Ben Sibley speaks to semi-professional footballer James Baldwin, an Englishman playing his trade in the Swedish second division…
We’re forever being asked ‘Why would an English player move abroad? Why would they when they have it so good here?’ Whilst this is undoubtedly true for full-time professional players, it is not so for part-time semi-professional players. The difficulties balancing in England part-time football and full-time work has led a growing number of players to pursue other routes to the professional game. The two most trodden paths are West, across the Atlantic to America, and North, across the North Sea to Scandinavia.
Almost 1,000 kilometers north of Stockholm lies the Swedish coastal city of Luleå. For 26 year-old English footballer James Baldwin, this is home. A graduate of the esteemed Hartpury College, James’ journey to professional football has taken him from the sleepy Cotswold town of Nailsworth to within 200 kilometers of the arctic circle. After spending the 2014 season with Östersunds FK in the Swedish Superettan (the second highest league in the country’s league system), James moved north to join IFK Luleå – the city’s most successful football team. Here, he takes us from the very beginning through to the present.
Hartpury University and the World University Games
How important was your time at Hartpury University?
“Going to Hartpury provided me with every opportunity that has led to me living the life I do now. It gave me a feel for the professional environment in terms of the coaching, facilities and training every morning. I was lucky enough to captain the university team the last time they won the BUCS National Championships – my time there gave me confidence to make decisions and not be afraid to voice my opinion – something I might not have done if I was in a professional setup.”
Your performances for Hartpury eventually led to you representing Great British Universities at the 2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia – did you enjoy the experience?
“It was the best experience of my life. Being part of something so big – with a TV audience of millions – playing against Russia in front of 15,000 people in the semi-final and France in the final was unforgettable. The majority of the teams in the competition consisted of players who had been capped at U21 and U23 levels – for a group of non-league players from Britain to come back with a silver medal was really a great achievement.”
CAREER IN ENGLAND AND MOVE TO SWEDEN
Brief experience of professional football in England
“National League (then named The Conference) side Forest Green Rovers gave me my first experience of professional football. I was lucky enough to play against my home team, York City and train regularly with a higher calibre of players than before. To begin with, it was a happy experience but it didn’t last. For me, enjoyment of football comes before anything else. I’d rather enjoy my football at a slightly lower level, rather than be unhappy higher up the football pyramid.”
A couple of seasons at Forest Green were followed by brief spells with Gloucester City and Cinderford United before James headed to Shortwood United, on the outskirts of Cotswold town Nailsworth. It was a club he knew well, having briefly played for them as a 17 year-old.
“My time with Shortwood really made me realise the importance of team spirit. A run of victories over higher league opposition that lead to us playing Port Vale in the FA Cup first round live on BT Sport in December 2013 proved what a brilliant team spirit we had at the club. It was special group of people at the club and they thoroughly deserved every success they had.”
How did the move to Sweden come about?
“James Ellis managed the GB team during the university games and I would have to say he was the main reason I ended up leaving England for Sweden. James was good friends with Östersunds manager Graham Potter and recommended me to him – something I am extremely grateful for.”
What were your first impressions of the club?
“I didn’t know too much about Sweden so I was a bit nervous about what to expect. Luckily, there are many different nationalities and cultures and most people speak English so it was a relatively easy transition.
“I’d met with Graham in England before I made the move. He told me about the club’s ambitions, their progress in recent years and their ambitions for the future. They have everything in place to be a hugely successful club in the future. They have a great 7000 capacity stadium and are incredibly professional behind the scenes with their support staff.
“The club helped with every aspect of moving, from applying and getting a Swedish personal number which is necessary to do almost anything such as buying and renting things to having bills or rent, to finding an apartment and giving us a Swedish phone number so they could contact us to help us.
“For the first month I stayed in a hotel with a few of the other new players which I think helped everyone to settle in because we were living together and it’s good to have people around you to keep you busy and explore the city with.”
What were your first impressions of the town?
“Östersunds itself is quite small (around 50,000) and, although they have other sports such as hockey and basketball, football is definitely the biggest sport. With that in mind it did feel a little bit closed off at times as you can’t really go anywhere in the town without people knowing who you are but almost every one in the town was very supportive and incredibly nice and helpful to all the foreign players.
