As many more homegrown youngsters like Jaden Sancho (Borussia Dortmund) are moving overseas in search of first team football and development, just how much success have our footballers had on the continent? Here I look at eleven English players who over the last 60 years have won one of the big four European leagues – Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga.
Club: AC Milan
League title wins: 1 (Serie A – 1961/62)
With the shortest stint abroad on this list, Jimmy Greaves was signed by AC Milan from Chelsea in June 1961. The English First Division top scorer tried to pull out of the deal just before leaving London, but Chelsea desperately needed the money and forced the transfer through. If that wasn’t the best start for Greaves, he then missed his scheduled flight to Italy after a champagne lunch at Heathrow airport, turning up in Milan six hours later on the next flight where he had continued to drink. This was the start of a turbulent relationship with his new club that never recovered. Regardless of the chaos off the pitch, Greaves actually started well, scoring 9 goals in 12 matches, continuing his goal-scoring reputation he had built back in England. However, constant arguments with manager Neroe Rocco and an unwillingness to adapt to the Italian lifestyle meant the striker’s time at Milan came to a premature end.
It was Tottenham Hotspur who gave Greaves his way out, bringing him back to London just four months after he’d left. Milan went on to win Serie A that season, meaning Greaves received the only league winners medal of his career, while he was firing goals in back at White Hart Lane, 750 miles away. The move to Italy clearly came too early in the career of Jimmy Greaves, who at just 21 years old loved the London nightlife. He went on to become the highest ever goal scorer in the history of English top flight football with 357 goals.
Club: Inter Milan
League title wins: 1 (Serie A – 1962/63)
Following a successful four year spell at Aston Villa, Inter Milan signed Hitchens for £85,000 in the summer of 1961. The striker had just started to play for his country and a brace for England in a 3-2 win against Italy in Rome, convinced Inter make him their first ever English player. Despite struggling to adapt to Italian life off the pitch at first, Hitchens continued his fine run of form on it, scoring twice on his debut and quickly earning the nickname Il Cannone (The Cannon) from the local media. His 16 goals in Serie A that season helped Internazionale to the runners-up spot and he finished as the club’s top scorer. Hitchens’ time at the San Siro lasted only lasted until November of the following campaign, but his 5 appearances and one goal before his move to Torino helped towards Inter’s 1963 league title. With no strict rules in Italy back then on the amount of appearances needed to qualify for a league winners’ medal, Hitchens received one.
After two years at Torino he moved on to Atalanta and Caligari. This period in Italy effectively ended his England career, as new manager, Alf Ramsey, refused to pick any players who did not play in England, leaving Hitchens with just 7 caps and an impressive 5 goals to his name. At just 48 years of age, Hitchens passed away whilst playing in a local charity match in 1983. In total he spent 8 seasons in Italy, the longest any English footballer has spent playing in Europe. This may have made him the forgotten man at home, but he will always have a special place in Italian fan’s hearts.
League title wins: 1 (Bundesliga – 1978/79)
Before the 1977 European Cup final, Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan announced that it would be his last game for the club, as he was transferring to Hamburg that summer for a British and German record fee of £500,000. The German club were a very average side at the time, who had not finished higher than 6th in over a decade. After a difficult first campaign – where he struggled to integrate with his teammates – Keegan’s 12 goals helped Hamburg to 9th in the league and he was named European Footballer Of The Year. This, plus the arrival of a new head coach, Branko Zebec, gave the England player the confidence to make a life for himself in Germany and the team’s results drastically improved, giving Hamburg their first Bundesliga title for nineteen years in 1979.
Following a second successive EFOTY win, European giants Real Madrid and Juventus tried to sign Keegan, but he wanted to stay for another year to see out his contract and try to win the European Cup with Hamburg. And that he almost did, unfortunately losing 1-0 in the 1980 final against Nottingham Forest. Keegan soon moved to Southampton, but his move to Hamburg had reignited the club and they went on to win the league in ’82 and ’83 and won the European Cup for the only time in 1983. With his style of play, permed haircut and never ending commercial endeavours, Kevin Keegan is certainly part of Hamburg folklore.
Club: Real Madrid
League title wins: 1 (La Liga – 1979/80)
After starting his career at Leyton Orient, it was his two years at West Brom where Laurie Cunningham first made his name. Under the management of Ron Atkinson, Cunningham took the First Division by storm, helping WBA to 6th and 3rd place finishes. The winger was a pioneer for black players at the time, continuing to let his feet do the talking in the face of disgusting racism, and also becoming only the second black player to represent England in 1979. It was during that summer when Real Madrid paid £950,000 to make him the first ever Englishman to join Los Blancos. The fee was more than justified in his first season, as Cunningham hit the ground running, scoring twice on his debut and eventually ending the season with a league and cup double. However, there is one match from the 1979/80 season, which is still talked about to this day – El Clasico at the Nou Camp, February 1980. His performance in the 2-0 victory earned him a standing ovation from the Barcelona crowd at the full time whistle, a reaction that no other Real Madrid player has enjoyed since.
