English players don't tend to play on the continent and the reasons for this can be discussed in detail. Personally I think it is because they are over priced, have high salaries that European clubs will not pay (or can't afford to) and most of them would not like to be in a country where they cannot speak the language. English players have their comfort zone and they like to stay in it. That theory is not applicable however to one Luke Steele, who in July 2014 left Barnsley to join Greek giants, Panathinaikos. It has proved to be a life changing success.
Steele had been on the books at Manchester United as a youngster but was never able to make the breakthrough he had wanted. After a couple of years at West Brom, struggling to stake his claim to be their number one, he moved to Barnsley, on a permanent deal, in 2008. It was in Yorkshire that Steele, for the first time in his career, became a regular first choice goalkeeper and the first name on the team sheet. The story took an unexpected turn in 2014, a turn that many people may have raised their eyebrows at when they read the story on the BBC website.
Following relegation from the Championship in 2014, Steele knew it was time to move on from Barnsley and a clause in his contract would allow him to do so on a free transfer. The usual story of a standard English player would have seen them join another Championship club and continue their career as normal but something else happened in this case. Panathinaikos, winners of the Greek Superleague on 20 occasions, wanted Steele in Athens. The Greek club, once managed by the great Ferenc Puskas, was an offer and a rare opportunity that was too good to refuse.
Steele was able to adapt fantastically and has been the first choice goalkeeper for Panathinaikos since joining in 2014. For the first time in his career he has been able to play in a division other than the Championship. Steele has admitted that the culture and style of play is very different from his days in England. He is now playing in a team that wants to play football from the back, a team expecting to win every match. With high expectations come passionate fans and he has also spoken about unexpected visits from the clubs ultras at the training ground after disappointing defeats. You just didn't get that in Barnsley!
Moving abroad can obviously be tough, especially when you don't speak the language. Whether you are a footballer or a car salesman, being taken out of your comfort zone and put into an environment that may seem alien to you, can be highly testing. In my view Steele should be applauded for not only taking the risk of trying something new, but having the confidence that he could make the step up and still perform despite the obvious upheaval in his life.
It would have been so easy to stay in England and continue on as normal at another club in relatively close proximity to his family and friends. The journey to the other side of Europe however is one that has allowed the Peterborough born goalkeeper the chance to realise a dream. Steele has not only been playing in a top league, he has also been able to grab the opportunity of playing in European competition. Playing in the Europa League has brought with it the chance to play against clubs such as PSV, Ajax and Celta Vigo. If I were a player and could choose between a midweek Championship match or a midweek trip to Spain to play Celta Vigo in the Europa League, I think it would be an easy decision. Clearly the gamble of moving abroad has paid off.
With the courageous switch to a foreign country and experience of hostile derbies and European matches under his belt, there is another question that runs around in my mind. Fraser Forster and Luke Steele are the only two English goalkeepers playing in European competition in the 2016/17 season. Why was Steele not called up to the England squad in October for the match against Slovenia after Tom Heaton withdrew with injury? Gareth Southgate opted to call up Jordan Pickford who, when the call up came, had played seven Premier League matches in his career and hadn't kept a clean sheet in the 2016/17 season yet.
I understand that Pickford is only 22 years old and appears to have a bright future ahead of him but he was pulled out of the under 21 squad, where he would likely have played, to sit on the bench in Slovenia. How much did Pickford learn in the 48 hours or so that he spent with the senior England squad? I can't imagine it was much, if anything at all. Sure, Luke Steele may be 32 years old now and is probably not the future of English goalkeeping but does that mean he should be overlooked? Did Southgate even consider him? Playing for a club like Panathinaikos where the fans expect a good performance every week and playing Europa League football will have seen Steele develop far beyond the level he was at in his Barnsley days. He cannot be seen as a Championship level goalkeeper anymore because he is not one. What would have been the harm in calling him up and at least taking a look at him next to Joe Hart and Fraser Forster in training?
Another question that should be addressed is why more English players don't follow in the footsteps of Steele and play football overseas. I mentioned it briefly in the top paragraph but it seems that unless the contract on offer is in the USA and you are over 35 years old then English players just do not want to know. It is something that has always bothered me and is one of the many reasons that I think England do not win the World Cup. Our players only know one way to play and one style of opposition to play against, the Premier League style. They live in the English Premier League bubble where they earn huge salaries, are loved by their fans, have a celebrity status when they go to a restaurant or bar and can have all of their friends round to their huge mansion to play FIFA17. Many of them have no doubt dreamt of that lifestyle and the fact that they have applied themselves on the football pitch has paid dividends for them but does nobody want a real challenge? Nobody? No? Oh wait, there was one...
Joe Hart moving to Torino, even just for the season, was a great move to me. If he makes a clanger then sure it will be seen but as he doesn't play for a Juventus or AC Milan, nor is he Italian, any huge error will not be the back page headline. Hart is away from the British media, experiencing a new culture, settling in to a new club and instructing a new defence whilst probably having more work to do during an average match than he ever did at Manchester City. The whole experience will make Hart a better goalkeeper in my opinion and I believe the same can be said for Luke Steele. A new and unusual challenge presented itself for both goalkeepers and they both backed themselves to make it a success.
For Luke Steele the icing on the cake of this great adventure would be winning the Greek Superleague title but Olympiacos are a tough and wealthy opposition. His contract in Athens still has a couple more seasons left and who knows what will happen then. Whatever future paths lie ahead for Steele though, one thing is for sure. Europa League football would not have presented itself to him had he not taken the brave decision of moving overseas. Some players peak later than others and Panathinaikos seem to have found themselves a fantastic goalkeeper who cost them nothing. Although there are a few other English players dotted around Europe and doing well for themselves, Luke Steele should be used as a template for any player who wants to break the mould, try something new and really test themselves to see just how far they can go.
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