With the European transfer window still open and rumours suggesting Ademola Lookman & Ruben Loftus-Cheek could be bound for the Bundesliga Pickford where Jadon Sancho is set for his first full season, here’s a countdown of the 10 most successful English players to head for continental Europe…and one absolute disaster.
10. Ray Wilkins (AC Milan 1984-87)
It was testament to his warm personality and silky skills in midfield that football mourned Ray Wilkins’ passing this year, but his loss was felt further afield and at the San Siro Franco Baresi held aloft Wilkins old Rossoneri number 8 shirt to a rapturous reception.
Wilkins passing skills and vision were a rarity in English football in the late 70s, so much so much so Don Revie handed him an England cap aged just 20 in 1976. After making his name at Chelsea, Wilkins secured his big move to Manchester United where he scored in the ’83 Cup Final and collected a winners medal following a replay.
But in the summer of 1984 United boss Ron Atkinson sold him to AC Milan for £1.5 million. The Wilkins family quickly settled into Italian life. His football was excellent too and he was soon joined by fellow Englishman Mark Hateley.
Sadly for Wilkins he was a good player in a poor era for Milan, he played 3 full seasons with the Rossoneri but they didn’t win a trophy, the closest they came was the 1985 Coppa Italia final where they were beaten on penalties. But his England career thrived and he went to the 1986 World Cup as vice captain- although a bizarre sending off against Morocco cut his tournament short.
In the summer of 1987 Arrigo Saachi took over as Milan boss and Wilkins was sold to PSG whilst Saachi’s Milan went on to a glorious era of Serie A & European Cup dominance. It was a case of right player, wrong time for Wilkins but he still made a highly respectable 70 appearances in the famed black and red stripes and his send off more than 3 decades later showed the esteem in which Milan fans hold his legacy.
9. Paul Ince (Inter Milan 1995-97)
After missing out on a third straight league title and defeat in the FA Cup final Alex Ferguson decided to overhaul his Manchester United squad and Paul Ince was a shock casualty packed off to Inter Milan for £7.5 million.
Ince initially struggled in Italy and early reports suggested a swift return to England. But under the tutelage of new manager Roy Hodgson, Ince adapted to the more tactical Serie A whilst Inter were in transition finishing only 7th in Serie A and by the end of his first season Ince was a star in Milan.
He returned to England in the summer for Euro ‘96 and his technical improvement were evident as England made their run to the last 4 with Ince an ever present.
The 96/97 season saw an improved Inter make a tilt at the title and make the UEFA Cup Final but a winners medal eluded Ince despite another excellent season. But owner Massimo Moratti had a plan- he’d zeroed in on Brazilian superstar Ronaldo and wanted to retain Ince by offering an improved contract.
The problem was Ince’s son Tom was now 5 years old and Paul wanted him to attend school in England. In an end of season interview with Channel 4’s Gazzetta Football Italia Ince stated ‘Ronaldo’s great but he’s not going to teach Tom to read and write English’ a fair point as I’m sure Brazilian strikers don’t offer grammar lessons and Ince joined Liverpool, Tom meanwhile followed dad into the Premier League and now plays for Huddersfield Town.
8. Glenn Hoddle (Monaco 1987-91)
The 1987 FA Cup final was a double disaster for Tottenham, not only did they get beat by an unfancied Coventry team, they managed to send their most gifted player in a generation on his way with a losing finalists medal. Hoddle had decided to leave English football that summer feeling with some justification his talents were not appreciated in his homeland.
Hoddle opted to join Monaco and their forward thinking young manager Arsene Wenger, and he was joined by fellow Englishman Mark Hateley. In his first season Hoddle was voted the best foreign player in France as Monaco secured their first league title in 8 seasons.
That summer Hoddle was selected for England’s Euro ’88 squad but omitted from the starting lineup a move Bobby Robson was hugely criticised for as England crashed 1-0 to Ireland. The tournament would prove Hoddle’s England swan song but his second season in France would prove another hit.
George Weah was added to an exciting Monaco squad that summer and Hoddle smashed 20 goals- the best return of his career as Monaco reached the last 8 of the European Cup. Sadly injuries ruined the last 2 years of his French odyssey and he made only 3 further appearances before returning to England with Swindon. Still 4 years in tax free Monaco must have been nice recompense for all those ‘Glenda’ jibes.
7. David Platt (Bari, Juventus, Sampdoria 1991-95)
Italy’s Serie A has proved a tough gig for big name Britannic stars to crack- Ian Rush, Ashley Cole, Robbie Keane & Des Walker were all notable failures in Italy.
What made Platt’s success in Italy so impressive was he went there when Serie A was far and away the best division in the world. He initially signed for Bari in the summer of 1991 on the back of his fine exploits for England at Italia ‘90 for a huge £5.5million fee.
In his first season he scored 11 goals from midfield- some going in an average side in the land of Catanachio. But Bari were relegated and Platt was sold on and spent a comparatively unsuccessful season at Juventus in 1992/93 although he did pick up a UEFA Cup winners medal.
