After switching from Manchester City reserves to Dutch outfit NAC Breda last summer, James Horsfield has urged more young British footballers to follow in his footsteps and make the move abroad.
Last season he helped Breda win promotion to the top flight and is now playing regular football and experiencing a new culture.
“The facts are that I wasn’t playing at City. And at 22 years of age I need to be playing regularly. I decided Breda was my best chance at achieving that,” says Horsfield.
Horsfield’s experience at City began in the academy, later working his way up to the blues’ Elite Development Squad (EDS), headed by former France international Patrick Vieira.
Here he honed his skills among talents like George Evans and Kelechi Iheanacho. Eventually he was included in the matchday squad to face Leicester in the 2015-16 season.
“Being involved that day gave me something to work towards. It made me think there might be an opportunity there for me, but it didn’t work out like that. I loved my time at City but I knew it was time to move not long after that.”
“I knew [when I was loaned here] last season that my situation at City might be changing. Breda has been on my mind since then.”
The 22-year-old is talking to me via Skype from his flat in Breda. It’s 11.15pm and a tired-looking Horsfield apologises for his tardiness – he’s an hour late four our face to face.
“I’m just home from training an hour ago and had to make dinner. Sorry pal,” he explains.
Manchester City have just answered the title-defining question, ‘can it be done it on a cold Monday night in Stoke?’ by winning 2-0 in the Potteries with two goals from David Silva. Horsfield is full of admiration for his former club.
“They’re incredible aren’t they? But do you know what? I’m just off the phone with my Dad and I’m like… I don’t know… Silva, I don’t think that little guy gets nearly the credit he deserves.
“He just glides across the pitch, cutting passes and bagging [scoring], and nobody bats an eyelid, really, because of how long he’s been doing it and he keeps a low profile.”
Sergio Aguero’s injury meant the Spaniard was to adopt the goal-scoring mantle – not for the first time.
And although adoration for their ‘21’ has always been evident, the City faithful’s whispers of ‘our greatest ever player’ have become increasingly distinct.
“I’d agree with them. He’s a completely different player to everyone on that team. I’d have him up there as the best ever, most definitely.”
A player of poise and panache that often sits below the precipice of individual awards. ‘What’s he like James?’ I asked.
“If I said quiet would you laugh?”
A new culture
Despite being alongside the likes of Silva, Horsfield felt he had to move. A six-month loan deal to the Eerste Divisie (second tier) was presented to James mid-way through the 2016-17 campaign.
That loan spell saw Horsfield play his part in the promotion of NAC Breda to the top flight of Dutch football, following a 5-1 aggregate thrashing of NEC Nijmegen in the play-off final. A feat the young man is very proud of.
“It’s the first time I’ve experienced anything like that. Winning promotion in that way and then parading the trophy around the city. It was a mad feeling. Something I’ve never felt before.
“It’s a massive club, I didn’t quite realise how big until that day. You saw how much it meant to the fans – it blew me away if i’m honest.”
‘I think lads get comfortable in England’
The defender’s professionalism and versatility saw him subsequently offered a three-year deal with the black and yellows, cementing a permanent move abroad and leaving his boyhood club behind — a challenge seldom pursued by young British footballers.
“Having been here last season and playing as well as we did, this was the move that made the most sense. [Not only] for me, but for my family and girlfriend as well.”
“I miss my family and girlfriend, of course, but they get why I came here. My girlfriend, comes to visit me every other weekend.”
A common theme in the Premier League is young players being brought through the system, but then unable to break into their respective first-teams. I asked James whether he’d recommend moving abroad to similarly struggling professionals.
“What I would say is that sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. I think lads get comfortable in England, it’s all there for you.
“You have to do very little for yourself. Moving to a different country, having to play a different style of football, different coaches, different language, different city — it all changes then.
“As a player, learning a different approach to football is useful I think. I’ve been at City pretty much my whole life and you get used to stuff. A change of scenery has been good for me.”
A recent UEFA study concluded that 69.2% of Premier League players were born overseas – a damning statistic for young British talent. However, despite not making the grade at City, James believes the completion of Manchester City’s £200 million-pound academy complex is an indication that the English powerhouse are progressing in a different direction.
“I think it’s something that’s wanted, from the club and the fans. The money they’ve spent across the bridge is evidence of that I think.
“That development squad is filled with talent. It’s just a case of finding the right time to bring them in. I’ve heard Mansour (City chairman) is keen to give the younger boys a platform. Pep’s been good for that in the past hasn’t he?”
When Pep Guardiola was appointed City manager at the start of the 2016/17 season Horsfield spent an invaluable pre-season under one of the most decorated managers in world football.
“As soon as we got there he was putting together that style of play you’re watching now.
“The first thing we did was learn how to switch the ball from the back. And he explains it to you. He breaks it down, why he wants this and that and why it works and how it will work and why you need to do this and the other thing.
“[In training] he’s pulling you up constantly during drills, telling you stuff like where you should be looking at this point and what to be aware of. You’re seeing the results of that hard work now.”
The ‘Pep Guardiola way’ has always been that of good football and harvesting young talent. Most recently he gave the 31st debut of his managerial career to local central midfielder Phil Foden.
“He looks like a Guardiola player doesn’t he?” declares Horsefield. “Good on the half turn, fine line passing. He’s from Manchester as well isn’t he? Good for him.”
Leaving the comfort zone
Although Guardiola often exhibits belief in raw talent City’s fixture at Burnley was overshadowed by controversy when injuries resulted in Guardiola naming only six substitutes when having the option of naming seven.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described the decision as “a joke”, suggesting the right thing was to give an EDS player the invaluable experience of first-team preparations.
“Yea I don’t know what’s happened there,” says Horsfield. “You’d think it was a perfect chance to give a younger lad a go but I don’t know. There’s obviously more to it than that.
“You’ve gotta think there was probably something behind it. He’s not forgot to give someone the nod has he?”
The prospect of a winter break is one that the FA and Premier League have flirted with in recent years and it’s a strategy adopted by most of the major European leagues.
“Obviously I’m biased; as a player. I don’t think anyone playing the game would choose to be at work across Christmas,” says Horsfield.
“It’s for the fans, it’s an English tradition the Boxing Day fixtures. And I get it. But players would for sure benefit from a break.
“It’s like any job I suppose, you need a bit of down time to refresh and reset.”
James’ first season of a three-year deal will come to an end in the coming months. NAC Breda currently sit seven points above the relegation zone with as many games still to contest.
What the extended future holds for our Brit abroad is still unclear.
However, within an increasingly coddled and catered for industry, abandoning professional-comforts, broadening horizons and venturing outside the confines of British football is only to be applauded.
James is on Twitter @HorsfieldJ