You may have heard about an organisation known as LFE recently when it comes to English footballers playing in Sweden. They were instrumental in providing the pathway for Östersunds’ Jamie Hopcutt to go from York City to Europa League. The company has even been mentioned in some of my interviews, including those with Andrew Mills and Brad Grayson.
But what is it all about? League Football Education are a registered charity which was established by the EFL and the PFA in 2004 to deliver a football apprenticeship scheme. Fourteen years on, they came to my attention because of their Player Placement Programme. The scheme sees young English footballers placed at a club in Sweden where they can gain experience in a foreign country. Many players have seen this opportunity take them on to professional football across the world.
I caught up with Simon Williams, Life Skills Manager at LFE and the man responsible for sending players out to Sweden to found out more about the interesting programme which creates so many English players abroad.
English Players Abroad: Can you give me a bit of background information on the Player Placement programme?
Simon Williams: The player placement is made possible through a European Union initiative called Erasmus+ which provides funding for organisations and individuals to gain new knowledge, skills and experiences in different countries. LFE apply for this funding to open up thirty placements per year for recent graduates of our programme to continue their chosen profession in a new country.
Through positive relationships with Swedish football clubs there is opportunity for individuals to be hosted in a foreign country and undertake a unique opportunity to develop as a person and by extension, a footballer.
EPA: How do you help players who are successful in applying for a placement?
SW: LFE supports Swedish clubs with recruitment so that the coaches can select their new signings. LFE goes through preparation work with each player which includes phone calls with the family, contact with ex-players who have previously been to the same club to share experiences, Skype calls with the coach and general information sharing about the area, club and possible outcomes.
Players undertake a 12 week placement with the agreed football club and this is timetabled with football development through training and matches, alongside wider personal development which includes language lessons, coaching opportunities, cultural activities and community initiatives.
EPA: What do you think are the benefits for players who undertake a placement abroad?
SW: There is opportunity to see another part of the world, get under the skin of a different culture and gain valuable life experience. By life experience, I mean understand what is important to people in Sweden, what values they hold as a nation, challenge your own beliefs and ways of life, almost get lost and then find yourself. All of this can be done within the context of football too and at the same time so hopefully individuals will become more self-aware and be better placed to make decisions as to what they want in life and in football.
Laurie Bell flew out to the USA on a scholarship and from there decided that he would use his football as his passport to travel the world and he now plays in Sweden and remains in contact with us. The programme can of course springboard players back into the game and hopefully up into the higher echelons whereby they can become full-time and strive towards their potential but there is a bigger picture to the benefits than simply signing on the dotted line.
EPA: What players do you think the scheme is particularly suitable for?
SW: The player placement programme asks questions of people which are beyond simply ‘Can you play football?’ and it is those who have a willingness to try new things, a preparation to face unusual situations and a motivation to find ways to seek comfort in new places – who will ultimately be successful on the programme. And by success, this is personal to the individual and includes on and off-the-field achievements as one.
EPA: You’ve had a lot of success with players who have gone on to great things in Sweden particularly, why do you think that is?
SW: Firstly, Sweden is a very cosmopolitan country and our clubs are open and interested in signing LFE players. There is an appetite to provide an opportunity and to be the next part of a player’s journey. Whilst at the same time our clubs appreciate there is added value to their team in winning more football matches, adding new professionalism and mixing up and challenging their own players to develop further too. From there, the level of football is a good fit for where the majority of 18 year-olds are. This gives players the chance to play week-in week-out at an open age and should allow everyone to go on and find their level be it higher, lower or wherever. If a player feels valued and has opportunity, anything can happen.
EPA: Are there are any placement success stories which particularly stand out?
SW: There are four players who particularly stand out plus Laurie, who I mentioned before.
Nathan Millis – released by Shrewsbury Town, went to Gottne IF (5th tier), returned and flew back to Sweden with no club to sign for, just his backpack and boots. He stayed with a Swedish friend who he had met and then contacted nearby clubs for a trial, from there he signed for Anundsjo IF. This says a lot about Nathan to take that leap of faith and everything he had done up to that point had given him the confidence to give it a shot.
Andrew Mills – released by Macclesfield Town, went to Arnas (6th tier), returned and played for Friska Viljor, IFK Ostersund before signing for Ostersund FK (1st tier) and lives with his Swedish girlfriend.
Jamie Hopcutt – released by York City in 2012, went to an open trial at Warwick University run by Graham Potter when Ostersund FK were in the 4th tier. Signed for the club, had three promotions, played in the Europa League and started at the Emirates against Arsenal this season. He has been tipped for a move back to England on many occasions.
Moses Duckrell – released by Barnet, joined BK Sport (5th tier), from there signed for Livingston and in the immediate preseason played against Real Sociedad. He then returned to Sweden and has played for a number of clubs all over the country. He is now a point of contact for LFE players who are thinking of going out to Sweden and has just recently been appointed as an Erasmus+ Ambassador whereby he will attend conferences across Europe and discuss his experiences.
EPA: Finally, what are your aspirations for the future of the placement programme? Are you hoping to roll it out to any more countries?
SW: LFE has run the programme in Sweden for ten years with different football clubs coming and going throughout that period due to new connections and coaches leaving and moving elsewhere. Throughout this time there was a short spell working in a southern region of Spain and we have recently started again in Spain through a strong relationship with the Andalucian FA, this saw two players go out to play for Getafe U19 between January and April.