As January slowly reached its final days, the real surprise of the transfer window took place. Not the move of Portugal winger Ricardo Quaresma from Inter to Chelsea or even the reverse switch of Robbie Keane back to Spurs. The biggest shock was in fact the season-long loan move of Blackburn and England U21 international Matt Derbyshire to Greek giants, Olympiacos.
The move was surprising in that I struggle to recall a transfer quite like it. What you had was an English football player making the bold leap into the cultural diversity and the linguistic anonymity of the foreign leagues. Having turned out for the Blackburn side a credible 63 times in his career so far, the U21 international had seen chances in the first team disappear in the first part of the season.
Not satisfied with letting his career drift by in the reserves, Derbyshire jumped at the most obscure of opportunities as the Greek champions came calling. It was a prospect most English players wouldn’t even contemplate. Most would never consider moving abroad despite ever increasing competition on the domestic front, with the daunting task of breaking into a team in one of the hardest and most competitive leagues in the world.
The Past and the Future
Many of us have now grown accustomed to the stream of foreign talent flowing into the Premier League. With players drafted in from almost every conceivable world nation, the competition to make the cut at any Premiership club is colossal. Whereas the likes of Michael Owen and Gary Neville were thrust straight into first team action whilst still in their teens, a player now faces a rigorous test before they are put into a Premier League side. Rivals from all over the world contest for their respective position on the park.
The likes of Adam Eckersley and Danny Simpson at Manchester United face overwhelming opposition from Rafael Da Silva for the future right back spot. Even Rafael himself is unlikely to get an extended run in the first team with Gary Neville and Wes Brown in the fold. 10 or 15 years ago, Danny Simpson would arguably be playing first team football at Manchester United, and would have progressed under the pressure with the direction and guidance of one of the best managers around. In the current climate, he is forced to go out on loan to other club, counting his blessings that his destination turned out to be a rival Premier League side, with many of his peers forced to settle in the lower leagues.
Many young British players see themselves plummeting down the leagues to ambiguity — their progression stifled amidst the lower divisions. Chris Eagles from Manchester United, Lewis Montrose from Wigan Athletic are two examples. Once so promising, many young players find themselves as leftovers or playing too little a role to develop amongst the nation’s elite. The challenge facing our nation’s up and coming talent is greater than ever. A conception arises that our rising footballers are not as good as they once were. A more accurate summation would be that they are no longer given the chance to play first team football in the top league at the top clubs.
Players of similar initial talent, similar promise and potential, are now brought up into the best league in the world with the best players. Where they once would have been given a long run of games to help aid their development in the early Premiership years, they must now compete against the best youngsters from all over the world, not just their British academy equivalent. Competition is there to ensure that the cream rises to the top, but stifles the rest, who are stopped from reaching their own unknown potentials.
The likes of Stephen Ireland could so easily have left City a few seasons ago for a Championship club. He publicly rejected a move to Stoke City at one time, whilst rumours of a move to Reading were never too far away. Imagine if the Manchester City monsoon takeover had taken place a season or two earlier and he had been forced out, deemed as not of the sufficient quality for their ambitions. Or if a foreign coach had taken the reigns at Eastlands rather than Mark Hughes, and selected the more illustrious name of Elano or made another flair signing before the Irish midfielder put in this year’s effervescent displays. It is unlikely he would have developed and shone in the way he has this season if he had been playing his football in an inferior and largely direct playing style.
Blossoming in the Lower Ranks
It is no coincidence that the best talent often blossoms amidst the less reputable leagues of the top global nations. Holland, for example, have always been traditional heavyweights when it comes to international football. Conversely, their league does not have the same global standing. This has meant that much of the rich and gifted Dutch talent over the years has risen through the ranks in their domestic league, showing their potential and ability before being snatched up for millions by La Liga and the Premier League clubs.
Ruud van Nistelrooy starred in Holland for FC Den Bosch, Heerenveen and PSV Eindhoven. He even changed his position on the field at FC Den Bosch, from central defender to striker. Only after this, and after completing the rudiments of his footballing education, did he make his move to Manchester United. Klaus-Jan Huntelaar was given a key role in the Herenveen team at 20 years of age, and allowed to develop with ample first team action. A move to top Dutch side Ajax at 21 followed, where he developed even further in the starting lineup before Real Madrid signed him in January, aged 25. His 8 goals in 11 games so far for his new club suggest he could go on to be another Dutch success.
