David Bentley and Joey Barton: Pioneering a new age in English football?

I explore the recent history of English footballers in Europe, the reluctance of present England internationals to move into the unknown and more lessons that can be learned from the Spanish…

David Bentley’s re-location to Russia was heralded by many in the media as the last desperate action of a failed footballer to kickstart his career. Many have mocked the former Arsenal youngster’s belated exile from English football to the wastes of Siberia – although this conveniently ignores the fact Rostov-on-Don lies on the frontiers of Eastern Europe rather than Kazakhstan. Yet it is hard to imagine that, just four years ago, in the wake of his transfer to Tottenham, Bentley would have ever envisaged a move to the Russian Premier League, or even then to a club outside of Moscow.

Instead of scorned for joining a supposed lesser league, Bentley should be applauded for taking this step to revitalise his career. Although doubts remain that Bentley will ever reclaim the influence and expectation that he held around the England setup in 2008, he can hardly be accused of lacking the necessary determination now – a steely determination at odds with the questionable attitude that saw him flounder in North London. It is a step into the unknown for English football, as has already been documented on this site Bentley is the first Englishman to make the move to Russia, but there is no reason that he should be the last.

Bentley joins a thin list of English players plying their trade throughout the European leagues. Joe Cole spent the 2011-12 season on loan with Lille, but his extortionate wage demands prevented him making the move permanent. English football’s renegade Joey Barton has now taken up the challenge of a season at Marseille in a bid to repair his image. A self-proclaimed ‘man of culture’, Barton is as equally commendable as Bentley; if he is able to curb his temperament and not start a social revolution across the Channel, he will undoubtedly return a better player.

English football would benefit immeasurably if players heeded the example that Bentley and Barton have set and took the plunge into the unknown, which for English football in 2012 is anywhere outside the British Isles. It is in stark contrast to the days before the riches of the Premier League descended upon these Isles and even pre-dates English football’s exile from European competition in the latter half of the 1980s.

The list of English footballing exports to the continent in the past 30-odd years includes some of the greatest to have represented the Three Lions – Kevin Keegan to Hamburg in the late 1970s, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Gary Lineker to Monaco, Marseille and Barcelona respectively a decade later, whilst during the formative years of the Premier League Paul Gascoigne and Paul Ince fled to Serie A. The most travelled player of this period being David Platt, who after impressing at Italia ’90 moved between Bari, Sampdoria and Juventus.

David Platt playing for Sampdoria in the early 1990s

Since the turn of the century the flow of English players moving abroad has substantially decreased – be this due to the increased stature of the Barclay’s Premier League, the commercial and financial opportunities that come with it, or a more general xenophobia. Real Madrid have been the biggest European club to profit from the rare migration of English talent to the continent; Steve McManaman won 2 European Cups there, David Beckham arrived as the last of the famed Galácticos and was pivotal during their La Ligatriumph in 2007, whilst Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate failed to match their compatriots’ longevity.

The increased prestige of English football in the last ten years has altered the mindsets of English footballers. No longer must an English footballer look abroad for either material gain or for the opportunity to play amongst the biggest names in world football. The Premier League era has been blessed by such greats as Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo. But of the infamous ‘Golden Generation’ only David Beckham and Owen Hargreaves proved a success outside of England. Wayne Rooney once sneered ‘Can you see me playing abroad?’ when the question was put to him. This staggering insularity reflects the inhibitions in England’s style of play.

Owen Hargreaves during his Bayern Munich days

Behind England’s lethargic displays in international tournaments since 2006 lies profound inertia. England’s squad for Euro 2012 was unique in that it was the only one to have been selected solely from one league, and within that league an ever decreasing talent pool. The limited opportunities for up-and-coming homegrown English players is well-publicised, but less so are the inhibitions that prevent them from broadening their horizons. This narrow mindset is just as harmful in the undermining of the development of the national game.

The Spanish national side has historically borne many similarities to England, most notably that of chronic underachievers. It is not by accident that the most successful period in Spanish football history has coincided with a rise in Spanish footballers plying their trade abroad. For the 2002 World Cup only one Spaniard played abroad, Gaizka Mendieta, whose 3 year spell at Lazio was an unmitigated disaster.

Six years later, coinciding with Rafa Benitez’ tenure at Liverpool and Arsene Wenger’s fixation with foreign youth the number had increased to five – Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas – almost one-fifth of the squad. Though Alonso and Fabregas have since returned to their native land, the opportunity to experience a different footballing culture aided their growth substantially, and they have become key components of the Spanish starting XI since.

A 19 year-old Cesc Fabregas challenges with Roy Keane during the 2005 FA Cup Final

Of Spain’s victorious Euro 2012 squad, 4 were plucked from England – Torres, Reina, Juan Mata and David Silva. Santi Cazorla has since joined them whilst Javi Martinez has taken the unprecedented step of switching to the Bundesliga. Even at the height of its international majesty and the sustained duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Spanish footballers are still seeking to widen their horizons abroad.

Cesc Fabregas’ development represents the model that English footballers should replicate. Chelsea’s 19 year-old Josh McEachran has been widely touted as a future England international, and given his lack of opportunities amongst the multiculturalism of Stamford Bridge, his loan move to Middlesbrough is commendable. But at this formative stage of his footballing career, McEachran would benefit immensely from exposure to foreign footballing methods, more so than a season in the Championship.

There is no reason why, if they are ambitious enough, English footballers like Rooney, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, having won all there is to win in England, should treat a move abroad with suspicion or derision.

Whisper it, but English football can learn from David Bentley and Joey Barton.

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