Many expected that would prompt a move back to England but instead Sampdoria striker Roberto Mancini persuaded the Genoa based club to bring Platt in for the 1993-94 season.
Under the promising Sven-Goran Erikkson Mancini & Platt excelled. Platt played 55 Serie A matches in 2 seasons, scoring 17 goals from midfield where he was perfectly suited as a skilful passer and dribbler and Samp won the 1994 Copa Italia.
Finally after 5 seasons in Italy Platt returned to England with Arsenal winning the league & cup double in 1998- his first medals in England. He eventually reunited with Mancini in the Manchester City dugout and won that dramatic 2012 title together.
6. Gary Lineker (Barcelona 1986-89)
Not a lot of people know this but Aunties favourite anchorman was a quicksilver striker in his day and his razor sharp goal scoring instincts won him the World Cup golden boot at Mexico ‘86.
That pricked the interest of Barcelona and their English manager Terry Venables who brought the striker to Catalonia for £2.8 million. His first season in Spain proved outstanding as he scored 21 goals including a hat trick in the Classico. Meanwhile his strike partner Mark Hughes struggled in Spain and was soon on his way back to Manchester via Bayern Munich and the lack of fresh silverware put the writing on the wall for Venables.
But Lineker was a superstar in Catalonia and his goal scoring exploits with England reached a new high in Madrid when he smashed 4 past Spain- prompting opposing ‘keeper and Barca teammate Andoni Zubizarreta to walk into the England dressing room at full time and proclaim ‘Bloody Hell!’
For his second season Lineker added a further 18 goals and won the Copa Del Rey but by the time of his third season in Spain Johan Cruyff was Barca manager.
Cruyff embarked on a bold tactical rethink and pushed Lineker to the right wing. Lineker stayed in the team and won the European Cup Winners Cup but left shortly thereafter with Venables bringing him back to England with Tottenham.
Lineker remains a revered player at the Camp Nou and his mark of 43 La Liga goals remained a record for a British player until recently broken by Gareth Bale and of course Lineker’s record was achieved in a more evenly matched era of Spanish football.
Oddly Lineker remains the last British player to walk out at the Camp Nou wearing the Barca strip.
5.Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich 1999-2007)
Hargreaves was an unusual case- making his name overseas before securing a big money move to England. Born and raised in Canada Hargreaves was spotted by Bayern Munich as a 16 year old and signed to their academy in 1997.
He made his debut at the start of the 2000-01 season but remained unknown in England until he played in the Champions League that season. He went on to start the final with Bayern and after a penalty shoot out got his hands on football’s biggest prize- only the second English player to raise the trophy with a foreign side.
By now he’d committed to England and Sven-Goran Erikkson fast tracked him into the senior squad. Meanwhile Hargreaves was soon a major character in the Bayern dressing room previously dominated by Stefan Effenberg.
By the 2001-02 season Hargreaves was immovable from the Bayern midfield and his combative style won him rave reviews in Germany as he won 4 Bundesliga titles and 3 German Cups.
But in England he was treated with suspicion, partly due to Sven’s tendency to use him as a second half substitute. He was selected for the 2006 World Cup and derided with a chorus of boos in the warm up games- He ended up England’s player of the year for 2006 following a fine World Cup.
Those exploits won him a move in 2007 to Manchester United where he collected a Premier League title and played the full 2008 Champions League final- collecting a second Champions League medal before his career was cut short by injury problems.
4. David Beckham (Real Madrid 2003-07)
In the spring of 2003 as war approached in the Gulf the tabloids found a far more significant conflict to write about- Becks vs Fergie. The father/ son relationship between Ferguson and the England skipper was broken after the irate manager flung a boot at the midfielder after a cup defeat to Arsenal.
That summer Beckham had his pick of clubs and opted to become the final Galactico of Real Madrid for £25million. Real made that fee back in shirt sales that summer and the arrival of Beckham was akin to Beatlemania.
On the pitch he performed well too making 45 appearances in his first season. The only problem was the Galacticos weren’t winning trophies as Barcelona and their new sensation Ronaldinho dominated La Liga. Despite his huge popularity in Madrid and three excellent seasons in the Spanish capital Beckham hit a career low in the summer of 2006. He was dropped by England after the 2006 World Cup by new manager Steve McClaren and new Real boss Fabio Capello concurred leaving Beckham on the bench and with his career at a crossroads with 6 months left on his contract.
Sensing his options narrowing in Europe, Beckham opted for a new adventure at LA Galaxy and signed a pre contract agreement but had 6 months left in Madrid. After speaking out at a stormy team meeting with the President and the Manager, Capello reappraised his opinion of Beckham and he was recalled.
Becks gave a brilliant last hurrah in Madrid and despite Barcelona’s seemingly impregnable lead played a starring role as Real stormed to the title- giving Beckham his only Spanish medal.