“Although I did make the transition from semi pro to pro I was fairly used to training on a full time basis because Hartpury trained almost every morning.”
What were the biggest differences initially?
“I would say that the biggest difference initially was adapting to the Swedish way of life. I have been to Stockholm and Gothenburg a few times and it’s pretty clear to me that Swedes are incredibly relaxed and tend to work to live instead or living to work.
“I’m not saying there is a better way to live life but Sweden definitely suited me because of this. The all round environment was more pleasant than I remember it being in England. Having worked various low wage jobs and extremely long hours in England I can say from experience that living in England on a low income is near to impossible. In Sweden they have several policies that help even the most basic earner to be able to enjoy life.
“There are quite a few similarities in Swedish culture to English which made the move a bit easier for me. For example, they have a lot of American and English TV, from Family Guy to Downton Abbey, so there is something for every English person to enjoy. Another huge bonus for me was the fact the every single Swede is very good at English.
“Even the most basic English speaking Swede can at least have a conversation or tell you that they aren’t very good at English. I’ve found that all of them are a lot more confident in speaking English once they relax and realise that that is the only way to converse with me to start with.
“Swedish is a very difficult language to learn but there is a government run program called SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) that is free and can help you learn the basics. It’s also a good way to fill time as realistically there can be quite a few hours free in your day as being a full time football player often isn’t as full time as you’d like.
“One of the biggest things I miss from England is the food. The food here is….different. For example the majority of Brits have either cereal or toast or some kind of fry up for breakfast, here it is a sandwich or yoghurt. Or the preferential meat is reindeer or moose opposed to beef or pork.
“It may not seem like a big thing but those little difference are the things that make you miss home. They have never heard of Nando’s and they don’t have many of the bigger, well known restaurants here, even in Stockholm. And as for a Sunday roast….forget about it.
“The weather in Sweden is not as bad as you may think. Over here there is a clear definition between the seasons. Winter can be very cold (up to -30) but at least you know it’s going to be cold and you can prepare properly for that. It’s also a different type of cold compared to English cold that gets under your clothes or makes you ill.
“It feels fresh, very cold, but fresh. The summers are also surprisingly nice. We were lucky to have a couple of months of constant sunshine and with there being up to 23 hours of daylight a day here it was nice that it was at least warm (around 20-30 most days).”
How would you rate your first season with Östersunds?
“From a personal point of view the season started well. I had been played in various positions (CB, RB, CDM and LB) and I think I adapted quite well to the different approach to the way football is played in Sweden. It’s a lot more technical and a lot less physical and every team at every level we played in pre-season liked to play football and could do so well.
“The main difference for me was the speed of thought which is far quicker out here. You need to be a lot sharper in what you’re doing out here and always have a picture because most opposing teams defend intelligently and will know when and where to press effectively.
“I started the season in midfield as the ball winner, getting the ball and giving it simple to the more creative players to use better than I could. And after that the majority of my matches were spent at right back which was an incredibly demanding position and not one that I would say is my strongest but I was just delighted to be playing every week in front of 3000/4000 people.
“The way ÖFK played, the wing backs were expected to be both defensively solid and also be able to provide the width high up the field when attacking so the wingers could come in and link up with the forwards. Physically and mentally draining but thoroughly enjoyable.
“Every minute spent training or playing for Graham Potter and Billy Reid was enjoyable as they are both highly respected and talented coaches and I have nothing but good things to say about how they helped me develop as a player over the season. I will also be eternally grateful to Graham because he seemed to trust me in the bigger games against the tougher opposition so I had plenty of memorable experiences.
“The Elfsborg game was a good experience because that was the first big test I faced and although we didn’t win it was a valuable learning experience for a lot of us. Anders Svensson did play and he was pretty impressive, never gave the ball away once.
“I think the biggest and best experience was playing in front of 26,000 against Hammarby when both them and us had good chances to be promoted. Unfortunately the result didn’t go for us but I will never forget the atmosphere and intensity of the crowd. It was literally impossible to talk to each other on the pitch because of the noise from the fans. I realise I’m incredibly lucky to have played in front of so many as a lot of players playing professional in England will never have the opportunity to.
