When Billy Ions equalised for SJK in the Pohjanmaan derby to help his team on their way to a 2-1 win against VPS, he earned a lot more than local bragging rights. Only 3,877 people were present at the OmaSP Stadium in Seinäjoki, Finland as the Englishman chested the ball down and volleyed it into the top corner but thanks to social media this strike was soon to be seen across the world.
This was Ions’ first taste of recognition from the English public, but behind the scenes he overcame adversity to do what only approximately 200 other Englishmen are currently doing: forging a football career abroad.
England is exporting more footballing talent than ever before, we had a look at which countries' top leagues are taking on the most. pic.twitter.com/SYICjjoUBi
— English Players Abroad (@Players_Abroad) January 8, 2018
He’s now 23 years old but when Ions was young the striker’s family moved to Spain where he made his first forays into the professional game with Tenerife. He then moved back to England where he was unable to break through at Leeds United or Newcastle United before being drafted into the Nike Academy, where he earned his move to PS Kemi in the Finnish third tier as a 19 year old.
“When I was told I was going to the third division in Finland, I really didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into.
It was more just getting myself back into football, it was an opportunity and I just thought why not, just go for it.”
After a tough first year Ions contemplated moving back to England, spending time with West Auckland and Benfield during his break. Despite the challenges many players who go abroad face, such as the climate and language, he stuck with Kemi.
This decision paid dividends as Kemi climbed their way to the Veikkausliiga, the top division of Finnish football with back to back promotions in what Ions cites as a career highlight. “It was one of the best periods in my football career so far. Everything went so well, it was like a fairytale story for Kemi to get promoted once, then to get promoted again.”
After that he moved to SJK, for whom he played in their Europa League first qualifying round loss against Icelandic side KR Reykjavik last season. Despite tasting defeat he sees this as one of his biggest achievements, something he would not have managed if he hadn’t left England. “To say that I’ve played in a big tournament like that is amazing. I think if I was playing in England my chances of ever playing in the Premier League are very, very slim and if you go abroad I’m sure there’s a lot of English lads who would play in the top league in Finland, Sweden or Norway and play in competitions like that.”
However, it is not just players from lower leagues who are flying the nest to increase their prospects. This season alone Manchester City’s Jadon Sancho and Arsenal’s Chris Willock moved to Borussia Dortmund and Benfica respectively for first team football.
I've come a long way from being a kid, playing football on my estate!! Saturday was a big day for me. Making my professional debut for @BVB was a dream come true. Hopefully the first of many 🙏🏽. I just want to thank @BVB for showing so much belief in me at such young age. #JS7 pic.twitter.com/YCm2AeJzGT
— Jadon Sancho (@Sanchooo10) October 23, 2017
With England’s youngsters’ summer successes, there has been a lot of focus on whether Premier League clubs will entrust these talents with enough game time to help them fulfil their full potential.
Despite people’s concerns, Paul Simpson, who guided England’s Under 19s to victory in the European Championships this summer feels that a move abroad is not always necessary. “There are a lot of chances coming for English qualified players and it is now up to them to show they deserve to stay in the team. They have shown they can compete with the best in the world at their own age.
I am not against any player going abroad so long as they are able to adapt and be a good fit for our national teams.”
One player who has shown the rewards that can come from leaving home is Yannick Bolasie.
Having grown up in London, at 18 years old he was playing for Hillingdon Borough with a burger being his goal bonus. Now 28, he is a £30 million footballer who turns out for Everton and has 31 caps for DR Congo.
A year that he spent with 25 time Maltese champions Floriana has definitely contributed to that. “It was a valuable experience for me, it taught me a lot as a young player.
Adapting to a different culture, different style and different manager helped me develop as a player.
Despite having enjoyed the experience, Bolasie jumped at the chance to return home. “We had scouts come out from Plymouth, Leicester, Hoffenheim and Sturm Graz to watch me out there.
“I decided to come back to England and visited the Plymouth facility and decided I wanted to go there. I’d obviously spent a year out in Malta and that was a good experience but at the time I just wanted to go back home and play.”
That move to Plymouth eventually proved to be another springboard for Bolasie’s career as he then went to Bristol City and Crystal Palace before his arrival on Merseyside.
While a return home was beneficial for the winger, many Englishmen find themselves back to square one when they get back, being forced into England’s non league.
One such player is Bournemouth Poppies’ head coach and captain Fawzi Saadi:
Despite this, whether it’s a non league player who’s lacked opportunities in England or a Premier League youngster with no route to first team football, a move abroad has become a more lucrative prospect than ever before.
There is a lot of talent wasted in England due to a lack of opportunities and Billy Ions has seen that first hand. “A lot of my friends were in better positions than me when I was back home a few years ago and they aren’t even playing now. I’m here in Finland and I’m not in a bad position in my career. It could be a lot worse.”
A move abroad doesn’t equate to certain success, but with thousands of youngsters filtering out of the game at home, this could be the time for players to take the risk and leave England to further their careers.
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