Sunday, February 26, 2012

Playing Differences from Country to Country - Part Three: Football in the UK

Playing in the UK was certainly a different experience to Norway in many ways and I enjoyed many aspects of living there. I was really lucky to get the chance to play in Scotland my first year in Europe and then England the following year. Playing in Scotland was certainly an interesting time for me. It was my first year away from home and living in the small town of Ayr, I was a very long way from where I grew up in Canada; and suddenly surrounded by a lifestyle that I was not at all used to. Although one would think that I’d feel more at home in an English speaking country compared to a non-English speaking place, I would say that I felt just as foreign there as I do now. I was the only foreign player not just on my team, but also in my entire club.

I joined the club when I was 17 and I was a part of the U19 squad at Ayr United. The set-up at Ayr was good, we had a lot of interaction with the First team and we would train with them on a regular basis. Because of the team I was on, things were very competitive; U19 is last step before making the first team and the boys were very aware of this fact. When I first came into the club the players were not very welcoming to me and I can understand why. I remember the first day I came to the club, a coach took me into the dressing room of the U19 team and introduced me, “Alright boys, this is Robbie Tice from Canada. He’s in on trial with the first team this week and he’s here to take your places.” As I’m sure you’ve guessed, that really didn’t help my case with making friends, because I instantly had a target on my back! It definitely took me a little while to adjust to style of Scottish football after growing up in Canada. It’s very physical and you usually have little, to no time on the ball. At that point in time I was still primarily playing as a Striker and I was scoring a lot of goals. I believe I improved a lot during my year there as a player and a person. It was a good experience and a good place for me to get my start in Europe.

The facilities in the UK are usually far from glamorous. In North America, there is a common belief that every professional football club is worth millions and clubs are rolling in money. However only the Premier League clubs usually have top class facilities, and most lower division side clubs don’t have much extra cash. Ayr United play in Somerset Park, a stadium that is over 100 years old! There are seats in one stand and terracing on the remaining three sides of the ground; this is pretty typical for a First or Second Division Scottish team. At the time I signed, the club was supposed to be building a brand new stadium, but almost 4 years later this is still yet to happen. I believe the club was hit hard financially during the recession, as were many other British football clubs. Due to the history of younger players paying their dues in the UK, you often hear stories of young trainees at the professional clubs cleaning the first team players boots and doing other tasks like this. You also hear many stories of the first team players finding ways to put the young players in their places and I wondered if I would ever face any of those situations. I stood out at the club a great deal, because I was the only foreign player and I thought that this was going to cause me some problems at some point. Luckily for me I was accepted by all the players and even the first team players were very welcoming to me eventually. In fact, the first team players actually treated me better than the players on the U19 team. I liked being around the first team players and tried to learn as much from them as I possibly could in training. I certainly got used to being made fun of every time that I opened my mouth, but this never really bothered me, I knew it could have been much worse. Nothing really bad ever happened to me, or any of the other youth team players, but the First team certainly tried to make a point of who was boss a few times. I remember one time returning from training to find that all of our (the U19 team’s) clothing was tied together in a line from one wall to another in the changing room. My clothes and underwear were on a stuffed panda mascot in the middle of the room, and a few unlucky players found their clothes soaked in the shower. There was a particular reason that the first team decided to do this, but I can’t recall exactly what we had done. But whatever it was we certainly didn’t try to do it again. All in all, my experience in Scotland was a good one. It helped me continue to grow into the player I am today and I don’t regret my time there in any way. I have many fun memories of spending my days at Somerset Park in Ayr.

My experience in England was very similar to my experience in Scotland. The lifestyle and the style of football is more or less the same. I found that in England it was very difficult to gain the respect of English coaches and players, I guess because I was a foreign player and because I’m Canadian. Many of the players were very ignorant and assumed just because I didn’t come up through the system in England, I wasn’t going to be a good player. Luckily for me, I let my playing do the talking and showed that I belonged there every time I stepped out onto the field. In England, they like big, strong, physical players. There isn’t much emphasis on technical skills in most clubs and I found that sometimes being an athletic player would make some to consider you being a good player; which I think is far from the truth. Having said that I was lucky to develop my game in a very good environment there. I spent the season training with Crewe Alexandra FC, which is one of the top clubs in the country for developing players. As a teenager, the club became like home to me, because I spent time there almost every summer in high school training with the youth teams; and then spent a season training there in 2009/2010, while also playing for Nantwich Town FC. So by the time I did actually move to England full-time, I knew what to expect for the most part. Nantwich Town FC is a small club close to Crewe, which also acts like a farm team for the young players at Crewe Alexandra at times. Living in Crewe was an interesting experience, somewhat similar to living in Ayr. Crewe is historically an industrial town and the some of the people in the town itself, tend to be a bit rough around the edges. I think living in Ayr helped prepare me for this because it was very different to lifestyle I was used to back home in Canada. It was sort of a hard place for me to fit in, but I found a way to make myself blend in and become part of the community.

Drinking surrounds the football culture in England and Scotland. To my surprise many of the top players would regularly go out to the pubs and drink heavily. In my opinion the two shouldn’t mix, if you want to be a top player you should leave the drinking to the fans. But this is just the way of life in the UK; football and drinking go hand in hand. I would often see kids as young as 12 or 13 drinking on the street corner on a typical evening, just because they had nothing better to do. Touching on the education side of things, the players are unfortunately too focused on their football and for the most part don’t put any effort into their education. Most of the good young players that I met figured they could get away with completely ignoring school, or at least doing the bare minimum, because of their success on the football field. Unfortunately this causes many players there to be left in bad life situations at the end of their football careers, because they have nothing to fall back on. The fans in the UK are extremely passionate and truly love their football clubs. Following the clubs is more than just a hobby for some, it can be a way of life. There is a lot of tradition surrounding all of the football clubs in the UK, with most of the clubs being over 100 years. Because of this you see many people that are truly fans for life, because they’re brought up around the football club from a very young age. So as you can guess, people take football very seriously there, sometimes too seriously.

I hope you've enjoyed my latest blog posts on the different countries I've played so far. They have all been truly unique in their own ways. In all of the places that I’ve played, I think I’ve been able to take certain pieces of what I’ve learned and add them to my game, making me the player I am now. I’ve also made many great friends, and had many fantastic experiences and memories over the past couple of years. There have also been many hard and difficult times that I’ve had to overcome, but these experiences have all been very important in shaping who I am today. I look forward to the future and to experiencing any other places that the game takes me.

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