Sam Tillen is a trailblazer when it comes to the English abroad scene. Of course he wasn’t the first to ever make the move abroad but he was one of the first who came up on my radar when I was growing up and he has outlasted many of his compatriots who have also made the move. Now 33, it’s been eleven years since the former Chelsea man made the move to Iceland and he hasn’t looked back since.
“The welcoming nature of the players [in Iceland] was a particular shock compared to the relative hostility a new player gets usually in England,” he says. “I moved over with my girlfriend at the time, then my brother followed me over a couple of months later so that certainly helped too.”
You can see why he has remained so long.
Born in Reading, Tillen grew up in the Chelsea academy and was a promising prospect, progressing well and even played for England U19s, featuring in wins against Andorra and Russia alongside future English abroad Jamie Young and Cherno Samba.
However, injuries halted his progress and in May 2005, he left the club without a first team appearance. It wouldn’t take long until he was playing senior football though as he was soon snapped up by fellow Londoners Brentford who were in League One at the time.
He would soon become a regular with the Bees, making over 80 appearances in two seasons. Despite that though, he would find himself out of the team in his third season with the side under new manager Terry Butcher. Partway through the campaign, he would cancel his contract and after advice from his former teammate Ólafur Ingi Skúlason, he joined Icelandic top flight side Fram in February 2008. He settled in quickly.
“Toddy [former Stoke City man Þorvaldur Örlygsson] my coach, played in England for ten years so he understood the British culture and mentality, the assistant coach was from a town twenty minutes from Newbury, where I grew, up so I had people around me who understood me and my situation.
“Everyone spoke perfect English so there were no communication issues either, which helps significantly as you begin to get a grasp of the new surroundings and the language.”
With Tillen finding the adjustment period comfortable, he went straight into life in the Icelandic top-flight, becoming a regular at the club immediately. In his first season, he made 32 appearances in all competitions as Fram finished in third place and secured a spot in the Europa League first qualifying round. Having been a regular in League One beforehand, the left-back did not see it as a step down.
“It was not not necessarily [a step down] but it was completely different, however. It was less physical and my team was willing to play the ball out from the goalkeeper which I hadn’t experienced since I left Chelsea.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the team straight away and the way the team was set up suited me much more than League One.”
The following campaign, Tillen made his European debut but it wasn’t as exoctic as it seemed as their first two-legged tie was against Welsh side TNS. The former Brentford man scored away in Wales to help his side progress before they lost out 3-1 on aggregate to Czech side Sigma Olomouc.
Tillen would remain a regular at Fram in the next four seasons, eventually captaining the side. His brother Joe, also a former Chelsea youth player, played alongside him for the first four seasons.
After five seasons with Fram, the left-back had become a club legend, making 170 appearances and scoring 19 goals. However, during his spell he had been unable to lay his hands on any silverware, with the closest he had come being losing the Icelandic Cup final in 2009.
That would soon change though as he joined fellow top flight side FH at the start of the 2013 season and won the Icelandic Super Cup in his first match. That set the tone for the Englishman to have more success at the club although his game time would become limited with him missing nearly all of the 2014 season through injury, however he did recover to made eight league appearances the following campaign alongside Sam Hewson as FH lifted the title for the first time in three years.
Their regular success also meant regular opportunities in Europe and his first crack at the Champions League. That came in the summer of 2013 as he played the entirety of FH’s four matches in the qualifying stages, as they overcame Lithuanian side Ekranas before narrowly losing to Austria Wien. His time in Europe is remembered fondly.
“It was great playing in the European competitions, it gave me the opportunity to travel and compete in places like Azerbaijan and Lithuania that I would not necessarily think of visiting of my own accord.”
After three seasons at FH, he spent his final season as a player back on loan at his original club Fram, who by 2016, were now in the second-tier. He played 16 times back at his former club as he finished his playing career in Iceland after 250 appearances. However, at the time of his retirement he was still only 31 but he does not regret hanging up the playing boots early on as he has found himself still involved in the game.
“I broke my leg badly in 2014 and the club invited me to coach the under-12s as I recovered. From there I began to coach alongside playing but it took eleven months to play again after the leg break, then I tore my calf and broke my cheekbone and eye socket on my return, so I decided enough was enough.
“I was offered a full time position to coach in the youth age groups at FH and I haven’t looked back. It has been thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding.”
He now continues to coach the youth sides at FH with his wife and three children also keeping him busy. He is still relatively young for a coach but would he like to progress in the industry?
“I am gaining valuable experience now and I finished my A licence in May. I am still only 33 so I have plenty of time to make that step. If it is an opportunity I am excited by then I will certainly consider it but as of now, I am happy and enjoying what I am doing.”
Throughout his time in Iceland, he said he never considered heading back to the UK to play and with a career and a family for him now in the country, listening to a former teammate’s advice and taking the gamble to play abroad may have been the smartest move he ever made.