Brexitball: Exporting Young Talent

Andy Watson looks at the impact of Brexit on young British outgoing talents in this Brexitball piece.

Throughout this Brexitball series, we have focused on the talent which is being imported into the UK. However, the Brexit border regulations function in both directions. In this piece, we will turn our attention to the way that the decision to leave the EU has affected UK-born players who want to play in Europe.

Traditionally, British players haven’t tended to travel that well despite the fact that football only became a global force because ex-pats spread the game to far-distant shores; football missionaries such as Fred Pentland, the England international who spread the game in Germany and Spain.

There are also the odd instances of success stories on foreign shores throughout history: John Charles succeeded at Juventus; Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg in the 1970s; and the 1980s saw some British players challenge themselves in Italy, France and Germany, players such as Ray Wilkins, Mark Hateley, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle.

For most of this time, the elite leagues were in the EU (or EC as it was then) and so these top professionals were aspiring to play at the highest level. But then, the Premier League came along, and within a decade or so, the money in the English game meant that there was perhaps no longer the desire to go elsewhere.

More recently, though, the trickle of players out of the UK into Europe was becoming a flow, especially for young players. The forward-thinking Germans seemed to identify a market for tempting young English talent out of the busy and bloated academy system with the promise of first-team football. Jadon Sancho’s move from Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund was the poster boy transfer to represent this trend but there have been many other examples. 

Some agents and recruitment agencies cottoned onto the potential of exporting young British players, both in order to get deals done but also for the development of the player in terms of getting exposure to relatively higher level first-team minutes than was being offered domestically.

The separation from the EU, and the freedom of movement changes that come with it, threaten this route for young player development. In this article, we will look at the impact of Brexit on the emerging talent within the UK and ask if the border controls introduced since it came into effect have had an opposite impact than the one desired.

How many British players left to move to Europe?

Analysing transfer data from the last few seasons, we have found some interesting insights into the exporting of British talent from English clubs.

The rules we set ourselves in this analysis were that the player had to have a first nationality of English/Scottish/Welsh/N.Irish and had to move permanently (no loans) from an English club to a club in Europe that would subsequently be affected by a change in the UK’s relationship with the European Union. This meant that players who became free agents and then subsequently joined a European club are missing from the data. The exporting leagues covered are: Premier League, Premier League 2 (PL2), Championship, League One and League Two.

The trend is very clearly defined here. There was a steady increase of British players trying their hand in Europe until 2019/20 when the path had been established and was ready to expand. No sooner had this happened than the Brexit date approached and the new rules came into force.

At the peak of this trend, 40 British players left to ply their trade at European clubs. This season, we have seen 20 do the same—half as many—and that takes us back down to 2018/19 levels.

The following chart provides a breakdown of the English leagues and where the exports came from:

PL2 has proven to be the place where the most players were willing to leave for Europe or at least, it has been since 2017/18. Unsurprisingly, when taking into account the original chart, the exports in PL2 peaked in 2019/20 with 16 players going to Europe. PL2 is also the only league to demonstrate a rise (of 1!) of exports since Brexit came into effect.

Of the other leagues, none reach any great heights except the Premier League in 2019/20, another sign perhaps that European clubs—or British agents—felt that they could “extract” talent from the Premier League.

A word of caution, though: we should probably note that there was not exactly a tidal wave of footballers leaving England for Europe. It is important to provide this context. In reality, the number of British footballers leaving for Europe is a very low percentage.

The trend from the ’totals’ chart above remains the same here. The percentage of British players leaving English leagues reached a peak of 3.66% in 2019/20 before crashing down to pre-Brexit and pre-pandemic levels in 2021/22.

The fact that we are only talking about 1-3% of all British transfers/contract expiries does bring into perspective what we are discussing in this piece. Yes, it is a small number of players who are affected by this but it certainly was a growing phenomenon. There was a good chance that the numbers would have continued to rise had Brexit not interrupted or not.

The percentages here illustrate the difference between the Premier League and the other domestic leagues quite starkly. The percentage of British players leaving the Premier League to go to play football in Europe is much higher from the top division, even accounting for the drop from its peak of 14%. 

If we look at the players leaving the Premier League, we get a better understanding of what is happening. This season, we are talking about Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Yannick Bolasie, and Barry Douglas: two top talents going to a fellow Big 5 league and two more experienced operators who had both played in Europe before. This encapsulates the type of outgoing transfers from the Premier League in this data set.

In contrast, the PL2 players identified are young, mostly untested, players who are going to Europe for a chance at starting/maintaining a professional career. In the odd case—Angel Gomes or Xavier Amaechi, for example—the players have been purchased for a fee with the intention of becoming important players for the club in a relatively short period of time.

Have the exports been successful?

It is important to look at how successful the development of the players in this data set has been. If players (and their agents) do want to lobby for changes to the system, then it would help if there was a case for success for these players in Europe. Here we will begin to concentrate on a particular subsection of the data.

PL2 was created in 2016 to replace the previously existing Premier League Under 21 competition. The age range is now Under 23 with four over-age players being allowed for selection in each team. The aim of the competition is, according to the Premier League, to provide “a greater focus on technicality, physicality and intensity to bring players as close to first-team experience as possible”.

