Big Lang Theory: In praise of British footballers abroad



The name David Bentley means different things to different people. To some (those who underwent a lobotomy in 2009), it means stunning goals from 30 yards, deadly free-kicks, and the New David Beckham. To most, it speaks of wasted potential, of seasons spent on the Tottenham bench, of the New David Beckham only if David Beckham was content just to pick up his paychecks.

To those in Russia, it probably meant very little. Until last week. Now it signifies a new, faintly ridiculous signing by FC Rostov, mainstays of the domestic top flight. Quite how this deal came about remains somewhat of a mystery (hypothesis: the owner of the club was actually in the market for a vintage British car), but the upshot is this: David Bentley now plays in the Russian Premier League.

As such, he becomes the second high-profile (#generous) Premier League player to join an overseas club this summer, after Joey Barton's protracted move to Marseille. As unlikely as it may have seemed a few weeks ago, the sweet and tender hooligan and... err... David Bentley are now flag bearers for British football in Europe, in an era in which precious few players are willing to take the plunge. They join the rather less infamous (more famous? No, I don't think it works like that...) Aiden McGeady, who has plied his trade with some success for Spartak Moscow since 2010.

It is interesting to note that most of the British players who have headed abroad - in recent years at least - have done so only because their careers on these shores had stalled. Joe Cole jumped over the channel in the hope of diverting attention away from his rapidly declining fitness levels. Barton did likewise to flee the infamy that aflicts him in the UK (and to get closer to the birthplace of Jean-Paul Sartre, who will surely be the next stop in his fanboy Twitter tour of great thinkers). And Bentley? His best footballing memories over the last three seasons came in the form of FIFA 12 wins over Giovani dos Santos and Jermaine Jenas.

While the current generation of footballing expats deserve praise for their derring-do, then, British players still lack a certain something: the willingness to move just for the sake of moving. While footballers from Spain, Italy, Brazil and Germany expand their horizons by sampling other cultures, our players see a move abroad as a last resort. The result? The continued solipsism of the British game. Our football is a grumpy old patriot who, so convinced of the pedigree of his surroundings, cannot even entertain the fact that things could be better elsewhere.

That view, of course, is challenged (read: exploded) every two years, when our national teams are put to the sword. Our tactical and technical deficiencies, of course, could in turn be remedied by a willingness to learn from other footballing countries. You have to see the world to understand it.

It wasn't always this way, of course. The careers of John Charles, Kevin Keegan, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker and Chris Waddle were enriched by spells on the continent. Recent examples are slightly more difficult to come by, but a number of players - Paul Lambert, Steve McManaman, David Beckham - have still tested the waters at the height of their powers. Some of our best coaches, too, have gone abroad.

When, then, will the levy break? And who will break it? It seems unlikely that the change will be made by the Premier League's comfortably numb, nigh-on impossible as it is to imagine Wayne Rooney in Rome, Charlie Adam in Amsterdam or James Milner in Madrid. (In fact, it's hard to imagine James Milner anywhere but down a mine.) The younger generation provides more promise: it seems almost inevitable that Gareth Bale will move to one of Spain's big two, while players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge will surely attract continental interest.

In the mean time, though, the motley duo of David Bentley and Joey Barton will serve as pioneers. If they can benefit from a change of scenery, imagine what players with more modest egos and fewer miles in the bank could achieve in the European game. Here's hoping.