Real looked at cancelling the contract but the Americans were wise to that and Becks left for LA, winning the MLS Cup and enjoying 2 successful loan spells with AC Milan and finally an Indian summer with PSG before retiring. And just to complete the circle of life he buried the hatchet with Ferguson and the two are friends again, lovely stuff.
3. Chris Waddle (Marseille 1989-92)
Waddle came relatively late to professional football but successful spells at Newcastle and Tottenham convinced French Champions Marseille to pay a then astronomical £4.5million for him in 1989.
He was an instant sensation in France and helped Marseille to the first of three successive League titles accumulated during Waddle’s time in France. Despite needing to watch videos of the Paul Daniels Show to combat homesickness, Waddle was adored in France and even returned to his pop career as he and teammate Basile Boli record a single even worse than ‘Diamond Lights.’
Pop problems aside Waddle racked up 140 appearances in 3 seasons, was runner up to teammate Jean Pierre Papin for the 1991 Ballan D’Or and even made it to that years European Cup final where he suffered another penalty heartbreak. He was voted Marseille’s 2nd best player of the century shortly before the millennium and eventually returned to England where he was voted FWA player of the year with Sheffield Wednesday in 1993. He now rants regularly on Five Live.
2. Steve McManaman (Real Madrid 1999-2003)
Few expected McManaman to be a hit when he headed to the Bernabaeu. Real were Europe’s most stressed out club, riddled with debt and manager Guus Hiddink was dismissed within weeks of McManaman arriving on a Bosman. Fortunately for McManaman fellow Liverpool legend John Toshack was appointed manager.
McManaman’s dancing style down the wing made him an instant hit with the Real faithful and he played 47 games in his first season.
But the final game of the season cemented his place at the centre of the club- he scored the crucial second goal as Real claimed the Champions League crown in Paris. The Galaticos era started that summer with arrival of Luis Figo but McManaman maintained a key role in the side as he won his first league title. Next summer Zidane arrived and a second Champions League medal followed.
It wasn’t until his fourth and final season in Madrid that McManaman started to fade down the pecking order but he added a second league title before leaving in the summer of 2003 effectively being replaced by David Beckham.
In 4 years at the club McManaman amassed 152 appearances, 2 Champions League winners medal- the first Englishman to win the crown with a foreign side and 2 La Liga titles. To this day McManaman is remembered as Britain’s most successful export to Madrid- yes even ahead of Bale.
1. Kevin Keegan (SV Hamburg 1977-80)
Keegan has always been a man who likes a shock exit but none were more surprising than his leaving Liverpool in 1977. Liverpool were England’s dominant side and European Cup holders. But Keegan also likes a project and SV Hamburg were certainly that.
Keegan arrived in Germany to great fanfare and he threw himself into Hamburg life, he and his wife learned the language and adopted a German lifestyle. But his teammates weren’t so sure and it took time for Keegan to win them over.
But win them over he did, despite the club finishing a disappointing 10th in the Bundesliga Keegan picked up the Ballon D’Or in 1978, As Hamburg improved he picked up the Balon D’or for the second season in a row and inspired the club to the Bundesliga title. Now nicknamed ‘Mighty Mouse’ Keegan then guided his side to the European Cup Final, sadly for him they lost to Nottingham Forest and in the summer of 1980 Keegan shocked the world again by moving to Southampton.
In all from his attacking midfield role Keegan contributed 40 goals at Hamburg but those back to back Ballon D’Or wins are a far truer testament to his impact in Germany. That’s a somewhat better legacy than the one he forged in that infamous post match interview at Elland Road or resigning as England Manager sat on a Wembley toilet!
And the Disaster…
Jonathan Woodgate (Real Madrid 2004-07)
This was a strange one, Woodgate first emerged as one of David O’Leary’s ‘babies’ at Leeds in 1999. An elegant central defender his promising career was derailed by an assault trial in which he was found guilty of affray and handed community service. One of the repercussions was he didn’t play for a year due mainly to stress and his athleticism suffered leading to a long line of niggling injuries.
As Leeds drowned in a tidal wave of debt Woodgate was sold off to Newcastle in January 2003. Woodgate impressed at Newcastle on the occasions he played but the fitness problems persisted and h only managed 37 games in a season and a half on Tyneside.
In the summer of 2004 Real Madrid paid £13.4million for the defender. He arrived alongside fellow Englishman Michael Owen (presumably Real thought Owen would need some company in the treatment room.)
Real were confident of ending Woodgate’s injury problems even though he was injured when they bought him and he didn’t play a minute in his first season in Spain.
In October 2005 Woodgate finally made his debut and what a debut! He conceded an early own goal provided an assist and was red carded all before half time.
In all Woodgate made 14 appearances (9 in La Liga) for Los Blancos (that’s about £1 million per game) before being loaned back to hometown club Middlesbrough. So Jadon Sancho needs only 1 more appearance for Dortmund to beat the mark Woodgate set, incredible.