“If you go there, there’s going to be 50 players who are just as good as you. You’ll just be a number. You need to go somewhere where you can work your way up.”
These were the forthright words from Nadine Sterling to a 10-year-old Raheem who queried why he couldn’t play for Arsenal during his formative years, at a time when the biggest teams in England were sniffing around an 11-year-old kid from Wembley. The Invincible-era Gunners would have been an attractive destination with the principled “Professeur” Arsene Wenger at his peak, developing young prospects (a la Ashley Cole) into professionals alongside a world-class cosmopolitan spine in Sol Campbell, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.
These were visible black male role models that reflected London’s diversity on the pitch and – equally – in the stands, with Arsenal having the highest number of supporters from a BAME background in the Premier League. With all that said, the move just didn’t make sense for the Sterlings. They knew Raheem needed to play.
“Players are mirroring their parents by moving to a new land for better prospects.”
If you’re a young black footballer of African or Caribbean heritage, the theme of migration underpins your existence. Your parents or grandparents left their home for the opportunity to better their lives, advance their careers and build a greater future for their families – but they had to fight for that success. It’s a fight that young British players are facing today, with many of those who have appeared for England regularly at youth level finding their club careers stagnating. The odds are that if you’re a young player at Chelsea, Man City or Arsenal, you’ve got more loans to your name than Greece.
With this in mind, it appears that this new generation of BAME players are preparing to mirror their parents sacrifice by moving to a new land for better prospects – betting on the likes of Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A and Eredivisie to give them a fairer platform with which they can showcase their skills at senior level. And it’s a gamble that appears to make sense.
Jadon Sancho is a problem 🔥 pic.twitter.com/xVhQJkhBp5
— VERSUS (@vsrsus) April 22, 2018
The Bundesliga has the highest percentage of young players in any of Europe’s “Big 5” leagues and in the last 12 months, it’s proved to be a fertile ground for young English talent to develop. Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho is the youngest Englishman to score in the league after moving from Manchester City last summer, and he’s become a regular starter. In addition, U20 World Cup Winner Ademola Lookman enjoyed a fruitful spell on loan at Red Bull Leipzig last season, scoring five goals in 11 games.
Elsewhere in Germany, Reece Oxford and Mandela Egbo made Bundesliga history at Borussia Mönchengladbach as the first Englishmen to play together for the same team in the German top flight. This summer, 19-year-old winger Keanan Bennetts joins the party after joining Borussia from Spurs.
And it’s not just Germany that’s seen an influx of young lions. Marcus McGuane and Chris Willock are home-grown players from the Arsenal academy that now play for Barcelona and Benfica respectively. In France, this summer has already seen highly rated English prospects in Jonathan Panzo and Reo Griffiths move to Ligue 1 sides Monaco and Lyon – while as recently as last week, the baller with the best name in football, Ronaldo Vieira, joined Serie A side Sampdoria.
“This is a diverse generation of players.”
These young black footballers are all aware that the final hurdle between youth level and the first team is a crucial part of their development – not only as players but as young adults. This migration to the European mainland reflects the confidence they have in their playing ability and openness to learn playing styles that will imprint itself upon the England national team in years to come.
Another key factor looks to be that a number of these players have grown up in London, where the fluidity of being brought up in the diverse capital – alongside recognition of their African and Caribbean heritage – gives a shared and unique reflection on what it means to be English in 2018. This is a multicultural and diverse generation of footballers. They’re open to building connections with non-English players abroad and more often than not, they’ll share a common background in having developed their skills in a cage, whether it’s on an English estate or a French banlieue.
The increased visibility of European football within the UK right now has also shifted the power dynamic away from the Premier League in the eyes of players and fans. The culture of online streaming, seeing goals go viral on Twitter and playing with European stars on FIFA has made football outside of England more accessible than ever before. Leaving the Premier League no longer represents a leap into obscurity – the Internet age provides a platform for fans of any background to follow the foreign journeys of this new wave of England players. Joining a European club and getting first team action is great for their profile. Their stock is rising globally.
This determined generation of young black English players are breaking new ground. They’re channeling the spirit and experience of their parents to make a brave leap of faith.
The Premier League and the FA should be taking notice. With a fearless and socially engaged manager in Gareth Southgate, who has openly spoken about diversity and youth representing a modern England, don’t be surprised to see these players bring it home for the Three Lions in decades to come.