Rebuilding England

British players wane on Europe market

October 10, 2013
By John Brewin

Vinny Samways was a player apart in English football. "Vinny Sideways," they called him. With a languid style that never properly fitted into the hurly-burly game of the era, he regularly employed the square pass. He won an FA Cup with Spurs in 1991, but never prospered at Everton, especially once Joe Royle's "Dogs of War" made Goodison Park their kennel.

At the turn of the millennium, British TV audiences began to be offered Spanish football on a bi-weekly basis. Gran Canaria's Las Palmas were a Primera Liga team back then, and their midfielder looked familiar. It was Samways, and his comfort with the Spanish game was obvious. There, the square pass was not so derided, and he had established himself as an unlikely hatchet man through a flurry of yellow and red cards. He was picked up by Sevilla after Las Palmas' relegation at the end of the 2001-02 season.

Samways was an outlier. Some big British names have made their way to the continent but very few lesser lights have taken their chance in lower reaches and settled in the fashion that he did. At the close of his career, a spell at Walsall was followed by a return to Spanish life at Algeciras in the Segunda B.

Around the same time, the opposite became a path well-trodden. Roberto Martinez first came to England in 1995 as part of Wigan Athletic's "Three Amigos" alongside Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz. Nowadays, the lower leagues are littered with foreign professionals. League One's Swindon Town squad featuring of a Portuguese winger in Tijane or a French forward in Dany N'Guessan is no anomaly.

English football's import/export ratio is hugely imbalanced. The Premier League is an export TV business, viewable across the world, yet its exportation of indigenous talent is minimal compared to its importation of talent from across the globe. Now, Welshman Gareth Bale flies a rather solitary flag in Madrid while Swansea City has become a Spanish enclave.

Before the Premier League-led reshuffle of English football in 1992, it was more common for British players to ply their trade on the continent than for foreign players to play in England. Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis at Manchester United, the new league's first champions, were pioneers.

Before that, Chris Waddle was an idol at Marseille while Glenn Hoddle played for Arsene Wenger at Monaco. In that summer of 1992, Paul Gascoigne joined Lazio while England's best central defender of the era, Des Walker, joined Sampdoria. David Platt, England's goal-scoring midfielder and sometime captain, was at Juventus, having starred for Bari.

English players were appreciated for their competitiveness, though all of the above were players of poise and ease on the ball. However, a leading reason for such continental drift was economic; English clubs could not compete with the wages and transfer fees that Serie A, then the best and richest league in the world, could pay. Rangers could outspend the Football League's clubs, too. Of England's 23-man squad at Italia '90, it was actually Scotland's then-champions who provided the most players of any club -- four.

The Premier League -- slowly -- changed things, as did its clubs' growing ability to compete in the further reaches of European competition. Throughout the 1990s, Internazionale president Massimo Moratti coveted Ryan Giggs, but Giggs could now achieve his dreams at his hometown club. Steve McManaman, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate all enjoyed varying success at Real Madrid but that trail went dead once Beckham flew out to Los Angeles in 2007. 

An island mentality is a regular accusation against residents of the United Kingdom, even though British migrant workers are common across the globe. Without doubt, the worst at learning a second language in Europe are the English, mostly by dint of their language being widely spoken, but also because the Channel and North Sea prevent the osmosis of culture and linguistics that the European mainland offers.  

Gareth Bale poses on the Bernabeu pitch after signing for Real Madrid.
AssociatedGareth Bale poses on the Bernabeu pitch after signing for Real Madrid.


In most cases, Brits abroad chase a better life through higher economic gain, but there is no such problem for English footballers. Through its multi-billion TV deals, the Premier League pays the highest average wages. Middling, aspirant clubs like Norwich City and Southampton can attract signings like Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Pablo Osvaldo from Lisbon and Rome for that very reason. Such riches are not on offer at equivalent clubs like Sevilla or Udinese.

It cuts in the other direction, too: English clubs can afford to price their players out of transfers to the continent. Only Spain's giants or the petrodollar riches of PSG or Monaco could afford to pay the fee that prising away a Wayne Rooney might require. Bale was tempted at a record cost, but there were no takers -- save for cursory Parisian interest -- for Rooney when his United future was recently uncertain. 

And with English talent mostly not of the level of the likes of Hoddle, Waddle or Gascoigne, the attraction is no longer there, either. English worries about the quality of coaching and skills are not confined to these isles; football in this country is widely viewed as being unsophisticated in tactical and training terms. The same goes for the products of the system; England's impotent, panicked performances in internationals do not go unnoticed elsewhere.

Even in Germany's Bundesliga, the league with greatest similarity to the Premier League, greater possession and composure are required. Germany was once a popular destination for Brits, but aside from Owen Hargreaves -- at Bayern Munich from the age of 16 -- the last British player to make a true impact was Paul Lambert with Borussia Dortmund in the mid-to-late 90s.

Bale was not bought by Real Madrid for technical excellence, even though he might possess it, but for his explosiveness. And, of course, marketability to an English-speaking audience, too. Unlike Vinny Samways once did, he does not yet seem a natural fit to Spanish or European football. At present, very few English or British players are.


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