BY KEVIN O’NEILL
The recent announcement that former England international Joleon Lescott had joined the Greek giants AEK Athens on a two-year contract brought forward, yet again, the long-running issue of why, generally, British footballers seem to struggle on foreign shores.
Granted, there have been some notable exceptions to the general rule, with the likes of David Beckham and Steve McManaman, in Madrid, John Charles (Italy), and Hoddle and Waddle (AS Monaco and Olympique Marseille respectively), leaving undeniable legacies in their chosen continental locations.
But Greek football, where Lescott (a two-time Premier League winner with Manchester City) finds himself – having endured the most horrific season of a 16-year career when getting relegated with a painfully inept Aston Villa side – has never been too kind to British players.
ForÂ every Roy Carroll and Luke Steele, who have been somewhat surprise success stories in recent years with the traditional top-two Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, there has been a Mark Robins or Micky Quinn, who unfortunately number among a sizeable band of British players to have found life in Greece and, more pertinently, in the country’s volatile and often unstable football industry, is more likely to lead to a briefly enjoyable but ultimately frustrating sojourn rather than an extended stay in the sun.
Quinn, for example, scored 17 goals for Coventry City in the maiden season of the English Premier League (1992/93), and had previously enjoyed good spells with Newcastle United (where he scored 39 goals in a single season) and with Portsmouth, among others.
But by the summer of 1995, having fallen down the Highfield Road pecking order and suffering a couple of unproductive loan spells, the Liverpool-born striker found himself without a club and pretty much bereft of suitors until an unexpected phone call came his way from an official of the PAOK Salonika club in northern Greece.
PAOK is one of only three clubs (along with Aris Thessaloniki and Larissa) outside of the Athens big-three (Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens) to have won the Greek top-flight since its inception in the late 1920s, and they would enjoy a real peak era in the mid-seventies and mid-eighties when claiming the League title and the Greek Cup (twice in both cases).
Those PAOK teams would be inspired by the club’s greatest ever servant and long-serving captain, Giorgos Koudas, who appeared in the black and white of PAOK on over 500 occasions.
But by the time Quinn had been recruited, Koudas and his talented comrades were long gone – and their replacements, in most cases, had simply not been of the same calibre.
Instead, PAOK – most definitely the largest and most well supported side in the country’s north – began to fall behind their more powerful domestic opponents.
And despite nearly always maintaining a place in the top-five in the league, between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, they had been nowhere near replicating the feats of Koudas and his team-mates during a rather dull and unspectacular period in the club’s history.
In Quinn, a goalscorer of some repute in England, PAOK felt that the eye-catching free transfer might help reignite their faltering image. For Quinn, the necessity of earning a good wage (rather than sitting idlyÂ at home) would be the greatest motivating factor in his decision to move abroad. The excitement, too, of trying to prove himself in a different environment would also help persuade Quinn to give it a go.
But after a satisfying start to his adventure, under the management of Dutch legend Arie Haan, it never really worked for Quinn and PAOK. And after only eight months on Greek soil, he returned to England, feeling fed-up and frustrated by managerial changes (PAOK would flit through four different managers in the season), unpaid wages, and the hostility of some supporters in Greek football.
In Quinn’s defence, he would manage a reasonable return of goals in his short stay, netting seven times in 15 games. But in an interview with Sky Sports’ Adam Bate three years ago, looking back on his time in Greece, Quinn described the standard of football in the Greek top-flight as ‘dire, slow and laborious’, and a far cry from the fast-paced, in-your-face English game.
“There were 70 passes before you even crossed the halfway line. You’d get one chance (as a striker) and if you missed it, you’d be slaughtered in the newspapers,” Quinn said.
A few years before Quinn’s arrival, his fellow English striker Mike Small had also played for PAOK, for about 18 months.
Until then, the Birmingham-born targetman had a very nomadic career, representing Go Ahead Eagles and NAC Breda (both in Holland) and Standard Liege, in Belgium, before a decent spell with Vitesse Arnhem back in Holland.
In one-and-a-half seasons in Greece, Small would play in 31 matches, scoring nine times, but in his only full season with PAOK the team laboured through a poor league campaign by their standards, to finish in eighth position. They had won the league title for only the second time in their history three years earlier.
