When Scottish left-back Barry Douglas signed for big-spending Wolves last month, most fans outside of the west Midlands would have drawn a blank – with a fair few Molyneux regulars no doubt scratching their heads also. The player is unknown to many in the domestic game and yet the reason for this is what makes the player something of a rarity in British football these days; after coming through the ranks at Queens Park and then Dundee United in Scotland, Douglas has spent most of his career playing abroad.
Traditionally, British players heading overseas were perhaps financially motivated, with the likes of John Charles and Jimmy Greaves taking advantage of the higher rates of pay in Serie A at Juventus and AC Milan respectively. However, once the salary cap was abolished in England in 1961 it became more of a peculiarity to see players chancing their arm on the continent; for every Kevin Keegan (who enjoyed a fruitful spell with Hamburg in Germany) there was an Ian Rush (who infamously described life in Turin as “like living in another country”). Indeed, as Sky’s money has flooded the Premier League in the last twenty years, it is even more of a rarity still, with very few footballers either willing or deemed good enough to leave home. Whilst in recent years Real Madrid especially have still been willing to cherry pick the very top British talent (as well as Jonathan Woodgate), very rarely do top players – despite receiving offers – want to venture from their comfort zone.
Of course, this is understandable. Whilst it often gets caught up in its own commercialised sycophancy, even sceptics can admit that the Premier League is one of the most desirable places in the world to play football. Some players enjoy the fact that there is less emphasis on technique and more on physicality, and understand that they are in the right environment to thrive. Others still may simply prefer the familiarity of the culture and language (which may explain why many more players are willing to go to the MLS as opposed to other European leagues). Yet this ties into a bigger problem with British football – less exposure to different (and in many cases, technically superior) ways of playing can result in stagnation, and the general and gradual decline of player standards in direct comparison to the likes of those from Spain, Germany and Holland.
In recent years this has been proven time and time again on the international stage, yet in the inevitable subsequent dissections of why England can never win anything meaningful, this reason is never mentioned, with the likes of Adrian Durham tripping over themselves to blame “the foreign invasion” instead like a Daily Mail comments section stuck on repeat. It is a very intriguing facet of the British mentality to believe that anything foreign is inferior and that “our way is the right way”, yet this consistent failure is highlighted by the lack of players that expose themselves to different environments, different cultures, and – most importantly – different ways of playing the game. It is all well and good seeing your career out in an exotic locale on the other side of the world (or lurking on the edge of team photographs like Ashley Cole in Rome), but when you compare the willingness of almost every other country in the world to export players in their prime (and that is a key point: in their prime) to other styles and standards of football, you begin to see why other nations possess players that adapt so much better to the international game. You only have to look at the performances of Gareth Bale – whose game has developed immeasurably since playing in Spain – at last year’s European Championships in France as evidence of this.
Yet whilst the idea of earning a living in a different league might not appeal to those at the top, there are many professionals further down the ladder who are far more open to the idea; whether driven by an inclination for adventure, a general sense of open-mindedness, or – more likely – by a lack of opportunity at home, there is an abundance of British players thriving overseas – and not necessarily in the top leagues. The prime example of this is Jamie Hopcutt, who after being released by York City must have realised any hopes of a professional career were over. However, after attending a trial in Birmingham organised by Graham Potter, Hopcutt took the massive decision to leave his home in England for the Swedish fourth division, where Potter was coaching with Ostersunds IK; fast forward six years and Ostersunds – under Potter’s guidance – are competing in the Swedish top tier, winning the Swedish Cup last year and eliminating Turkish giants Galatasaray from the Europa League this month. Hopcutt is the driving force of the team in midfield, and has been linked with Premier League Brighton as well as a host of Championship clubs in recent months, proving the point that risk can indeed reap reward. Whilst of course there are no certainties, and Ostersunds is indeed an exceptional story, Hopcutt’s career could well have taken a very different path if he’d remained in the UK.
Hopcutt is not alone. Former Blackburn and Rotherham striker Matt Derbyshire raised a few eyebrows in 2009 when he was signed by Greek giants Olympiakos; after several seasons of mediocrity in the English second and third tiers, Derbyshire decided to head abroad again last year to Omonia Nicosia of Cyprus, where he was the league’s top scorer in his first season. Derbyshire revealed in a recent interview that his return to the Mediterranean was motivated by lifestyle choices more than glory or finance; his former strike partner in Nicosia, Cillian Sheridan, has followed a similar path, thriving currently with Jagielliona Bialystok of Poland after spells in Cyprus and Bulgaria upon his release from Celtic. Sheridan and Hopcutt’s experiences in particular highlight another positive aspect of heading abroad: there is an alternative career path available to those who did not initially make the grade in the saturated and cut-throat environment of British football. The pockets of unheard of British players making their living in locations as varied as Latvia, Iceland and Spain will undoubtedly agree, even if the overall goal is to one day return home.
Of course, all of this may be totally irrelevant in future years, with the impending arrival of the white elephant that is Brexit. It is still unclear how this will affect football on both sides of the coin, although one suspects that Richard Scudamore’s reaction to import constraints on his beloved brand will not end well for anyone; in terms of exports however, the waters are a little murkier. Whilst the Real Madrids and Barcelonas of the world should have little trouble recruiting the next big British thing, it is unlikely the smaller clubs on the continent will be as welcoming in the legal sense to those looking for an alternative footballing home; regardless of political or legal complications though, there are simple lessons in the aforementioned case of Douglas, who swapped a series of mid-table finishes in the SPL to lift the Polish Ekstraklasa and play in the Europa League in front of 40,000+ crowds with Lech Poznan.
“There are so many different aspects of the game you see, different points of view from different countries” he told BBC WM upon his arrival back in the UK from Turkish side Konyaspor (whom he joined after leaving Lech). “It was more than just football, it was a chance to see parts of the world you would never see. It’s definitely opened my eyes – it’s a big world out there. It’s not just limited to Britain”. Many footballers – and indeed, many politicians – could do worse than listen to the unknown left-back from Glasgow.