At the start of his second season at the Bernabeu, ‘The Black Pearl’ as he was affectionately known, was side-lined for 5 months following a foot injury. This was the beginning of a downward spiral for the rest of his time in the Spanish capital, with more injuries restricting his minutes on the pitch. Although, he did manage to play in the 1981 European Cup final defeat to Liverpool and win another Copa Del Rey before he left in 1984. Cunningham won just six England caps during his entire career, an unbelievably small amount considering he was one of the most famous faces in Spain at one point. As his career dwindled down in the late 80s, he still managed to win the FA Cup with Wimbledon in 1988, before he tragically died in car crash whilst playing for Real Vallecano back in Spain a year later. He was just 33. In a career full of ground breaking firsts, Laurie Cunningham will always be remembered at Real Madrid for his dazzling skills in that iconic white strip.
League title wins: 1 (Ligue 1 – 1987/88)
One of Arsene Wenger’s first signings at Monaco in 1987, Mark Hateley had already tried his hand overseas with a relatively average spell at AC Milan. However, things were about to change for the English striker, with his new manager’s modern approach to coaching. Hateley went on to play a key role in Monaco’s 1988 title triumph, scoring 14 goals in the process – making him the third highest scorer in the division that season. This was largely due to the excellent understanding he had with his new teammate and fellow England international, Glenn Hoddle, who signed just days after Hateley.
The following season, Hateley dislocated his ankle in a European Cup tie and his remaining years at the Stade Louis II stadium were unfortunately split between failed comebacks and the treatment table, before his departure to Glasgow Rangers in 1990. Despite his success in the French league, Mark Hateley’s England career (like so many on the list) stalled, as he played second fiddle to the partnership of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley at Euro ’88 and had to wait four more years to win anymore caps. There’s no regrets about playing for Monaco from Hateley though, as he still goes back regularly to see the many teammates and friends he made during his time there. There are worse places in the world to frequently return to, that’s for sure.
League titles won: 1 (Ligue 1 – 1987/88)
The summer of 1987 was definitely an English one for Monaco and new head coach, Arsene Wenger. Shortly after signing Mark Hateley, Wenger asked his new striker for suggestions to fill the No. 10 role in the new look side. Hateley suggested Glenn Hoddle, who was on the verge of signing for French rivals Paris Saint Germain. That was until Wenger intervened and got his man, leaving Hoddle to make the awkward call to PSG manager, Gerard Houllier, to explain he wasn’t signing after all. That Monaco side was built around Glenn Hoddle, who was told in no uncertain terms to not come any deeper than the D on the halfway line to receive the ball. His impact was immediate, as Hoddle (at the age of 29) was finally given the freedom to unlock defences with no other responsibilities – something his England managers had refused to do for him. His 8 goals and countless assists helped his side to only their fifth league title.
After two seasons as Monaco’s star man, a serious knee injury restricted Hoddle to just 3 appearances over the next two seasons and he left by mutual consent in late 1990. His experience under Wenger heavily influenced his own managerial career, using those same revolutionary methods towards nutrition and discipline, and encouraging his sides to play out from the back. A promotion with Swindon Town and a good spell at Chelsea, was enough for the F.A. to name Hoddle the England manager at the age of 38 – the youngest appointment in their history. Although some questioned his man management skills, many of Glenn Hoddle’s former players him still regard him as the best coach they played under. And that is all down to Monaco and Arsene Wenger.
League titles won: 3 (Ligue 1 – 1989/90, 1990/91, 1991/92)
From one half of an iconic 80’s pop duo to the other, Chris Waddle‘s £4.5 million move from Tottenham to Marseille in 1989 made him the third most expensive player in the world at the time – only Ruud Gullit and Diego Maradona cost more. After struggling to acclimatise in the first 3 months, Waddle’s love affair with France soon brought success after success. ‘Magic Chris’ as he was known by the Marseille fans, was part of a superb front three that also consisted of Jean Pierre Papin and Abedi Pele. Marseille stormed to the French league title in three consecutive seasons while Waddle was there, making the stylish winger the most popular man in the city; there are stories that French police would allow him to park where he liked, ripping up his parking tickets and keeping them as souvenirs.
After Italia ’90, new England manager, Graham Taylor, only played Waddle 3 times while he was in France. It seems absolutely crazy now to think that an attacking player of Waddle’s calibre – who won the league ever year that he was over there – was not used more in a struggling England side. Marseille even reached the European Cup final during this period, unfortunately losing on penalties in the 1991 final to Red Star Belgrade. It was no surprise that Waddle wasn’t up for taking one, as the pain of the World Cup shootout still lingered less than 12 months later. He moved to the Premier League and Sheffield Wednesday in 1992, with the blessing of his adoring French fans. It has to be said that Chris Waddle is one of the greatest English imports to play in Europe, and the fact that Marseille fans voted him their second best player of the 20th century is testament to that.
