Almanac Soccer: Why England’s football solution lies abroad



England expects. Iceland delivers. And thus the post-mortems commence.


The aftermath of England’s last 16 exit at the Euro 2016 tournament has been almost as intriguing as the build-up to the contest in Nice which was eventually won 2-1 by Iceland.


England coach Roy Hodgson has quit and the predictable next manager markets have Gareth Southgate as the early favourite to take over the poisoned chalice when it is awarded (is that the right word given recent history?) by the Football Association.


But aside from the manager, team tactics, and team harmony, what is it about clearly talented players who can’t seem to progress on the international stage despite playing in the ‘best’ competition in the world.


Maybe that is the problem, is the best of the world coming to play in the Premier League stifling player development of England’s players? If this premise is true what can be done to flip the script?



After the fixture ex-England international Chris Waddle, appearing on BBC Five Live’s coverage, was queried about whether the lack of British players playing overseas to expand their knowledge base and experience was holding the team back in big tournaments.


The former Marseille winger spoke highly of his experiences in France.


“It’s just different, the way they train, the way everything is.”


“The games are more tactical, you learn more about the game, you understand the game more. You play certain games where you think ‘right we are going to sit back’ I never had that in England. Ever. Wherever you went (in England) it was 4-4-2 and you went forward and you played and that was it.


Waddle, who won Ligue 1 three times in France, lauded the growth playing the game abroad gave him. “When you go abroad you learn so much tactically, a lot more.”


“They get the best out of you… they put you in areas that compensate for your weaknesses”


“You learnt how to be streetwise… if it means falling down and getting a free kick.. it’s part and parcel of the game.”


Waddle continued. “We are very, very nice, never streetwise.”


In a nod to tactical fouling used by top sides, Waddle said it was time for England to drop the pragmatic approach they currently use and the said ‘nice way’ won’t reach the FA’s stated goal of victory at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.


“If you want to win football tournaments that’s how you’ve got to play. Spain do it, Italy do it. Germany do it.”


Waddle (who was managed during his time at Marseille by coaches from Croatia, Belgium and Germany) played in a European Cup final losing on penalties to Red Star Belgrade and recommended players take a proactive approach. “I’ve always encouraged players to go abroad.”


The irony that Waddle missed a penalty costing England a spot in a World Cup final is not lost on me. But, like his 1996 contemporaries, he was part of an England side which actually won significant knockout games at big tournaments.


The tactical and playing style aspects of playing overseas were not just noted as crucial at the elite level by Waddle. The ex-Newcastle United forward aired his disquiet at how youngsters were introduced to the game.


“Don’t coach kids at five years of age”


“Stop coaching them, stop getting bibs and cones out, stop getting them to play two touch football. Let them go and enjoy it. When they get to 13/14 then they’ll understand the game and you can coach them a lot easier. Don’t coach kids at five years old. We are killing the talent.”


Not only is playing style and overseas experience significant there is another simple benefit to English players plying their trade overseas. Language.


Despite the English language been the international language (generally when it comes to business and other fields) a reasonable point can be made that this hobbles England in the international sphere with players understanding what they are calling out but English players (and yes this is a generalistion, but I’m happy to be proved wrong) not having a grasp of what the opposition are saying in the reverse. This may be a small matter but picking up a small quick point in German, French or Italian could result in a player getting to the ball that split second needed to make the difference.


Waddle makes a compelling point for the experience to be gained by playing overseas but, for England at least, since the turn of the century there have been few and far between.



Colin Kazim-Richards, the famed Coca-Cola kid who joined Brighton and Hove Albion as part of a competition run by the soft drink manufacturer, ended up in Turkey and has had a range of off-field issues. Richards had links to Turkey with his mother born there so the move wasn’t strictly a player development issue as it became an international pathway for the London-born forward. Richards’ move to Sheffield United in 2006 was set to catapult him to higher club and country honours but his career stalled. He has since left Celtic after playing with them for five months from the start of 2016.


But the former Feyenoord striker may be the exception that proves the rule for English players improving, or at least maintaining a high level, when going overseas.


Paul Ince joined Italian giants Inter Milan in 1995 having completed a storied career at Manchester United and maintained his spot in the England squad playing in the team which got to the semi-finals of the 1996 European Championships. Fellow midfielder Steve McManaman wasn’t playing overseas at the time of the 1996 tournament but joined Real Madrid three years later and continued to played for England until 2001 – although injury in Euro 2000 meant he didn’t play the role he had perhaps hoped he would. Another midfielder, David Platt, joined Arsenal in the season before the 1996 tournament but had spent the five years with Bari, Juventus and Sampdoria in Italy. This trio highlighted the benefits of expanding their playing horizons which in turn, even allowing for penalty shootout heartache, showed great benefit. In addition to the Euro ’96 team, striker and now TV host Gary Lineker also played abroad in the late 80’s with Barcelona. He bought that experience back to Tottenham, playing over 100 matches and winning an FA Cup with Spurs.


Since 2000 there have also been four international level English players to ply their trade overseas at a high level for a full season or more.


One time England captain and Manchester United legend David Beckham spent time in the USA’s MLS, Spain’s La Liga and the Italian Serie A towards the end of his international career. Admittedly these moves were as much about ‘Brand Beckham’ as they were about football, but the fact he was prepared to join Milan on loan (and entertained a permanent move) in the run-up to the World Cup of 2010 proved the value the footballing experience of not playing in England, which he easily could have opted for, was to the midfielder as he sought one last go at international glory.


