British footballing exports: 'Living in Italy is like being in a foreign country'

Ian Rush may never have made that much-mocked comment but it remains emblematic of British players' attitudes towards playing in foreign fields. Tim Rich assesses the records of our exports

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When the final fax of the transfer window had been received, the last bank draft signed and the last of Sky's camera crews had packed up and gone home, 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, rather predictably, failed a drugs test, who knows? He might have got a move to Fulham.

There were very few Sky presenters 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. These days, they never do.

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 propelled Marseilles to the top of Ligue 1. He may have noticed as he glanced up at 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.

However, 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 were 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 or for a league title. The best he might manage is a domestic cup.

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 me 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 why Waddle went. English clubs still lingered in the shadow of the Heysel disaster, banned from European competition. The money was better abroad than it was in London and perhaps there was more personal ambition. Had Joe Cole taken a salary cut and remained in Lille, where he engendered huge affection, he would be preparing for Champions League football against Bayern Munich rather than the odd fixture for Liverpool reserves.

Until the advent of the Premier League, money was the single compelling reason why an English footballer would 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 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.

Nine years later, Jimmy Greaves would leave Chelsea for Milan for what he called "purely mercenary reasons" only to discover that by the time he arrived the maximum wage had been abolished and at Fulham Johnny Haynes had negotiated himself £100 a week. Greaves consoled himself by drinking himself into a stupor and attempting every possible manoeuvre to break his contract.

By the time Steve McManaman made his move 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". The only choice McManaman faced was whether he wanted to extend himself as a professional.

Language is often presented as an insurmountable barrier. McManaman, who noticed that the privacy laws in Spain meant the Real Madrid team socialised together in a way they did not at Liverpool, had few problems with Spanish. David Platt began learning Italian before he left Aston Villa for Serie A.

At Juventus, Ian Rush – who never actually said that "living in Italy is like being in a foreign country" (it was jokingly attributed to him by a mischievous Liverpool team-mate) – found himself horribly isolated; the only person in the dressing room he could communicate with was his Danish team-mate Michael Laudrup. 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 was and is "treated like a king" when in France.

While Rush mourned the lack of digestive biscuits in Turin, and Scott Carson, who exchanged West Bromwich Albion for Bursa, in northern Turkey, misses baked beans, there are other barriers.

Sir Alex Ferguson argued that what inhibits him from loaning out Manchester United's younger players abroad is the loss of control that entails. "Last season we sent Federico Macheda on loan to Sampdoria. The coach got fired the following week and Federico had an absolute nightmare," he said.

"We want players to be at clubs where we can be in contact with them and make sure they actually play."

The flip side is provided by the Blackburn Rovers manager, Steve Kean, who himself played in Portugal. He said it was no real surprise that Colin Kazim-Richards had made such an explosive start at Ewood Park. He had spent last season at Galatasaray, where he had played in the Champions League and trained with Brazilians. He would meet very few in the Championship who can match that.

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".

Even Rush, often held up as the caricature of a Brit abroad, said that moving to Italy was "one of the best things I have done in my life and it means I can look back on my career and not wonder what might have been". 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 and Cole, 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 team-mates to dislike him. He was paid more than any other footballer in Germany, he had replaced the most popular player in the home 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.

Made the most of it

Kevin Keegan had his quirks but was a hit at Hamburg; Chris Waddle reached the peak of his potential while at Marseilles; and Steve McManaman thrived at Real Madrid, winning two European Cups.

Failed to fit in

Ian Rush was an isolated figure at Juventus unable to communicate with his team-mates; Jimmy Greaves moved to Milan just as the maximum wage was abolished in England; and Paul Gascoigne failed to adapt to life in Rome when he moved from Spurs to Lazio in the early 1990s.