League title wins: 1 (Ligue 1 – 1991/92)
In Waddle’s final season at the Stade Velodrome, he was joined by former England teammate, Trevor Steven. In a £5.5 million move that was the joint-highest fee involving a British player (shared with David Platt), Steven’s time in Marseille would be best described as short but sweet. Within months of the midfielder’s arrival there was reports that the club were in financial difficulty and were prepared to sell him back to his former club Glasgow Rangers at a knocked down price. However, the unsettling rumours didn’t affect the playing side of Steven’s life in France, and he had a key role in Marseille’s 1992 league title win, before being sold back to Rangers for just £2.4 million. Like I said, short but sweet.
It’s worth noting that at the end of that season, Trevor Steven was named in England’s Euro ’92 squad, whereas Chris Waddle was left out for Aston Villa‘s Tony Daley. How the Three Lions could have done with both Marseille players that tournament…
Club: Real Madrid
League title wins: 2 (La Liga – 2000/01, 2002/03)
In 1999, Steve McManaman became one of the first high profile players to run down his contract and move for free on the Bosman ruling, much to the dismay of Liverpool fans. His free transfer to Real Madrid allowed him to obtain a contract in the region of £60,000 a week – one of the highest wages in the world at the time. McManaman quickly embraced the Spanish lifestyle and became a favourite with the fans, winning the supporters’ player of the year twice during his period at Madrid. His versatility allowed him to fill in anywhere throughout midfield.
After a successful first year, where his side beat Valencia 3-0 in the 2000 Champions League final (in which he scored), McManaman was nearly sold in the summer as the manager and board wanted to cash in following the world record signing of Luis Figo. This was very much against the will of his teammates and fans, who protested until he was given the chance to regain his place in the side. The winger grabbed it with both hands, in the end playing a major part in their Spanish league title win of 2001. Although McManaman’s appearances began to reduce slightly in his two remaining years at the club, he still won another Champions League and La Liga title before leaving in 2003. Like many others on this list, McManaman lost his England place whilst playing abroad, with Sven Goran Eriksson surprisingly leaving him out of the World Cup 2002 squad, despite his Champions League win. ‘The versatile Englishman” as he was known, is listed as a club legend on the Real website, fondly remembered by fans for his strong work ethic and his ability to turn it on when it mattered in big games. Not a bad legacy for ‘Macca’ to leave behind.
Club: Bayern Munich
League title wins: 4 (Bundesliga – 2000/01, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2005/06)
Born in Canada to a Welsh mother, Owen Hargreaves chose to play for England due to his father’s nationality. Signing for Bayern Munich at the age of 16, Hargreaves is the only player on this list who did not start his career in England. Despite severe homesickness in his early days in Germany, he persevered with his dream of making the grade and his talent was eventually rewarded with a swift rise to first team. In his first season as a professional (2000/01), the midfielder won the Bundesliga and Champions League, forcing his way into the starting line-up towards the end of the campaign. Hargreaves went on to win the German league title four times, before his departure to Manchester United in 2007.
Unfortunately, injuries always played a part throughout his career, culminating in a broken leg while at Munich in 2007, which he never really recovered from. Luckily for Hargreaves, he had won every possible trophy in Germany before he was affected too much, adding the Premier League and another Champions League trophy during his only full season at United in 2008. Owen Hargreaves’ success at Bayern Munich was the reason he was picked by England at three major tournaments between 2002-06, but above all else it showed that starting your career in Europe can be a wise decision when at the right club.
Club: Real Madrid
League title wins: 2 (La Liga – 2006/07, Ligue 1 – 2012/13)
Probably one of the most famous football faces of the last 25 years, David Beckham was already a world superstar before he left Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2003. The England captain was the latest signing of the Galacticos era; a period where president Florentino Perez would buy global stars every summer. Despite huge expectations, the midfielder’s time at the Bernabeu wasn’t as successful as he’d have liked, with only one La Liga title triumph, coming in his final season of 2006/07. Beckham was much more than a player on the field for Real, with his profile increasing the club’s merchandise profits every year he was there. He left in 2007 to join MLS side LA Galaxy.
In January of 2013, it was announced that Beckham would join Paris Saint Germain on five-month loan deal, with his entire salary (believed to be over £200k a week) being donated to a local children’s charity. Shortly after winning the French league title in May, Beckham decided to retire, with his final game coming the following weekend against Brest. He was made captain for the match and was subbed in the 80th minute, receiving a standing ovation from fans and players alike. Lifting the Ligue 1 title that night was a fitting farewell to a wonderful career which spanned 21 years and 5 countries.
FELLOW BRITS ABROAD
There are also five more players from the rest of Great Britain who have won a league title medal in the aforementioned leagues. Arguably the two greatest Welsh players of all time lead the way, with the great John Charles winning Serie A three times for Juventus in 1958, 1960 and 1961, and Gareth Bale lifting the La Liga trophy for Real Madrid surprisingly just the once in 2017. Three Scots complete the line-up; Steve Archibald won La Liga for Barcelona in 1985, Alan McInally achieved Bundesliga success with Bayern Munich in 1990 and John Collins lifted the Ligue 1 trophy with Monaco in 1997.
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