Soccer: On some foreign field, but forever English

By Tim Rich

A private jet took Joey Barton (centre) from Fleetwood Town to a new life in Marseilles. Photo / AP
A private jet took Joey Barton (centre) from Fleetwood Town to a new life in Marseilles. Photo / AP

When the final fax of the transfer window had been received and the last bank draft signed, the number of countries that had contributed players to the Premier League had risen to more than 100.

The highest-ranked nation in the Fifa ratings that has yet to provide a Premier League footballer is Libya. And had Colonel Gaddafi's son, Saadi, done better in his brief spell at Perugia, where he employed Ben Johnson as his personal trainer and then, predictably, failed a drugs test, who knows?

There was nobody huddled outside the Bernabeu, San Siro or the Allianz Arena waiting to see which English players might be joining Real Madrid, Milan or Bayern Munich.

There was the private jet that delivered Joey Barton to Marseilles and what should be the adventure of his footballing life and yet, had the Football League not stepped in and insisted his 12-match ban applied in League Two as much as the Premier League, Barton was perfectly happy to have trained and played with Fleetwood Town.

On Sunday, Barton attended his first match, a 3-1 win over Rennes that took Marseilles to the top of Ligue 1. He may have noticed on the Velodrome's steepling concrete walls the faded slogans left over from the 1998 World Cup. "C'est beau un monde qui joue" - A world that plays is a beautiful one.

But the world of an English footballer is a restricted one. Last week Adam Johnson left Manchester City for Sunderland. In many ways it was a lovely story.Sunderland was the club he had supported growing up in the pit village of Easington. He was coming home. Home, however, would be in a cul-de-sac. If he stays at Sunderland, Johnson will probably never again compete in the Champions League.

In 1989, another England winger and Sunderland fan changed clubs. Chris Waddle moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Marseilles. He would train with Eric Cantona, win the French league and play in a European Cup final.

"It took three months to get used to the language, the heat and the fitness," he said. "But it all changed the moment I scored against Paris St-Germain. Suddenly, everything kicked into gear and it was like Fantasy Island."

There were reasons Waddle went. English clubs lingered in the shadow of the Heysel disaster, banned from European competition. The money was better abroad than in London and there was, perhaps, more personal ambition.

Until the advent of the Premier League, money was the single compelling reason for an English footballer to move abroad. Sixty years ago, Tom Finney was offered £10,000 to leave Preston for Palermo; £130 a month and a £100 win bonus. In today's terms, assuming Palermo won half their games, it would be worth £453,000 ($904,000) for a year's work with a villa and a sports car thrown in. Preston refused the transfer and kept him to the £20-a-week maximum wage; worth in today's terms £37,000 ($74,000).

Nine years later, Jimmy Greaves would leave Chelsea for Milan for what he called "purely mercenary reasons" only to discover when he arrived the maximum wage had been abolished and at Fulham Johnny Haynes had negotiated himself £100 a week.

By the time Steve McManaman moved from Liverpool to Real Madrid, where he won two European Cups, the choice was "between a hell of a lot of money and a hell of a lot of money".

Language is often presented as an insurmountable barrier. McManaman had few problems with Spanish. David Platt began learning Italian before he left Aston Villa for Serie A.

At Juventus, Ian Rush - who never said that "living in Italy is like being in a foreign country" (it was jokingly attributed to him by a mischievous Liverpool teammate) - found himself horribly isolated and without his favourite digestive biscuits.

At Lazio almost the only words of Italian Paul Gasoigne managed with any fluency were: "silenzio bastardo". And yet, though Waddle confessed that his French remained "terrible", he is "treated like a king" when in France.

It was probably no coincidence that Waddle's finest performances for England came in the 1990 World Cup, while he was being stretched as a person and as a professional in Marseilles. At Bayern Munich, Mark Hughes found a side that "off the field were 10 years ahead of anything I had seen in terms of preparing for a high-intensity game".

A generation on, it seems strange that no footballer of the calibre of Liam Brady or Hughes believes abroad has anything to offer them. The ones who go are those, like Barton, who have been rejected by their clubs, or those from a lower tier like Matt Derbyshire, who won the Greek Cup with Olympiakos.

No Englishman now would do what Kevin Keegan did in 1977 and leave a club that had won the European Cup and the league championship and take themselves off to a village in northern Germany purely because nobody in Itzstadt would speak English.

There were many reasons for Keegan's Hamburg teammates to dislike him. He was paid more than any other footballer in Germany, he had replaced the most popular player in the dressing-room, the Dutch forward Horst Blankenburg, and he was about to inflict his single "Head over Heels in Love" on an unsuspecting public. There were reports that some players would not even pass to him in training.

By the end, Keegan had led them to the Bundesliga title, become European footballer of the year and, perhaps more importantly, he was voted man of the year by a club he addressed in the local dialect, Plattdeutsch.

By contrast, the current generation of England footballers; the self-satisfied underachieving world of Wazza, JT and Stevie G, who proved in Ukraine that they could no more pass to each other than they could conjugate a Spanish irregular verb, remain wedded to these shores.

- Independent

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