British & Irish Abroad – Why Do Our Footballers Not Leave?

The image of Ashley Cole warming the bench in Monday night’s Roma-Juventus title clash was an all-too familiar sight.

The former England international has only appeared 13 times for the Giallorossi this season after his surprise move to the Italian capital, struggling to cope in foreign climes.


It is one of the stranger trends in football, the lack of UK or Irish-born players plying their trades in the other major leagues across Europe. In England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France, there’s a decent spread of all nationalities from around the globe and yet UK and Irish players regularly fail to try their hand in different countries.

In fact, along with Cole, only two others players from the UK are currently playing in one of the major European leagues: Gareth Bale at Real Madrid and the young Scottish prospect Ryan Gauld at Sporting Clube De Portugal. Coaching-wise, only Paul Clement at Real Madrid and Ian Cathro at Valencia work on the continent.

When you consider how multi-cultural the English Premier League is, the dearth of coaches and players venturing the opposite way is palpable. Are there any particular, viable reasons for this? Is it a case of our footballers not being coached sufficiently enough at youth level to thrive in other more technically gifted leagues, or is it something far more inherently basic than that?

In terms of the former, in the past, that’s an accusation that could have been levelled at the majority of young players but in the modern era, the English FA – less so the FAI – have placed more of an emphasis on their grassroots coaching and some youth academies in England are amongst the finest in Europe; Aston Villa’s youth side of 2013 won the NextGen title: the underage equivalent of the Champions League, whilst the likes of Southampton, Fulham, Chelsea, the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Liverpool are all producing top quality youth prospects.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Liverpool v West Ham United - Anfield

Young players like Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe, Will Hughes, Wilfried Zaha, James Ward-Prowse and Luke Shaw are just a small sample of the burgeoning talent that’s being produced in the UK. Will any of them ever go abroad? Going on the previous template, it’s highly doubtful.

Hark back to the likes of Gerrard, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Lampard and Shearer in their prime; all up there with some of the finest ever UK or Irish-born players and none of which ever graced another major European league.

In the recent past, only a handful of footballers have made the move and succeeded. David Beckham, with Michael Owen, Steve McManaman, Paul Ince, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne years before him spring to mind but they are few and far between. The eternal question is why?

Education & Money
There are a number of possible reasons and it may seem a stretch in logic but generally speaking, it’s no secret that the majority of footballers tend not to be the sharpest knives in the drawer. The concentration of emphasis being on football more than on education during the development process of a young player on these shores tends to breed a fear in experiencing new cultures.

The vast majority of UK and Irish footballers seem to fear the earth-shattering, all-consuming cultural upheaval a move abroad might create: moving a young family, learning a new language, having to get used to the taste of a different country’s pasteurised milk. Yet, foreign imports seem to have little trouble in fitting in here.

In general, British and Irish folk, being island people, have this notion of our aisles being the start and end of the world and this cocooned idea tends to infiltrate our footballing ideology, too.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Round of 16 - Manchester City v Barcelona - Etihad Stadium

‘But can he do it on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?’, is the question most asked of the best foreign players by our footballing fans as if performing in the bitter Stoke cold should be judged as the yardstick of a footballer’s potential.

Of course there are also financial considerations to take into account. The money players can make in England dwarfs that in most other leagues most due to tax reasons, so, in that sense, there’s an understandable reluctance for players to move abroad when they know they can earn more merely sitting on the bench for someone like QPR rather than play for less money in a league with a team such as La Liga’s Sevilla, for example.

Gareth Bale’s successful move to Madrid is a small step in the right direction but it’s hard to judge whether it will have an overall impact on this trend going forward as frankly, any club in the world would have taken the Welshman on board.

Ryan Gauld, the ‘Scottish Messi’, has done something very few before him have, though. In moving abroad at such a developmental stage in his career to further his technical game, one must applaud such initiative and hope it sets a precedent for other young footballers in the future.

The issue itself remains one of the last frontiers for our footballers and one of the main reasons why our national teams continue to falter in major tournaments.