The majority of players who participate in PL2 are either on their first professional contracts or on “apprenticeship” terms, which typically last two years. Whilst the competition is officially U23, in reality, most players are much younger than that. There is an Under 18 Premier League competition that sits below PL2, but again this often caters to first-year apprentices or even younger players as clubs find that they are better served to give their top talent in their Under 16 group the opportunity to test themselves against older players and provide a more challenging experience.

In theory, then, a player leaving a PL2 club should be aiming to maintain their status as a professional footballer. As we have seen above, the vast majority remain in the UK, either finding a new club in the Premier League, EFL or dropping into non-league football. However, let us investigate those who went into Europe.

There’s a vast range of results from the players that made the move abroad from PL2 teams. By following their career paths and their basic statistics (appearances, goals, assists), we can make an educated judgment as to whether the move was positive for their careers.

Of course, it may well have been that the players had no choice but to move abroad. But for many, a calculated choice to try a different environment to give themselves the best chance of having a career as a footballer was made.

Here is how the data maps out across that time period: 

Whilst this part of our assessment admittedly has a fair bit of subjective assessment attached, we can make some interesting conclusions based on the results, On the whole, it has been a relatively positive career choice for young players when they have made the leap to go into Europe for their careers.

Looking at the table above, which is ordered by date, it is actually quite noticeable that the earlier moves 2016-18 seemed to fail more often than they did through 2019-Brexit. But again, since Brexit, only one move that has come after the regulations were enforced can be categorically described as a success: Ike Ugbo’s move to Genk. It is a very small sample size at the moment and only in one particular subset of data—PL2 players—are we observing the trend of players struggling to make an impact after their move.

It is interesting to note that even successful transfers to Europe often result in a return to the English leagues. Chris Willock, Dan Crowley, and Charlie Colkett are all examples of players who returned after establishing themselves in Europe, although Crowley has since returned to the Netherlands to continue his career there.

Looking briefly at where these transfers have come from, it is mainly the academies of the biggest clubs in the country. Much of the traffic is driven by players from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester Utd, and Tottenham. 

There are likely to be a whole lot of reasons for this: 

  • they are aware that it is very difficult to get a chance at their own clubs 
  • those clubs have good links abroad to help young players find a place to play 
  • those players who have come through the big academies have a higher profile and also often more video footage for European club scouts to assess their past performances 
  • the players may often have representation from larger agencies with links in Europe, and 
  • many of these players have international honours at age-group level so come with a degree of perceived “pedigree”.

The effect of Brexit and why is a European move difficult?

Put simply, British youngsters are no longer EU qualified. This means that in order to play in Europe they will need to pass the criteria for a work permit. Even if those criteria are passed, many clubs and leagues have rules that mean that their matchday squads and registered player pools have restricted numbers of non-EU players.

What is difficult to know though is how the post-Brexit deals in the research above got done. The assumption must be that each individual passed work permit regulations for the country they went to play in. Medley, Coyle, Brown, Ugbo, and Lewis, all moved to top division clubs in well respected European leagues.

Many players, especially when they are of the age of some of the examples we have seen in this article, are moving for a chance not necessarily guaranteed as first team players. That means that often in these countries, the players will fall short of the wage requirements in order to get a work permit.

For example, a young player wanting to move to Sweden, a country well-renowned for development of footballers, has to have a contract to play top division football with a monthly salary of at least 14,300SEK (£1,157) before tax and the Swedish Sports Confederation must certify that a player’s employment is “of vital importance for the positive development of the sport.”

Do young players still want to move to the EU to play?

According to sources that we have spoken to, there is still very much the desire for a lot of young players to try their hand at playing abroad and Europe should be a key market in that.

“It was an option before but I’m not so sure now. I think it’s still growing but just needs to be realistic based on the country they’re going to and the work permit conditions,” says Phil Korklin, an FA-registered intermediary and co-owner of Momentum Sports Management. 

“I don’t think it’s changed from a player’s point-of-view. There has been no change to their openness and willingness, just their ability to make the move due to the lack of freedom of movement.”

This view from Intermediaries (agents) is certainly matched by the data found by our study. We spoke to Jonathan Fadugba, another person familiar with PL2 and European leagues through his work representing young talent as founder and Director of Future Global Sports and also a regular guest on the Nordic Football Podcast.

“There is less willingness now unless [the players hold] dual passport: UK and EU,” he told us. With very few players in PL2 fitting this criterion, it is understandable that the moves have slowed significantly since January 2021. “[Brexit] has cut their opportunities in half,” Fadugba states when asked about the current situation. This tallies with our findings that the number of moves from British players into Europe had more than halved for PL2 talent. 

Conclusion

It is a shame that a potential avenue for young British talent to flourish has been so summarily shut down as it was beginning to produce success stories.

The idea of the Government and FA to keep young British talent within Great Britain could possibly make sense in some quarters. However, the truth is that for some players there just is not room in the professional game for them here in the UK, despite the GBE rules which, in part, were designed to create that.

Some players want to explore different cultures and perhaps test themselves in foreign countries. For some players, their style is better suited to a European game. For some players, it is their last chance at salvaging their careers and making a life for themselves. To be denied these opportunities is tough for them to take.

At Analytics FC, we provide software and data services to entities within football looking to realise the gains possible from analytical thinking.

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