Joe Cole has played for some big clubs. In the Premier League, he’s made 126 appearances for West Ham United, and 182 for Chelsea. But if you were asked which club the former England man made his third-most appearances for, would you have guessed his current club, the Tampa Bay Rowdies?
Up until just a few months ago, though, Cole’s third club in terms of league appearances was Ligue 1 side Lille, for whom he played in loan in 2011/12.
Lille had won the league in 2011, and it remains their only Ligue 1 title since 1954, whilst in the intervening period they’d won the Ligue 2 title four times, giving an idea as to the trajectory of the club. But as league champions, it wasn’t just an inviting club for Cole to spend a season at, it also guaranteed Champions League football for a few months, too.
The problem was, Ligue 1 clubs who perform above their expectations – as Monaco found out in the summer – are often raided for their best and brightest stars. Top scorer Moussa Sow and Gervinho were swept away to Fenerbahce and Arsenal respectively, and while Eden Hazard stayed on for another season before joining Chelsea, Cole’s side could only finish third in defence of their title.
He wasn’t the only English player to make the trip to France on loan around that period of time. Joey Barton spent a season in Marseille, offending some and endearing himself to others for a year on the south coast: he made life interesting in Ligue 1 and seemed to take nicely to life in the country, though a move back to London and relegated QPR brought him back to England with a bump.
There’s an odd list of British players after the 1980s – when English clubs were banned from European competition and plenty of players went to ply their trade abroad – joining foreign clubs. That is, they’re never young and hungry players aiming to learn as much as they possibly can about the world and take in new footballing cultures which can help them for the rest of their careers. Instead, the likes of Cole and Barton may well have benefitted from joining clubs like Lille and Marseille a decade earlier.
But that’s might well be changing, or at least in the short term.
One of the more interesting transfer stories of the summer was Jadon Sancho, the very highly-rated young English winger, who joined Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City. Sancho left the club after becoming frustrated with the lack of assurances over his inclusion in the first team and his chances of getting minutes on the pitch in this Pep Guardiola team. And so he joined Dortmund, who have a reputation around the world for giving young talent a chance.
In fairness to Manchester City, Sancho is only 17 which means he shouldn’t necessarily be getting first team football by now anyway. But whilst the rest of England’s U17 World Champions were busy beating Brazil in the final, Sancho was dragged back to Germany early by his club because they wanted him to play a role in the first team: but you can’t imagine he was too disappointed by that, playing first team football is exactly what he wanted and what he probably needs, at least in the future.
The difference between Sancho and players like Cole and Barton and even, to a lesser degree, Oliver Burke who spent a season with RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga last season, is that Sancho is gaining a footballing education in more than just one country, learning more than one culture, and pitting himself against the kinds of teams, tactics and strengths he’ll likely face in the Champions League and in international games in the future. But what he isn’t doing is joining a foreign club on loan for a year-long holiday. He’s there to work.
Certainly others should follow that lead. It may well be that they, like Burke, can’t settle, and it might be, like Barton, they’re asked to come back. But looking at Cole, who played 12 times for Aston Villa and 22 times for Coventry City upon returning to England before joining the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the lower leagues in the States, you get the feeling that his 32 league games in one season in France was the most productive time of his career post-Chelsea.
If others follow that route and are able to broaden their footballing horizons by spending time abroad that isn’t just a season in the sun, then English international football will benefit from a few more worldly players.