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Jordan Brown on the appeal of the Bundesliga - and the challenge
Jadon Sancho is one of many English youngsters now in Germany
Last Updated: 13/02/19 5:18pm
With English youngsters increasingly looking to Germany for their opportunities, Adam Bate spoke to former West Ham youngster Jordan Brown to find out more about his experiences at Hannover 96. Life abroad brings its challenges but it can be rewarding...
Jadon Sancho returns to England with Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday evening as a star. He will line up against Tottenham at Wembley not only as a senior international but as one of the standout performers in the Bundesliga. His talent was never in doubt but nor is the fact that it was his ambitious move to Germany that accelerated his development.
Sancho is not alone. His childhood friend Reiss Nelson made a stunning start to his spell at Hoffenheim, on loan from Arsenal. In the January transfer window, Emile Smith Rowe joined RB Leipzig on a temporary basis, while Reece Oxford returned to the Bundesliga with Augsburg. All are hugely talented and all see Germany as the best place to progress.
Jordan Brown recognised that quicker than most. A team-mate of Oxford's at West Ham, he made his senior debut in the Europa League in 2015 at the age of 18. But by the end of that season, one spent stagnating playing U23 football, he had come to the realisation that his prospects might be better overseas and signed a contract with Hannover 96.
"There have been lots since but I was one of the first to go out there," Brown tells Sky Sports. "What made me explore it was the opportunity to play. I would never have thought about it if the situation at West Ham was perfect. I just felt I needed to play more competitive football.
West Ham vs Fulham
February 22, 2019, 7:00pm
"You have to remember that I had been playing in those U23 games straight out of school in my first year as a scholar. I was scoring goals too. So without getting ahead of myself I knew I could play at that level. You want to keep taking steps as a young player but I felt I had already taken that step. The next one had to be to leave or to play in the first team.
"The problem is that it's hard to get into a Premier League first team. I wanted to do what was best for my future and that was Germany. I was still playing U23 football but it was in the lower leagues so you are playing against men. It actually counts for something. Players were moving up from that league all the time so I knew it was possible to do well there."
Opportunity is the recurring theme with these youngsters. "The only way I could guarantee that was in Germany," insists Brown. But there are other factors involved too. The quality of coaching in German football is very high, not just at the top level but throughout the system. Despite spending time at Arsenal and West Ham, Brown noticed the difference.
"The basis of the football there is very similar and the talent pool is very similar but the philosophy and the mentality is very different," he explains. "The tactical ideas they have are different. In England if you are very good then they let you just be good but in Germany they want to mould you. They try to simplify the game for you.
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"The attitude in Germany is that you can be the best player in the world on the ball but if you are not doing what they want off the ball then you simply won't play. There are training sessions without the ball where they explain that if the ball goes here then you are expected to go there. In England, I never did that. You just do what you do and it's almost random.
"When I was playing up front for West Ham, I was leading the line and pressing but I was basically just pressing the person nearest to me. If someone is there you close them. It was only when I went to Germany that I realised that maybe wasn't the cleverest idea. You are wasting energy if you are not pressing as a team. That is what they do."
Brown, who was at Arsenal from the age of eight to 16, expresses surprise that someone like Mesut Ozil was able to flourish in that environment. "He is the opposite of what German football is about so it's a testament to his ability that he made it out there." Brown's own time at Hannover was not straightforward either despite a healthy record in front of goal.
"For me, it was a mixed bag," he admits. "When I played I did well but there were too many times I didn't play. I tried to find out the answers because when I played I scored so it was confusing. In the end, I came to realise that some of it was out of my hands and some of it was in my hands. I know that I could have improved more off the ball.
"There were issues off the pitch because they wanted to push others. Players would come down from the first team because they weren't playing or maybe they were coming back from an injury so needed to get match fit. They ended up playing ahead of me. I'd say 95 per cent of the time I didn't play it was because a first-team player had come down."
It is a reminder that the Bundesliga is not necessarily a panacea for those young players going off in search of minutes. "If you have the right platform and the right hype behind your name then you have more chance of prospering out there," he adds. "But if you go out there without that then you can end up restricting yourself."
Even so, the move to Germany helped in other ways. It forced him to grow up. It focused the mind. "Everything was different. I am from London and had only ever played for London clubs so I was in a bubble. You can get comfortable because you have everything you need. You are around family and friends and earning decent money for your age.
"But when you go away from home it is pure work. All you think about is football. All that goes through your head is how football has gone today. I would always recommend that at some point in a young person's career because I think that's the fastest way to grow as a person and a player."
After a brief sojourn in Czech football, Brown is now embarking on a new adventure. He will feature in the inaugural Canadian Premier League for Cavalry FC based in Alberta. The cold weather is a concern but everything else about the project excites him and this globetrotting young footballer clearly has no regrets about the path he is on.
"Most young British players drop down to the lower leagues and then look to build themselves up from there but I would rather go to Canada," he says. "That is a top-tier league and the infrastructure is good. They have the best prehab and rehab facilities. The sports science is there to help you become the ultimate athlete."
He adds: "In my eyes the project is very exciting so if you haven't got anything that excites you in the UK then do it. You just have to embrace it." That's the intrepid spirit that is now guiding the decisions of some of the most talented young players in England. Not all of them will make it to the top like Sancho. But it's the sort of attitude that can surely only help.