By John Jones
When Ryan Giggs announced his Wales squad for the upcoming games against Albania and Denmark a fortnight ago, an unfamiliar face featured alongside the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.
The shock inclusion of centre-back James Lawrence left many Welsh fans scratching their heads and immediately consulting Google, as the 26-year old was unheard of to fans of the British domestic leagues, and had seemingly not been involved in the national setup at any age level.
The bemusement of Wales’ supporters is hardly surprising, however, as Lawrence currently plays his club football for R.S.C. Anderlecht in Belgium, and, prior to this, has certainly not had a conventional footballing career.
Born in Henley-on-Thames, Lawrence qualifies for Wales through his Haverfordwest-born grandmother. After starting his career in the youth systems at both Arsenal and QPR, a family move to the Netherlands saw a teenage Lawrence get snapped up by HFC Haarlem, before moving to Dutch giants Ajax a year later.
Under the guidance of childhood hero and Arsenal legend Dennis Bergkamp, Lawrence grew in both confidence and skill, and, after two years in the club’s youth set up, made his senior debut for Slovakian outfit AS Trenčin, where he won a league and cup double in his first season, before repeating this feat the following year.
Lawrence was quick to cement his place in the first team at Trenčin, and some impressive performances over his 86 appearances for the club earned him a summer move to an Anderlecht side who currently sit fourth in the Belgian First Division.
As a commanding centre-back who is also comfortable with the ball at his feet, Lawrence suits Giggs’ fast-flowing style of play perfectly, and the Wales boss is excited to have him on board.
“He’s obviously gone under the radar” Giggs said after his squad announcement. “But, he’s someone who fits the profile of how I want to play [and] he’s playing regularly at a very good club. It will be good to see him up close”.
Despite the surprise surrounding his call-up, Lawrence is not the only member of the Welsh squad currently playing their club football outside of the UK. Teenager Matthew Smith, who made his full international debut against Mexico earlier this year, signed for FC Twente on a season-long loan this summer after impressing for Manchester City’s youth side, whilst Gareth Bale has won La Liga and four Champions League titles since becoming a Galactico in 2013.
Meanwhile, across the border, Jadon Sancho’s exciting displays for Borussia Dortmund, since his £8 million move from City last year, were finally rewarded with a senior England call-up in October, whilst promising young talent Reiss Nelson and Sheyi Ojo are spending this season developing their game on loan at 1899 Hoffenheim and Stade Reims respectively.
The reasons for this growing trend seem plentiful. Most obviously, playing outside of the domestic leagues gives developing players a more rounded experience both on and off the pitch, and forces them to incorporate new skills into their overall game.
“It’s a different way of living, a different culture, a different way of playing football” Smith mused in an interview with the BBC. “I’m seeing the world, and I’m seeing football in a different way to many people as well”. The same can be said for Lawrence, who contends that his “very educational” time at Ajax took his game “to another level”, and helped prepare him for life in Slovakia and Belgium.
Furthermore, switching to foreign leagues also ensures that these players do not fall foul of overhyping by the British media, that has often hampered the careers of emerging talent, who fail to live up to the pressure that these swollen expectations places on their shoulders.
Instead, players like Lawrence have been allowed to develop their game and achieve league success without being immediately thrown into the spotlight. “To me the decisions were easy in moving to Europe, playing for the [Slovakian] champions, winning the double and playing in European competition. In England, there’s no way I would be doing that”.
Ultimately, however, young loanees like Smith, share the dream of breaking into the first team at their parent clubs. Whilst often pushed out in favour of multi-million-pound marquee signings – Smith would be competing with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva at City – playing abroad has allowed the young Welshman to get noticed, and subsequently turn out four times for his country, before even making an appearance for his club’s senior side.
“If this is a pathway to the first team at Manchester City then fantastic, but, if not, then I have to consider what’s best for me, and what is my best route to success. I’ve still got a long way to go, so I want loads more first team minutes and loads more caps”.
Both Smith and Lawrence will be hoping for an opportunity to shine in front of a home crowd against Denmark on 16th November, before facing Albania four days later. Regardless of their performances, it seems clear that, as Giggs’ tenure continues, he will continue to look to youth and to the continental leagues for talent.