France too has also seen an abundance of world class players develop in their national league, moving through their domestic hierarchy before making their names abroad. It is an essential part of the development of top stars. The likes of Makelele progressing with a Nantes side from his youth to the age of 24, before completing his up bringing as a midfielder at Marseille, experiencing the pressure as a top team in the league before his move to Spain. One of this seasons revelations, Frank Ribery, made over 20 appearances in a season for French club, Boulogne, at just 17. He went on to play a key role in the first team of a larger French club, playing for Metz for a year at just 20 years of age. He gained essential top-tier experience and development before he eventually ended up at Bayern Munich, where he is now one of the key men in one of the best teams in Europe.
Then there are Brazil and Argentina, hotbeds of football talent. Many of their top clubs have stringent academies, but the key to the vast pool of national talent is the initial progression through their top domestic clubs. Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez at River Plate and Boca Juniors respectively, both thrust into the deep end with huge fan and media expectancy. Plenty of first team action saw a move to Brazil, and then to the riches of the Premiership. Compare his introduction through their early football careers with that of the talented Michael Mancienne. The Chelsea defender is lucky to get the odd glimpse of the first team, and will not progress as he would were his appearances to be with weekly regularity. Will he reach his full potential if he continues on his current path? Or even if he goes on loan again to the likes of QPR and Wolverhampton in the lower leagues?
Admittedly the Argentinean league where Mascherano learnt his trade as a youngster is a league with far less quality than the English Premiership, but he still enjoyed a key role in a team who were a major force in their domestic competition. Progressed with a side who were constantly under pressure from the media and supporters to win games. Can playing first team football for Blackburn or Middlesbrough really give this kind of education to an aspiring player?
England’s Rough and Tumble
In England, with the most challenging league in the world, there is so much less opportunity for the promising to develop at our top clubs. They are rivaled by raising gems from all over the world, as well as the high quality of fully developed stars already decorating the first team.
Look at many of the U21 players, Tom Huddlestone, Jamies O’Hara, Michael Johnson. None of these are picking up the weekly experience they need that will help them to develop and thrive. It would be a different case if they had been born in Holland or Portugal. The chances of seeing them playing regularly for a top club within this country is very slight. It will be sure to hamper the development as players, restrict their progress and inevitably prevent them from reaching their full potential.
It all leaves our promising compatriots with key career decisions. Do they wait for their chance at their club, continue to work tirelessly and possibly depart on loan to lower league. Do they risk the chance of getting a brief chance in the team in their twenties or leave permanently for a lower division club where they could get the time but no glory? Or do they move abroad, perhaps to a less reputable foreign league that would enable them to build their own footballing education in a different style and a different culture of the game?
The latter is all too rare, practically absent amongst English players. Whereas many foreign players move overseas or cross borders to progress their careers when opportunities die out amongst the Premier League elite, it is almost unheard of for British and English talent to take this course of action. There is only the odd exception. Kazim-Richards for example, was born in England. His move however, will undoubtedly have been influenced by his Turkish descent.
What about Derbyshire?
It brings us back to 22-year-old Matt Derbyshire — a player who made the unusual decision to test his ability in the Greek Super League with the reigning champions. He has helped them to see out the current campaign, which only has two games remaining, and has been tipped to extend his stay until the end of the 2009/2010 campaign.
The keen young striker moved to Blackburn from Great Harwood Town in 2003 for a nominal fee, with interest expressed by the likes of Manchester United at the time. Since then, he has had brief loan spells at Plymouth and Wrexham under Mark Hughes, and at one stage looked as though he was forcing his way into the first team over previous seasons. He helped his team to 7th place in the league last season, netting 6 goals in the year. This season he has seen his chances of first team action ebb considerably, especially under the new regime.
Sam Allardyce is well known for his preference of the more robust front man — commonly clichéd as the ‘traditional British centre forward’. Kevin Davies and Kevin Nolan were past favourites, major cogs in his successful Bolton Wanderers side. Matt fails to fall into this category. His light physique was never likely to appeal to the new gaffer. A style focused around movement, short bursts of intelligent speed and clinical finishing. A style comparable to Arsenal striker, Eduardo or even Michael Owen. The strapping figure of Jason Roberts, the tall powerful Santa Cruz and the tenacious Benni McCarthy proved much more attractive options to Big Sam. The dynamic young star drifted to the fringes of his beloved club.
It all meant that another young English footballer was faced with the weight of another heavy career decision. The two way path stretched ahead of him. Seemingly there were two choices. Either depart to a Championship club or move abroad. Whereas many foreign stars usually opt for the latter, the British almost always take the former. Liverpool’s Andriy Voronin moved to German side Hertha Berlin when he found himself surplus to this campaign’s needs, whilst Collins John went from Fulham back to his home nation to play on loan for Dutch side NEC Nijmegen until the end of the season. At the other end of the scale, Tottenham youngster, Chris Gunter switched to Nottingham Forest.
