There was a time when going abroad wasn’t cool. It was a time when British footballers stayed at home, worried about how they might fare in Europe and beyond.
Gary Lineker helped to break the mould with his switch – and success – at Barcelona in the 1980s but Ian Rush’s struggles at Juventus around the same time seemed to put off many players.
It would take 30 years before there was a significant shift in attitude, Jadon Sancho paving the way for a generation of players to try their luck abroad.
In 2016, Sancho was one of 20 players chosen by the Guardian as the most promising at Premier League clubs. Ten months later, in August 2017, he joined Borussia Dortmund, having turned down a lucrative contract with Manchester City. Pep Guardiola did not want to lose him but Sancho had made up his mind. The thinking was clear: at Dortmund there was an obvious path to the first team, whereas at City there was not.
Sancho was given the No 7 shirt and made a first-team impact straight away, featuring in 12 league games in 2017-18, scoring one goal and making four assists.
Another, less high-profile, case of a player moving abroad to further his career can also be found among the 2016 Next Generation picks: Angel Gomes. A huge prospect at Manchester United, he turned down a new deal in the summer of 2020 and joined Lille.
It was clear that in many ways he did not want to leave United but he said it was time “to take the next step” in his career. He posted the following heartfelt message on Instagram: “It’s took me a while because it’s not been easy to put my emotions into words. Sadly the time has come to end a beautiful chapter that has been my life for 14 years. Being from Salford, Manchester United is all I have ever known.”
He added: “I want to thank every single individual at the club for the help and encouragement I received, from the very first time I signed at the club. I want to thank all the coaches from every age group that looked after me from six to now. To all the kit men, Kath the receptionist, the media team, the security, the staff at the Cliff, the staff at Littleton Road, the staff at Carrington to the cleaners, you all played a part in getting me to where I am today. It is time I take the next step in my career, I hope you can all be proud of what I go on to achieve.”
Gomes had pretty much everything he could have wanted at United, apart from first-team minutes. During his first season at Lille he went on loan to Boavista, making an impressive 30 league appearances, scoring six goals and contributing six assists.
He is back at Lille and having made an impression in Ligue 1 and the Champions League got his first England Under-21 call-up last week.
Gomes is one of 10 players from the 20 selected for the Premier League 2016 Next Generation who have made a top-flight appearance. Interestingly, the four who have made the most – Sancho, Gomes, Reiss Nelson, who is on loan at Feyenoord from Arsenal, and AEK Larnaca’s Simranjit Thandi – have had stints abroad.
As well as selecting 20 of the most promising first-year scholars in the Premier League, each year we pick 60 talents from across the world who we follow for five years. Previous picks have included Marcus Rashford, Youri Tielemans and Ousmane Dembélé in 2014 and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Martin Ødegaard, Dani Olmo and Christian Pulisic.
The 2016 list provides a similar mix of hits and misses and is further proof of how hard it is to reach the top even if you are one of the most talented players in the world in that year. There is still a lot of blood, sweat and tears before that professional contract or sustained first-team run is secured.
The standout players from the 2016 list are Gianluigi Donnarumma and Kai Havertz, Euro 2020 and Champions League winners in 2021 respectively, with Matthijs de Ligt, Alexander Isak, Abdulkadir Omur and Brahim Díaz also among the players who have had huge success.
Almost a third (18 of 60) of the players have gone on to win a senior cap, an impressive ratio considering all the pitfalls. Some have stayed at the same club for a long time, such as Vahan Bichakhchyan, who has been at Zilina since 2017 and progressed through their system to become a regular Armenia international.
Dujon Sterling, though, has been loaned out by Chelsea three times since 2016, currently to Blackpool.
There is no secret formula but it is heartening to see how some of these young players have recovered from serious injuries to make it to the top. Sometimes, though, it is simply not possible to beat the injuries and in May of this year one of our players from 2016, USA’s Nick Taitague, revealed he would have to stop playing at the age of 22.
“With a very sad heart, I write to you all today to announce my retirement from professional soccer,” he posted on Instagram. “While I tried my best to play through the pain and surgery it progressed to a point of no return.”