By Jared Bomba
I, like most everyone that has played a significant amount of soccer, can recall moments in which I was frustrated with my teammates. Particularly as a youth player, I remember moments of such great irritation that I broke what I consider the cardinal rule of never lashing out at a teammate. Maybe I even wished that I had suited up for the opposition. Some of those moments can be attributed to the willy-nilly path I took through the youth stages of my career, either playing with a group of players below my skill level or in a league far above my abilities. In such cases, it was necessary to move on to a different setting.
The habit of looking for greener pastures is an ever-growing trend, be it at the school, club, Sunday league, or professional level. I understand that personal development, and at the higher levels money, play an important and understandable role in deciding where to play one’s footy. But if you’re playing at a level appropriate for yourself and the team that you’re on, maybe think twice before moving to another club.
The best teams are made of players that know and embrace their role on the team, a process that does not happen overnight. Consider the years spent playing on both a high school team and a club team. In my experience, players typically enjoyed playing on their school team more, despite the fact that it typically meant playing with inferior players. And the people that enjoyed their club experience more, did so because they were with their club long enough to have some level of identification with the club, not to mention the players and people that the club consisted of.
My college team had a pretty intense rivalry with another school that was very similar academically, geographically, and in quality of soccer. Looking back I recognize that the players on their squad were of comparative quality to my own teammates, but it always seemed as though my school came out on top, particularly in big games. As more time passes it becomes more and more clear that our ascendancy was a product of the relationships and familiarity in our program. While they constantly struggled with players quitting, walking off the field mid-match, and generally lacking chemistry, we seemed to avoid the petty issues that can tear a team apart. Players found their niche and were glad to be part of something.
There are differences between school and club teams, especially the fact that leaving a high school or college team is a bigger undertaking than switching club teams. With school teams, some would argue, you are more or less forced to like your teammates. Be that as it may, the merits of staying with one club rather than being a mercenary manifest in the club sphere as well.
A teammate and one of my best friends in college played for a couple different club teams growing up and was pretty successful at the national level as a club player. He went on to be a stellar college player, but he admittedly never had the most intense love for the game. Furthermore, he didn’t have fond memories, or in some cases any memory at all of teammates from various clubs. How much of that is due to personal disposition is hard to tell, but he enjoyed his football most and played his best in a setting with familiar teammates.
All of that being said, changing clubs is not inherently wrong. I still feel as though a change of club would have afforded me better competition and training during the critical years of my development as a player. During my college career, I definitely felt that my pace of play was slower than some of my better-groomed teammates, and I wonder how much better I could have been had I chosen a different club. However, my path allowed me to play three sports and I believe retain a greater love for the game. I don’t have any big regrets and I would guess that my aforementioned friend does not either, but we both sacrificed something.
Another teammate and friend of mine probably found the best balance, as he played for just one club all the way through his youth career, and experienced less success but left with more positive memories due to the relationships he built and the important role he created for himself in that team. He never lost his love for the game, developed into a good college player, and still has positive memories of the sport and his years playing it. Ultimately, each situation is different, and varying objectives call for different decisions. But if you find yourself in a position where neither chemistry nor development is sacrificed, don’t take it for granted.
Money makes the professional world different even than youth clubs, but identifying with one’s own club is no less important. Many people would point to Barcelona, where the likes of Messi, Iniesta, and Busquets have built an empire with their home club. However, Barcelona is somewhat irrelevant to this concept because being happy at the Camp Nou is easy; you win, the fans love you, and you are known the world over. A better example is the rise of Tottenham, where players like Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Dele Alli, Kyle Walker, and Danny Rose all have a strong personal connection to the club. Even transferred players like Hugo Lloris and Christian Eriksen have entered the fold. As you watch the Lilywhites play, two things become obvious: 1.) the rise in class at the club is undeniable, and 2.) the players clearly like each other. Only time will tell, but I hope they recognize the value of playing at such a high level in a team where they are not only pushed to their potential but also get regular first-team football.
Rumors of Kane leaving for football giants like Real Madrid swirl seemingly every week, and the allure of such an enormous stage is understandable. Furthermore, Tottenham players have a decent track record at the Estadio Bernabeu as both Gareth Bale and Luka Modric have successfully moved into La Liga. But even Bale seems to have suffered to some degree in the Spanish capital, and the fans there will likely never take to him as they did in North London. Jermaine Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor both left Tottenham in recent seasons, and I can’t imagine that either of them have seen their careers, wallets, or happiness benefit from the move. Obviously, there is danger and uncertainty in the unknowns of transferring.
Still, the case for promising young players moving to big clubs has relevance. Messi probably never becomes Messi if he doesn’t leave his native Argentina as a homesick 12-year-old. Cristiano Ronaldo’s path to the top of the game took its first big leap when he moved to Manchester United. Central PA’s Christian Pulisic has seen his career leap forward for both club and country since his move to Borussia Dortmund. But regardless, players like Memphis Depay, who have struggled after their big-money move, are not to be blamed for their ambition. One can only hope they understand the risks and maybe realize the wisdom of returning to familiar fields if the move doesn’t work out.
Swansea City’s Leon Britton is an interesting example of such wisdom. Britton, an Arsenal and West Ham youth, was highly regarded as a youngster and made his senior debut for Swansea in 2002 as a 19-year-old. He remained at Swansea until 2010, helping the Swans avoid relegation out of League Two and gain promotion to the Championship during his time there. In 2010 he refused a new contract with the Welsh club, and signed for Sheffield United as a free agent at the age of 28, citing the need for a new challenge. However, he never flourished at Sheffield and returned to Swansea in January 2011, when he told the BBC "it was a mistake and I should never have left Swansea."
Ironically, his return to Swansea saw the Swans gain promotion into the English Premier League for the first time in club history. He has remained a mainstay in the team’s midfield ever since as the club has remained in the EPL for five straight seasons, finishing as high as eighth in 2014-15. Britton can be forgiven for looking for a new challenge, as so many players before him have done. However, his realization of what the club meant to his career not only returned him to the place where he is loved by fans on familiar ground, but also took him to footballing heights he may have once accepted as out of reach. Seems to check all of the boxes, and I’d be surprised to see him leave of his own accord.
So instead of switching or ditching your current club, consider the value of what you have. There are good reasons to change clubs, certainly; many players would never find a home or their full potential without moving. But the greatest achievement may be reaching new heights with the mates you’ve already got.