In the following season (1989/90), PAOK’s league finish would improve to third. But by then, Small had departed for Brighton & Hove Albion. Later, Small would enjoy some success with West Ham United but his playing career dwindled thereafter, with the physically imposing striker spending the years before his retirement in the Republic of Ireland with Derry City and Sligo Rovers.
In fact, it was when Small played for Sligo in 1984, that I, as a 14-year-old, bumped in to him on the street, some hours before Sligo had been scheduled to play against my hometown team, Athlone Town, in a League of Ireland match.
As a teenager obsessed with football, I immediately recognised Small, who I recall (for some strange reason) had been eating a green apple.
That, however, would be pretty much the last I heard about Small, as his contribution to Irish football would be minimal and short-lived – similar, it must be said, to the existence of that green apple.
Other English strikers to experiment, briefly, in Greek football include the former Chelsea player, Tommy Langley (AEK Athens) and ex-Manchester United attacker, Mark Robins (Panionios). But between them, they would muster less than 20 games – and just two goals (both scored by Robins in the 1998/99 season).
In contrast to their fortunes, the Scottish striker, Craig Brewster would move to Greece in 1996, having allowed his contract to run its course at Dundee United, for whom he scored the winning goal in the Scottish Cup final against Rangers in 1994.
Brewster not only managed to settle in Greece with Ionikos – staying there five years and playing in the Greek Cup final (which Ionikos lost against AEK Athens) – but the Scot would also be voted the club’s best ever overseas signing in a poll taken by supporters.
Indeed, Brewster’s lasting impact at the club would almost see him take over as manager a few years ago, having left his position with Dundee United, but the deal would break down at a very late stage. Instead, Brewster’s managerial career would remain confined to Scotland and a stint down south with Crawley Town.
It looked for a while, too, that the English striker, Matt Derbyshire would emulate – and maybe even better – Brewster’s impact in Greece, as not long after signing with Olympiakos – the current major force in Greek football – Derbyshire would etch his name in club folklore with an outstanding impact, as a half-time substitute, in the 2009 Greek Cup final.
Derbyshire – on loan at that point from Blackburn Rovers – had been introduced with his team trailing 2-0 against AEK Athens.
But within three minutes of entering the fray he scored to bring Olympiakos back in the game. The Brazilian midfielder Dudu Caerense then levelled matters in the 72nd minute.
With the prospect of extra-time on the horizon, AEK scored what everyone felt would be the winning goal, through Ignacio Scocco in the 90th minute.
Yet, there would be more drama when Derbyshire bravely headed home an equaliser six minutes into injury-time.
Olympiakos would eventually win the match after a penalty shoot-out and Derbyshire would soon become known as The English Killer; a title that came his way after netting the only goal of yet another tempestuous Olympiakos/Panathinaikos Derby in early 2010.
It all seemed to be going perfectly in Greece for Derbyshire who signed a permanent deal with Olympiakos in June 2009.
But then a new manager, Ernesto Valverde, arrived to the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, and he quickly decided the former Blackburn hitman was not in his plans.
And so, having burst on the scene in Greece and making himself a hero with the Olympiakos fans, Derbyshire’s Greek adventure had concluded after only 20 months.
He was on his way back to England, initially to join Birmingham City on loan, before signing permanently for Nottingham Forest, in the summer of 2012.
Having never really settled anywhere since, Derbyshire currently finds himself in Cypriot football with Omonia Nicosia.
Olympiakos though, would hold another British player in their hearts soon after, as the former Manchester United goalkeeper Roy Carroll became something of a cult hero at the club. Having initially shone in Greece for OFI Crete, Carroll would be snapped up by Olympiakos primarily as back-up goalkeeper.
And although Carroll would play only 20 games for Olympiakos, he would always do so in authoritative fashion, and when he finally returned to Britain in 2014 with Notts County, he did so with three Greek league titles and two Greek Cup winners’ medals in his glove-bag.
Both Carroll and Derbyshire had been preceded in the Olympiakos ranks by the former’s fellow Northern Irishman Derek Spence, a centre-forward who played 21 times for the red and whites, scoring six times, before cutting short his Greek odyssey to sign for Blackpool in 1978.
Another striker, this time Nathan Ellington, would – like the aforementioned Derbyshire – enjoy a fairly productive loan period in Greece with Skoda Xanthi (from Watford), scoring more or less a goal in every other game in a 16-game stay.