But not Matt Derbyshire. When Olympiacos came in for their man, rather than turning his nose to it as many British strikers would, he decided to take a chance. The Greek side may be the dominant force in Greek football, having won the last 4 national championships at a canter, but with a pair of newly born twins and his entire life thus far spent living in the North West of England, it was one almighty and gallant leap for the Blackburn Rovers man.
A brand new culture, a brand new language, the Olympiacos team features what appears to be a hybrid of Greeks and South Americans. Initially, Derbyshire was to spend the rest of the current season at the Karaiskakis Stadium, stretching to the end of the 2008/2009 campaign. It is now rumoured however, that he will be extending his stay for another season. It has already been a steep learning curve, one that can only have enhanced his credentials as a player, and as an individual. If he stays for another season, the foreign experience and education will continue for the young forward.
Derbyshire was blended into Greek football, waiting eagerly on the sidelines until mid-February before he was given his chance, a first leg cup debut from the bench. The second leg of the cup tie saw the centre forward net his first goal for his new club, coming on with minutes remaining to top off a well crafted Olympiacos move with a clinical strike. His league debut came in mid-March where it took him just 9 minutes to make his mark. He managed it with his first touch, finishing a cross within seconds of coming on against Iraklis. His second came minutes later, completing what was an impressive 5-0 romp.
It may be beginning to feel like home for the Rovers man. Goals do that after all. After 3 goals from a string of cameo appearances, Spanish coach Ernesto Valverdi decided he would start the Rovers loanee in the title clinching game of the 2008 season against Panionios FC. After bending an effort from a tight angle past the post, Derbyshire capped his start with a goal, pouncing onto a deep cross to head home midway through the first half. His side went on to win 3-2 and the club celebrated an impressive 5th league win in a row.
The young striker then made his first journey back to England since his move, called up to continue his England U21 career last weekend. He travelled with the squad to Finland, adapting well to another unusual environment to score two goals and perform fantastically amidst the inclement weather conditions.
Derbyshire will now help the Greek Champions see out the final stages of the league. The weekend saw him start again, and once again he managed to add to his tally, as his side won away 2-1 at Lavadiakas. However, the Greek giant’s are focusing on the domestic double with the national cup still to win. Derbyshire will be hoping to continue his first team role, and may be hoping that rumours of extending his loan turn out true. It looks a promising time ahead for the new Piraeus recruit, and he has already shown the coach that he has what it takes to make his spell a success.
Risk and Reward
The risk he took appears to be paying off right now. A career choice almost never taken by our English players, could get his career off the mark. If Matt Derbyshire continues to progress in his new environment, working hard to secure a first team place by the end of the current campaign, who knows would could lie ahead ambitious youngster. And what if he secures another season at the club, firmly establishing himself in the lineup? He has taken a bold route, a difficult route for an English player. He is gaining experience that no other English player will have picked up, winning a championship medal (or two) in a foreign league, playing in the Champions League or Europa League for a foreign club. As next May comes to an end and Matt Derbyshire potentially completes another season in the Greek Championship, is it possible that Capello too will be keen to see the new sites of Athens?
The 2010 World Cup looks set to feature the England national side after a rampant start to their qualifying campaign. If he can continue to adapt so successfully in his new surroundings and help his side clinch another league title and continental progression, can we expect to see Matt Derbyshire featuring in South Africa? Can he be overlooked as a senior member of the squad if he is scoring goals for a club who top their national league and take part in European competitions?
With many of the current squad options struggling to hold down a starting place in the Premiership, it could be of great benefit to introduce a player who has a completely different perspective on world football. One with experience of playing in some of the most intimidating atmospheres in world football, derby days at Panathinaikos and AEK Athens at the forefront of these, as well as the various locations that continental competition would take him. He would carry experience unheard of amongst 23-year-old English footballers, and it would be experience that could prove more than helpful to an England team with a very restricted cultural range.
Were his spell to be a continued success, and national inclusion to ensue, it would be a landmark for the future of English players’ careers. Pundits often lament the restriction of our national talent to the domestic leagues; is it possible that a successful trip to Greece by one of our current young players, could encourage further such moves? Surely Jamie O’Hara playing week in week out for Dutch league leaders AZ Alkmaar, or Michael Mancienne shouldering the responsibility of guarding Werder Bremen’s domestic and European ambitions, is better for their progression as players. Surely it is better, and more enjoyable for the player, than repeatedly residing on the sidelines at White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge, or shifting down to the Championship.