesse not on loan for Chelsea. The defender had two loan spells at Cambridge United in League Two before breaking into the Hull team in the 2017/18 season and moving to Holland following the completion of his contract.
A left back by trade, Clark has flourished away from the England and has been touted as a potential England player because of his good form. He topped Vitesse tackle charts last season with 3.7 per game and has also been able to chip in in an attacking sense. Clark had three assists and created five gig chances last season. He connected with roughly one in three of his crosses at an average of 1.7 per game.
Clark was impressive last season. He was linked with a return to the Premier League with both Leicester and Crystal Palace along with a move to Sevilla who lost Real Madrid loanee Sergio Reguilón to Tottenham. For now, Clark remains a Vitesse Arnhem player but you would think he is one good season away from a return to the top-flight.
Marcus Edwards is a name that may be familiar in North London; the winger is a product of Tottenham’s academy and scored on his return to the capital, against Arsenal, for Vitória S.C. It was his first full season as in Portugal and the winger flourished in Guimarães scoring seven goals and contributing five assists. His form has led to talk of an immediate return to the Premier League with Leeds and even Tottenham linked with him over the summer and a look at his stats can tell us why.
Edwards is primarily a right winger who uses his pace and power to cause problems for opposition defenders. He topped Vitória’s charts for successful dribbles averaging 3.4 per game with a success rate of 59%. He still has a lot of work to do on his all round game – he was sixth in big chances created with three, eighth in shots per game at 1.3, and only had 0.2 accurate crosses per game (a success rate of only 19%) – but he is still young and has plenty of time to develop.
Vieira made his debut for Leeds as an 18 year old in 2016 and went on to appear 63 times the club. He was highly regarded by successive managers at Elland Road clubs and made three appearances for the England U21 side before moving to Sampdoria in August 2018. The defensive midfielder has moved on loan to Hellas Verona for the 2020/21 season where he will hope to recreate the form he showed in the Championship.
Viera has dropped in the number of tackles he made from 2.1 per game in his two seasons at Leeds to 1.3 in his two for Sampdoria; his interceptions per game and clearances per game dropped as well (from 0.7 and 1.4 from 1.2 and 1.45 respectively). The midfielder is averaging a similar percentage in duels won – 44% from 48% for ground duels and 40% from 42% for aerial duels – but his overall number of ground duels won has dropped from 4.8 to 3.4. This suggests that his style does not fit Sampdoria’s brand. He was linked with a move back to England this summer and maybe a good season in Verona will be enough to secure a move to the Premier League.
George Saunders is a curious case. The defensive minded midfielder has spent some time in Europe, appearing for the C team at Villarreal and the B team at Levante but, from 2013, found his home in Colombia. The former Arsenal youth product has been playing for Envigado since 2015 and has made a name for himself at the club that developed James Rodriguez amongst others. Saunders has not been linked to a move home but there was talk that he may capitalise on his Colombian citizenship by representing the country. At 31, this does not look likely to happen but it is still worth analysing how the Londoner made a name for himself in South America.
Saunders is a fascinating case, being the only Englishman playing in South America, but he is not likely to make a return to the English topflight. The best you can say about him is that he has been solid for an average Colombian team. Over his five years at Envigado, he has averaged 1.4 interceptions per game, 1.54 tackles per game, and 0.52 clearances; he has ranked amongst the top players for passes per game, averaging a pass success rate of 86% with 38.6 passes per game being a team high in 2018. He has been solid in Colombia without setting the world alight. Saunders is someone who has benefited massively by moving abroad; he has not set the world alight but has managed to forge a career out of being a solid footballer in a country that traditionally prioritises flair players.
It is clear to see the draw of moving abroad for English players. Players who may have average careers at lower levels in England have the chance to challenge for titles; young players are given a quicker route to the first team; and average players are given the chance to become heroes abroad. Many players falling into non-league obscurity have been given chances in some of the more obscure European nations. Players such as Sam Hewson – who has been winning titles in Iceland – and Blair Turgott – one of the many players to go from non-league to Sweden’s top flight; players like Jadon Sancho have been given the chance to shine early on in their careers rather than negotiate the minefield that is making the step into the Premier League (see former teammate, Phil Foden, for reference; and players like Matt Derbyshire have gone from struggling to break double figures in the Championship to top scoring in Cyprus and winning championships in Greece. Almost every player that has moved abroad has had more successful careers and those who have returned have done so with enhanced reputations.