“I also had the pleasure of playing behind Modou Barrow on quite a few occasions when he was right midfield and me right back….I’d like to think that I helped make him the player he has become today. in all seriousness he is probably the best player I’ve played with and if he keeps going and working as hard as he did when he was at ÖFK then there is no reason why he can’t make himself a regular in the Swansea team. He definitely has the pace to play in the Premier League, as Kieran Gibbs and Gael Clichy could tell you.”
You had a quite a bad injury during the spring (at the beginning of the league season) – how did it happen?
“I tore one of my abdominal muscles in training and it’s a terrible injury because there isn’t too much you can do to help speed up the recovery process. I do think that the pitches that we play on don’t help with injuries.
“Playing and training on artificial pitches puts so much more strain on joints and muscles and I’d had one of two little niggles when I was adapting to the surface changes, things get tighter quicker and stretching is a massive part of the warm up. I don’t think that it’s the entire reason I got injured but I definitely think it contributed. Luckily the medical staff at Östersunds are exceptional and they know exactly what to do so that you can maintain fitness without distressing the injury so when my injury healed I was able to get back into things fairly quickly.”
Overall, you made 15 league appearances – were you happy with your first season in Sweden?
“Overall I would say I was delighted with the experience of playing my first season in Sweden, being injured for four months and still managing to play in half of the league games is something I’m pleased with but obviously I do think what I could have achieved without the injury…how many more could I have scored. Coming to Sweden and in particular ÖFK has improved me so much as a footballer and everything that I did with ÖFK was beyond any expectations I had.
“From the level of the football, to the facilities and stadiums I played in, the amount of people I played in front of, the development in my game, the professionalism, everything was brilliant and I couldn’t have asked for more.”
(ÖFK are currently second, three points behind leaders Jönköpings Södra after 15 games – exactly half-way through the league season)
MOVE TO LULEÅ
“I first heard of the move in December 2014 and if I’m honest I was reluctant to leave ÖFK because it really is a fantastic club with great coaches. But after a meeting with Graham he said that he couldn’t guarantee me a lot of playing time this season and whilst he didn’t want me to leave I knew I wouldn’t be happy just being on the bench all season.
“When I spoke to Luleå they convinced me I could be a big part of what they wanted to achieve and I wanted to feel like I was a part of the success at a club. If I would have stayed in Östersund but if they had success and I wasn’t involved a lot it would have felt hollow for me.”
First impressions of Luleå?
“Luleå is a pretty similar town to Östersund in terms of the size of it but the main sports here are hockey and basketball as both play in the top leagues in Sweden. This means football doesn’t get the attention it did in Östersund but I’m sure if we can achieve promotion the popularity will grow. It is a much bigger challenge being the only English guy up here and because this is about as North as you can get whilst still playing a good standard they aren’t as comfortable speaking English.”
How long do you see yourself staying in Sweden? Would a return to England hinge on the (league) level a club was operating at?
“I have a two year contract here in Luleå but after that I would really like to try my luck in America so unless a very good offer came here in Sweden my plan would be to try America after here.
“I’ve never been one to pick a team purely because of the level, hence why I played for Shortwood for so long. That is the best club I’ve played at in terms of team spirit and for me that’s an important part. You can over achieve so much with good team spirit, playing with people you love to play with makes a huge difference in my experience and there has been no better club than Shortwood for me.
“However I feel that I could do myself justice playing in the Conference as I’m a much better player and feel much more equipped to play at that level than when I last played when I was 18/19. Having played with good Conference players at Östersund I feel that is the level I could come back and play. It kind of feels like unfinished business in the least cheesy way possible.”
Would you recommend moving abroad to other English players?
“I would definitely recommend players to move abroad. It has helped me develop so much as a player and provided me with some of the best experiences that I simply wouldn’t have had access to playing in England.
“I mean realistically I wouldn’t have played in front of 26,000 in England, ever. It also helps you appreciate different ways to play football and I think if any player is looking to become a coach or manager in the future moving abroad would provide so much.”
You can follow James on Twitter: @Jbaldwin1405