Ellington would return to England at the end of the loan, however, to join Ipswich Town, making his experience in the Mediterranean short and sweet. But while with Skoda Xanthi, he would be joined, for a period, by another ex-Watford player Jordan Stewart,who also never hung about for too long, leaving at the end of his one and only season in Greece to play for Millwall (Stewart now features for San Jose Earthquakes in the United States).
There have been many other British players to have sampled life in Greek football for very brief periods including the former Arsenal and Everton midfielder Trevor Ross (AEK Athens) in the mid-seventies, and, more recently, Darren Ambrose and Lee Cook (both Apollon Smyrni), and the Welsh left-back Gareth Roberts (Panionios). None of that quartet would manage more than 15 appearances in their time in Greece.
A couple of other players born in Africa but who moved to England at a young age, Aziz Deen-Conteh and Abdul Osman, are also probably worth mentioning for their spells in Greece, but the former’s time there would be minimal, as the Chelsea youth product Deen-Conteh played in less than ten matches for Ergotelis before moving to Port Vale.
Osman, who now plays for Partick Thistle in Scotland, would manage a full season in Greece, for Kerkyra, but would soon enough be back in England with Crewe Alexandra.
So, overall, it is fair to say that British players, generally speaking, have – apart from less than a handful of players – struggled to adapt to living and playing in Greece.
Yet, Lee Bullen – the former Sheffield Wednesday defender who played for Kalamata for two seasons – believes that Joleon Lescott, the man who inspired this piece in the first place, should have no problems adjusting to the Greek league, and suggested that AEK and Lescott, as perceived fading forces, might well be a match made in heaven.
“Joleon has made a brave decision to sample foreign football late in his career, and I think he should be applauded for doing so,” said Bullen, who is now part of the Sheffield Wednesday coaching staff.
“I know he had a tough season with Aston Villa but he has been a tremendous defender throughout his career, for Wolves, Everton and Manchester City. He has played for some big clubs in England, and has now been chosen by one of the very biggest in Greece. AEK Athens, themselves, had a tough time of it in recent years and, perhaps, both Lescott and AEK Athens have something to prove in the next couple of years,” he added.
Indeed, AEK Athens has been through the mire in recent times. With shocking financial difficulties gripping the club, it would spend two seasons outside of the Greek top division. Having initially been relegated to the second tier, the club took a decision not to take part at that level, instead opting to ‘self-relegate’ to the third tier, where AEK Athens would spend a season at ‘amateur’ status, in order to try to remedy the financial burden on the club’s aching shoulders. It had been some decline for a massive institution in Greek football, who had been the winners of eleven Greek league titles, and been their country’s first ever representatives in the UEFA Champions League group stages.
The decision to ‘self-relegate’ and regroup at a much lower level would work-out for the best, in the longer run, with AEK earning two straight promotions to return to the top-flight for the 2015/16 season. In their return season, in the highest tier, AEK would achieve a third place finish to qualify for the UEFA Europa League preliminary rounds. And to cap an admirable first season back among the big-boys, AEK would capture the Greek Cup by beating Olympiakos in the final. Since then, the former Newcastle United advertising-boarding smasher, Temuri Ketsbaia has taken over as team manager, and AEK (at writing) had got their current league season off to a winning start with a 4-1 victory against Xanthi in the opening fixture.
Lescott made his debut in that game, partneringÂ Vassilis Lambropoulos at the heart of the defence. The Portuguese striker Hugo Almeida would also make his first league appearance for AEK in that game, and made an instant impression by scoring twice.
Bullen said that he would expect Lescott to make his mark with AEK, but he also warned of the importance of getting to grips, as soon as possible, with the way of life in Greece and what the local people might expect from their footballers.
The Scotsman told The Football Pink: “It doesn’t matter where you come from – if you make an effort with the local people, players and fans, and try to adjust to their customs and language then you will find that Greek people are really fantastic. For example, I paid for my own Greek lessons and it was the best thing I ever did. The Greek people are very proud of their country, but are also quite guarded. But if you immerse yourself in the lifestyle, they really will welcome you with open arms.
“As a footballer, travelling to play and live in other countries is great education, while getting paid to do the job you love. In Greece, there are some very good players and teams, and the fans of all the clubs are fantastic; passionate, aggressive and very loud. But the big thing, for me, is to show the people that you are willing to get involved in the local culture, and if Joleon or any other player going to Greece can manage that, they should do fine,” he finished.