“It’s like living in a foreign country.”
This infamous quote from Ian Rush has provided much cause for laughter over the years. The comment, which was a reflection on a failed season at Juventus, has been very much used as a line of ridicule over the years.
Yet, in a strange way, this line of ridicule has very much come to epitomise a generation of British footballers' thinking with regard to playing in another country—it really is a foreign country.
If we begin by reflecting on who will be signing for Premiership teams over the next 12 months, who the majority of targets for these clubs will be, and who the papers will link these clubs with, then almost all of them will be foreign players, and players who will have to migrate over to Britain from other countries around the world to sign for these clubs.
Now while critics of the Premiership continuously bleat about the steady flux of foreign players arriving on these shores, let us turn this argument around—ask yourself how many English players do we see signing for teams abroad? Let alone being linked with or even considering a move abroad?
For British players, the idea of moving abroad seems anathema. A strange and absurd suggestion that just will not be considered and, indeed, is perhaps is beneath a British player. British players just don’t move abroad, their place is in the Premiership—the "home of football".
But why? Why are British players so different from the foreign players who come over to Britain year after year, often at a young age, that they feel that they must stay insulated within their own league and indeed their own style of play, rather than trying to play in a different league, and perhaps learning something new about themselves and about football from the experience?
At Arsenal, there were rumours recently that on transfer deadline day, a young English player was offered the chance to move to one of the club's feeder teams in Spain, Salamanca. But the player in question rejected this opportunity on the basis that he would have to learn the language and adapting to a different style of play would be too hard (Incidentally, a Norwegian youngster named Havard Nordtveit was happy to move in his place).
I’m sorry to say this, but this example really illustrated to me a fundamental problem with British footballers. Foreign youngsters, and indeed experienced pros, are more than willing to give playing abroad a chance. Even though they have to move out of their comfort zone, go to a foreign country where they know possibly nothing with regard to language and dialect.
Where they are often away from their family for extended periods and must spend a lot of time on their own and lonely. And to top it off, they must adapt their own style of play to fit in—sounds quite hard when you think about it.
Yet these players do leave, regardless of the hardship, year after year, coming over to Britain and learning from our league and our culture. As such these players are furthering their football education and indeed gaining a new life experience. They adapt as players to come to terms with British football, the fast pace and frenetic nature of it, they learn things which they could never hope to learn had they stayed in their own league, and in the process they become much better players for it.
This process of development in turn aids the player's home country, because as they develop, these players will often graduate through to their country's international teams, and often things they have learnt in a new league will enable them to play at a much higher level and quality than they would have managed before.
Two prime examples of this are Cesc Fabregas and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both moved to England at young ages, adapted and learned our play, integrated it with skills and talents they learned in Spain and Portugal respectively, and as such have gone on to become worldclass players for their countries.
Obviously, this is a simplistic approach to examining player development, and each individual player is a special and specific case, and more often fail upon travelling abroad than succeed, yet at least they were willing to try something new and attempt to develop themselves as a player further even if it fails.
Now ask yourself, who was the last British player to be developed in a foreign club's academy? Well if my memory serves me correctly, the answer is Owen Hargreaves, and he had barely been in Britain before then, and he certainly developed well under Bayern Munich’s tutelage.
That is one player probably in over a decade, who was in an academy of a team in another country, and even that was years ago. Now compare that with the youth teams in Britain at the moment, where the majority of the better prospects are foreign youngsters who often were poached from other countries, and were willing to leave their homeland, and try and develop their game in a foreign country.
Across the board, Brit’s playing football abroad are rare, precious few ever learn their game in another country, and few more actually leave Britain in an attempt to further their career, and perhaps this is to our own detriment as a nation.
British players continue to remain trapped in our own isles, and so they remain trapped in our own British style of play, rather than being exposed to the wider range of styles that they play on the continent.
The fast-paced play of the Premiership becomes the only style of football these players know, and often the slower tempo of European and international football becomes tough to adapt to, simply because too few British players have enough exposure to a different style of football.
Hence why, the big English clubs rely on foreign players to aid them in Europe, because they are used to this style of play, and perhaps why Scottish clubs so often fail in Europe and British teams struggle in internationals. Home-grown players often don’t move abroad, out of their comfort zone and experience a different style of football.
As such playing against a different style of football is alien to them, and they struggle against opposition who have played it all their lives, because they were taught it.
Of course the big criticism of this argument centres on money; the riches of the Premier League are such that British players have no need to move abroad as they are unlikely to be as financially rewarded in another league. Yet for British players, should this really be an excuse? Should players who are supposedly playing for the "love of the game", really need to stay simply where the money is?
They should look at past examples of successful Brits abroad, Paul Lambert, Chris Waddle, David Beckham, and Steve McManaman for instance, they all moved abroad and it did their careers no harm at all, indeed two of them won the European Cup.
Besides which, for all the talk of the Premier League being the money capital of football, the big leagues in Europe are hardly financially handicapped in comparison. Arsenal, for instance, lost Matthieu Flamini over the summer because they were unwilling to match AC Milan’s wage offer, so he left.
And year after year, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter and AC Milan attract big name players, so they can hardly be offering a pittance of a wage. So surely the financial rewards are there for British players abroad if they want them. So again, the question has to be asked, why aren’t there more British players playing abroad?
Personally, I believe that for British players there is still a mental issue about moving abroad. British players perhaps feel that if they were to move to another country then in some ways it would be a perceived backwards step, a move away from the "money", the limelight, and the fame. They perhaps still believe that the Premiership is the be all and end all in world football, and nothing else on planet football compares to it, indeed their mindset seems to be that the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
Yet for me that is a rather closed and self-deluding chain of thought and frankly a very narrow-minded view because it ignores the qualities and merits of foreign coaching, something which has long been vastly superior to the British coaching in terms of technical development, fluidity of play, and tactical awareness.
It is because of this sort of attitude and mindset I fear that British players will always be slightly inferior, in terms of technique and adaptability of play, to foreign players. For these are players who learn the basics in their own countries, go abroad to learn new styles and as such grow and develop as players, something the British players just will not do.
As a result, at international level, our countries will continue to suffer. If you cast a glance at the squads of the countries who at this present time are succeeding at international level—Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina—they all have players who play in a multitude of countries around the world, and as such their teams combine a diverse blend of different footballing cultures, while British teams often can only chose players from British leagues and clubs, and so we miss that blend and variety of styles which can make these other teams difficult to play against.
So I ask, just why aren't British footballers leaving these shores and going abroad? To try something different, experience a new style of football and indeed develop their games further? I believe it is hugely important for British football as a whole, that its home grown talents no longer feel that there is no alternative but to remain shackled within the British leagues.
That they are afforded the opportunity, and are indeed encouraged to go and develop their games in other countries and leagues for their own good, like foreign youngsters are doing in our own leagues. Sadly, for us as footballing nations, I doubt very much that anything like this will happen anytime soon, and as a result, success for our home nations and our home grown players could be a long way off.