Opportunities for young English players to make a name for themselves in the Premier League are notoriously difficult. The global allure of the Premier League has enabled clubs to scour the world for the very best youth talent from around the globe to play in their youth academies. This has been to the detriment of English players who have to compete with those players for an increasingly slim chance at making the first-team squad. With the possibilities of making the team ever decreasing, English players should take a leaf out of their foreign contemporaries and try their luck abroad.
Young Boys’ Champions League matchup with Tottenham propelled Englishman Scott Sutter into the limelight as one of the few young Englishman plying their trade abroad. Sutter made the move to Switzerland as a 16 year old after spells at Millwall, Barnet, Aston Villa and Charlton as a schoolboy. He joined the youth academy at Grasshopper of Zurich and rose through the ranks swiftly. He made his debut at 18 and played over 80 games in two seasons with the club. His impressive performances alerted Young Boys to the full-back’s potential and they signed Sutter in the summer of 2009. Since making the move to Berne, he has been a first-team regular in the side, featuring in the Champions League victory against Fenerbache and the first-leg victory against Tottenham.
Sutter’s route from the youth teams of England to his first international cap for Switzerland last week against Australia has been remarkable. But where his story differs to some of the others that we will look at is that Sutter himself is half-Swiss. Sutter’s father is Swiss so the transition to life in a different country will not have been as difficult as he would have been familiar with the culture and traditions of Switzerland before he made the move to play there.
Other less high-profile players have made the move to Europe and found similar success. Former Chelsea academy players Joe and Sam Tillen have made the switch from Conference and League One football respectively to play for Icelandic Premier Division side Fram. The brothers have been a fixture in the Fram team since signing for the club in 2008, helping the Reykjavik team finish 4th and 5th in the last two seasons in the top-flight of Icelandic football.
Another English player enjoying his time in Scandinavian football is Portsmouth academy product James Keene. The 24 year old striker is currently playing his football in Sweden with Allsvenskan side IF Elfsborg. Keene’s first taste of Swedish football came in 2006 while on loan at Gothenburg club GAIS after previous loan spells in League 2 with Kidderminster and Boston United who have since been relegated to the Conference. He was a revelation in Sweden, scoring 10 league goals in 22 appearances and his exploits with GAIS saw him sign with IF Elfsborg.
The main reason why English players fail to embrace the possibility of playing abroad is a decidedly Anglocentric ideology to football. We widely hear how the English league is the best league in the world so why would you ever want to leave it? More often than not, players would rather drop down a division or two instead of contemplating playing at the highest level in a foreign country.
As an island, England often finds itself isolated from mainland Europe. We have a different currency to most of our European neighbours and speak a completely different language. As a result of our isolation, English players find it difficult to adapt to foreign lifestyles and culture. Without wishing to turn this into a socio-political debate, our education system does not encourage foreign language skills amongst our nation’s youngsters and football players do not receive the best education even at the best of times as they focus most of their efforts on improving as a player.
This problem of adaptability has seen those English players who have tried to make a fist of it abroad return home after only a few seasons. Recently we have seen players such as Jermaine Pennant, Steve Finnan and Matt Derbyshire return to England after one or two years in Europe.
The introduction of the Premier League home-grown quota has done little to change the reality for young English players about their prospects of playing regularly in the Premier League. Maybe it’s time for players to look to the example of Scott Sutter and the Tillen brothers to what is possible beyond these hallowed shores.
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