Younger players are heading further afield as a path to first-team football and it’s benefiting national teams
Gareth Southgate was still beaming when he arrived at the ground. There had been just enough time to watch Ben Stokes produce the innings of a lifetime to lead England’s cricket team to victory in the Ashes third Test before the manager of England’s football team left his hotel and made the 12km journey south to Leganés. It was late August, he had come to see Kieran Trippier play for Atlético Madrid and by the end of a good day for English sport, he decided he liked what he saw. Four days later, the full-back returned to the national squad.
Trippier started in the team that beat Bulgaria 4-0 at Wembley; coming on to join him was Jadon Sancho, the Borussia Dortmund winger who had made his debut in October last year. A month on, they have been called up again. Sancho became the 25th man to represent England while playing abroad, Trippier the 26th. They are the first since David Beckham, formerly of Real Madrid but by then of LA Galaxy, bowed out in 2009.
Another decade should not go by for it to happen again, the numbers suggest. Sancho is one of six Englishmen in the Bundesliga. In La Liga, Trippier is one of two, with the Osasuna forward Brandon Thomas, Spain-born with an English father, although there are two more Britons: Gareth Bale at Real Madrid and Oliver Burke at Alavés. The FA tracks English qualified players weekly: last weekend, on top of Sancho and Tripper, six others started in Europe’s top four leagues: Ronaldo Vieira at Sampdoria, Jonjoe Kenny at Schalke and Lewis Baker at Fortuna Düsseldorf, as well as Dijon’s Stephy Mavididi, Chris Smalling at Roma and Reece Oxford for Augsburg. It is not huge but that figure of eight, the FA believes, is a record.
Some of those players reflect that part of the shift is beneath the surface and is one that could be self‑perpetuating. Elite signings and sons of immigrants account for some Englishmen abroad, as may overstocked squads at clubs looking for somewhere to loan. But it is young players seeking a path to first‑team football and the clubs who can now track them at youth level that is emerging as a trend and may most drive change – albeit one potentially threatened by the end of freedom of movement with Brexit.
Sancho is a prime example that the greatest attraction of moving abroad can be summed up in a word: opportunity. In the Premier League 30% of starters are English, 19.9% at the top six. Pathways open faster elsewhere, for those prepared to take them. Sancho has 63 first‑team appearances at Dortmund, aged 19.
There are parallels in Trippier’s new home country, even if his case is different. Cesc Fàbregas, who left Spain for England, seeking an opportunity he considered unlikely at home, sums it up. “At 16, I was training with Thierry Henry and Bergkamp, Pires and Vieira. I’d played 50 games at 17; at 18, I’d played in a Champions League final; at 21, a European Championship final; two years later, a World Cup final.”
And there’s the thing: a World Cup final. Migration can be good for national teams, too, and Southgate has defended the benefits of English players going abroad, something so few have done. Almost as soon as he took over, he said: “I always say being an island saved us in 1945. I’m not so sure it’s helped us ever since. We’ve got to broaden horizons. The lads see one league, they think we’re the centre of the Earth and we’re not.”
“It’s been good for us that players went abroad; that’s one of the most important factors,” said Vicente del Bosque, coach when Spain won the 2010 World Cup with three England‑based players and Euro 2012 when they had four from the Premier League. “It opened our minds, a major advance.”
The question is how far those lessons, those experiences, are applicable to England. The paths cannot be the same because of the Premier League’s greater financial muscle, salaries making home comforts attractive to players. Spain’s top-flight clubs bring more footballers through partly because they need to and that also means more products to sell.
But there are parallels and at a basic level it starts with the same word: opportunity. More football for more footballers, widening the pool of first-team minutes and, better still, European minutes, however they got there. There are 17 former Football League players in the latest England squad, plus two playing abroad, chances found below and beyond the biggest clubs. Different, if more circuitous routes to the top.
When Southgate called up Sancho, he said: “There was a stat around Champions League appearances for nationalities and how it’s correlated to success at senior international level, so to have a player starting in the Champions League is important to us. His decision to move tells you something about his character – he has tremendous belief in himself.”
Sancho’s experience may help others to believe there is success beyond their borders, Southgate admitting there was an unintended message in bringing him into the squad. Moving abroad is something England embraces. Southgate was not put off by Trippier leaving, doors did not close: he welcomed this, a fresh start for one of his players and at the perfect place.
Trippier had heard people suggest he was going under the radar but he knew better. There had been conversations, encouragement. Last Saturday, Steve Holland, Southgate’s assistant, was back for the Madrid derby.
Atlético are hardly a backwards step in quality while Dortmund was a great leap forward. Trippier began this season’s Champions League campaign by providing a 90th-minute assist against Juventus, Sancho began his tearing into Barcelona.
On Saturday Sancho travelled to Freiburg, Trippier will travel to Valladolid on Sunday, and then, like the rest of their England teammates, they will head to the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Unlike the others, though, Trippier and Sancho will have to catch a flight home first.
PUKmedia \ The Guardian