Of the same era ex-Liverpool striker Michael Owen was also a solid performer overseas. Owen netted 14 times during the 2004-05 season he played in Spain for Real Madrid. This was only two less than his previous season for Liverpool. Owen scored six in the corresponding period (August 2004-May 2005) for England. In the month prior to his move to the La Liga giants he scored twice in June with one of those goals during the 2004 European Championships campaign in the game which saw England dumped out at the first knockout stage (then the quarter finals) when beaten on penalties by Portugal. Owen did net his penalty in that shootout as well.


More recently one-cap international Joey Barton helped send Burnley back into the Premier League for the coming season and he has spent time in France. Sent on loan to Marseille in 2012-2013 by his parent club QPR, Barton did have some off-field issues but was a solid performer and scored in Europa League action. Barton landed at Burnley last season in a successful spell which saw him named in the Professional Footballer’s Association Team of the Year in the second tier. A clear sign his experience in France has helped to sharpen his play. Barton has since joined Rangers in Scotland but interestingly he has continued to spruik the benefits of playing abroad and recommended Scotland forward Steven Fletcher join Marseille on loan for four months at the end of the most recent season.


Also playing in France, the season before Barton, was former Chelsea winger Joe Cole. On loan from Liverpool at the time Cole scored four times in 32 appearance for Lille but his return to England was marred by injuries. However he did feature in the squad for Aston Villa’s 2014 FA Cup Final appearance.


In addition to the above mentioned there are some English players who have spent brief periods (under a season) overseas and they are interesting cases in themselves. And I’ve not forgotten Jonathan Woodgate’s three seasons of injuries in Madrid which included a loan back at Middlesbrough. His resume didn’t fit the criteria of a completed season in the post-2000 period.


Our example has focused on players moving overseas at one stage in their career but it’s worth noting current English international Eric Dier spent his youth in Portugal before player two years in the Primeira Liga. Dier played for Sporting Lisbon’s top team prior to joining Tottenham two years ago and the versatile Cheltenham-born player was arguably the best performer for Hodgson’s team during the campaign in France. During his time in Portugal the now 22 year-old was pitched into a game against fellow Portugese giants Porto at the age of 19 and had to adapt to a new position at the time of defensive midfielder. There might be a lesson in that.



Even allowing for the success of the English players who spend at least a season overseas the issue with the motivation to move and attempt to ply a non-traditional path to improve as an English player does come down to a key point. Money.


The issue with the movement, if any, will come in incentive for players to actually develop versus their wage packet. A developing playing could sit on the bench at say Manchester City and earn £60,000 a week or take a quarter of that to start for Monaco, who were third in the French top flight last season. The unscrupulous player manager while be happy to see his charge sit on the bench in England, with the occasional run out for the reserves, less they become a target in a foreign competition and possibly get injured.


The premise of playing overseas to improve does hit somewhat of a wall when you realise Germany, Spain and Italy have each won the last three World Cups with local players – although some had returned to the local competitions from experience elsewhere. However the problem is if England players can be better at tournament football (and the results at youth level suggest they are) they need to try something to develop their cutting edge.



A word on Iceland. Co-coach Lars Largerback has not only coached in six major tournaments the Swede has still never been beaten by England as a manager. Yes it’s funny that his co-coach Hemir Hallgrimsson is also a dentist in his spare time but this is a legitimate football team that have had a great period. They beat and finished on top of Holland in their group to qualify for France. They drew with Portugal during this tournament. They have scored in every game. This is not just a bunch of Vikings and professional fishermen – they are a well-drilled team. This is signified by the smart tactical game they played which means they have no players unavailable for the quarter-final due to yellow card suspensions. This is but a simplified version of the success Iceland have had but Barney Ronay has written a terrific long-form piece which touches on key elements including coach development, facility investment and how football is focused on the community good.


I’ve touched on one aspect which is possibly contributing to England not reaching their best at the elite level by more players not playing overseas but David Conn, a colleague of Ronay at The Guardian, outlined some of the underlying problems with the game at the grassroots level in England.


Finally, As England were knocked out of Euro 2016 it’s worth noting last week’s Brexit vote could stifle any attempt by players to play in other European national leagues. Current rules around quotas of Non-European Union players may reduce the opportunities player to join the top leagues in other European nations. However the specifics of Britain leaving the EU and the impact on professional sport haven’t been confirmed so the path, for the meantime, is still open for English players to try their hand on a more regular basis. So in the meantime. Take the plunge Raheem, Germany is fun. Ross, I hear Italy is lovely this time of year and Joe, buddy, Spain is nice.


The look at England’s football team first appeared on From the sideline of sport

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.


  1. DrCruel73 says

    Very true what you say. If more English players played with big clubs in Europe they would be a more rounded player. Look at how well Matthew Leckie has done in Germany compared to Jason Davidson in England

  2. This is a path that players from Australia and New Zealand have long been faced with, which is the need to play overseas due to the relatively low standard of the local competition compared to other national leagues.
    More players competing in quality leagues can raise the standard of the national team and bring valuable knowledge to local based players and coaches.
    Plus you have the added benefit of young players getting inspired by the deeds of national team players on the world stage (a la Tim Cahill.)

  3. Dennis Gedling says

    Yes but isn’t it just better watching England constantly crash and burn like this.

    Colin Kazim-Richards washed up at Celtic last year. Only lasted the season.

  4. James Grapsas says

    Thanks, Hamish. Great article.

    All good point. I will add that England shot themselves in the foot by muddled thinking on selection and tactical naivety. Their brains trust should have settled their preferred formation and personnel months before the start of the tournament, rather than all this chopping and changing in the lead-up friendlies and in the tournament itself.

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