This summer clubs in the Premier League spunked a record £1.4bn in the transfer market as Uncle Rupert’s magic money tree, fed on the tears of working class football fans earning below the living wage, pumped enormous BACS transfer shaped fruit into the bank accounts of top level football club owners across the country. As the transfer window SLAMMED shut (actually it just closed, thanks Keysy), fans were already pinning their hopes on the £15m striker their team had signed from a lower league, or decrying their new left back as a waste of money. Unsurprisingly all eyes have been on this summer’s marquee signings, but paying the GDP of a Caribbean island for an average holding midfielder hasn’t been the only trend established in this window. One of the regular lines trotted out every two years after another underwhelming England performance at an international tournament is that enough English players aren’t willing to play abroad. The transfers of five young English talents this summer – four to the Bundesliga – could be a watershed moment.
The idea that English players aren’t willing to play abroad is something of a misnomer. Herbert Kiplin was the first Englishman to move to Europe and play football, as he joined Internazionale Torino from Saint Andrews in 1899, but in the post-war era it was Kevin Keegan’s move to Hamburg for £500,000 that opened the floodgates for high profile England internationals to spread their wings. The 1980s saw Gary Lineker joining Terry Venables’ Barcelona from Everton, while Luther Blissett, Mark Hateley and Trevor Francis all tried their luck in Serie A. The influx of English players to Italy increased tenfold after Italia ’90, as stars of the England team that reached the last four caught the eye of Italian clubs, with David Platt joining Bari, Des Walker signing for Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Sampdoria, and Paul Gascoigne completing a drawn out transfer to Lazio. Chris Waddle, meanwhile, followed in the footsteps of his partner in musical crimes Glenn Hoddle and shipped off to France, securing a move to Marseille.
The introduction of the Premier League in 1992 curbed English exports, as Sky TV money gave clubs the freedom to pay higher wages and keep their big names happy, though the Real Madrid ‘Galacticos’ era saw four England internationals join over the course of a decade, as Steve McManaman, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate swapped the north of England for the sunnier climes of Spain. The one thing all of these transfers have in common, though, is that the players involved were in the prime of their career. Latterly the likes of Joe Cole and Joey Barton have seen moves abroad as an opportunity to resurrect ailing careers, but the opportunity for young English players to move abroad and develop their game is one that hasn’t seemingly been on the table.
Two of the best examples of English youngsters learning their trade on the continent come in the form of Owen Hargreaves and Eric Dier. Hargreaves, born in Canada to British parents, was snapped up by Bayern Munich’s academy at the age of 16 and made his debut for the first team three years later. A year later, he was making his debut for England in a friendly against Holland having established himself as part of the first team squad at Bayern, winning the Champions League at the age of 20 along the way. His performances at the 2006 World Cup earned him England’s Player of the Tournament and he subsequently completed a £17m move to Manchester United.
Dier experienced a similar upbringing. At the age of seven, his parents moved from Cheltenham to the Algarve after his mother took a hospitality job for Euro 2004. Relocating to Lisbon a year later, Dier was scouted by Sporting CP and joined their academy, eventually signing a contract with them in 2010. After a loan spell in Everton’s youth team in 2011, Dier made his first team breakthrough at Sporting at the start of the 2012/13 season and clocked up 31 appearances across two seasons before catching the eye of Mauricio Pochettino and signing for Tottenham in a £4m deal, where he has established himself as one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League. It’s clear from watching his game that Dier learned much from his time in Portugal, and there are certainly suggestions his education was worlds apart from those trained in England.
“A good player for [Sporting] was someone who could understand when they made a mistake and correct it for themselves. When I first came to England to play I saw coaches having a go at players when they made mistakes.”
Chris Willock will be hoping he can experience a similar experience in Portugal after completing a free transfer from Arsenal. The 19 year-old forward, who made only one appearance for the Arsenal first team – a League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest – was praised by former teammate Francis Coquelin who said “I think it’s very good and for him to go to Benfica, who play very young players, and for me he was one of the best in the Academy”.
But it’s the quartet of English youngsters making the move to Germany that have caught the eye, with Liverpool’s Ryan Kent and West Ham’s Reece Oxford moving on loan deals, while Arsenal’s Kaylen Hinds and Manchester City’s Jadon Sancho have completed permanent moves.
Kent’s move to Germany is perhaps the least surprising, given Liverpool’s links with the Bundesliga. The 20 year old winger was a regular on loan at Barnsley in the Championship last season, and Jurgen Klopp will see a move to SC Freiburg as a natural progression. The opportunity to play in the top division at a club that will benefit from Kent’s talents as well as taking in a different culture, allows Kent the chance to push on, and Klopp will be hoping he returns ready to vie for a place in Liverpool’s starting XI. Moving further up the league, some eyebrows may have been raised when West Ham allowed Reece Oxford to join Borussia Monchengladbach for the season. The Edmonton born defender’s breakout performances at the beginning of the 2015/16 season looked as though a gem had been unearthed, but a lack of first team football at both West Ham and on loan at Reading last year has stifled Oxford’s development. Owner David Sullivan’s assertions that West Ham were looking for players “now rather than later” this summer suggested that opportunities for playing time may be limited at the London Stadium this season, and so the chance to develop his game in a league that enjoys ball-playing defenders seems a no-brainer.
Wolfsburg’s £2m move for Kaylen Hinds may have seemed odd to a few supporters, but The Wolves’ new manager Andries Jonker is very familiar with Hinds’ ability, having worked with him during his time as a youth coach at Arsenal. Hinds will certainly be considered one for the future, having spent a fruitless four months at Stevenage last season, but three goals in five pre-season games suggests Jonker may be able to get the best out of him.
The highest-profile move of the four is surely that of Jadon Sancho. The highly rated playmaker reached a stand-off with Manchester City during the summer over the promise of playing time when offered a new contract. This prompted a host of Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Spurs, to start making kissy faces at the 17 year old, until City decided that an £8m transfer to Borussia Dortmund (with a reported buy back fee included) made the most sense. It’s a move that makes sense for Sancho, too, with Dortmund’s reputation for blooding youngsters (a third of the first team squad are 23 or under) and the summer appointment of former Ajax manager Peter Bosz (named the youngest ever starting line-up for a European final) indicating that sought after game time will be delivered in Germany.
English football fans will be casting a keen eye on the Bundesliga this season, and if the quartet of prospects from these shores are given the opportunity to flourish it may spawn the beginning of a new era of continental development in young English players, which can only be a good thing for the future of the national team.