It’s a rare occurrence but there are some English players who have built their entire professional careers abroad. One is Kenny Pavey. The former Millwall youngster has spent 20 years in Sweden, becoming an AIK legend. Another is Chris Joyce. He grew up in the Newcastle United academy and after a spell in the States, has spent thirteen years in Norway. He remains in the country to this day, still playing and coaching at the age of 37.
“My ambitions of becoming a professional footballer were pretty much extinguished after I left Newcastle,” he says. “This was a time when the reserve team at Newcastle was disbanded and the majority of my age group were released. I decided to concentrate on my education and try to play football at the highest level possible while I studied.”
Having played alongside Shola Ameobi growing up, Joyce would not be given his chance to impress at the Magpies like the future Nigerian international was and after release, decided to head to Loughborough University, one of the country’s best sporting universities, to study a degree in computing and management.
With Premier League pedigree behind him, the forward played in the university’s first team as well as playing in non-league for Blyth Spartans and Loughborough Dynamo. It was a successful time for the Geordie as his uni side defeated everyone in their path but once his degree was over, he would choose to continue his studies abroad.
“I won two BUSA National Championships (precursor to BUCs) while I was at Loughborough and a lot of the players I played with had been released by professional clubs so the standard was very good.
“A player I played with at Loughborough had been at college in New Hampshire for a year by the time I had finished my degree. He asked me if I wanted to go over and to study and play on a scholarship, which I accepted.
“It just seemed like an opportunity that was too good to pass up rather than because of any ambition to get back into the game.”
So with thoughts of returning to the professional game still at the back of his mind, Joyce headed to New Hampshire in 2004 to take up a masters at Franklin Pearce University. It would be the start of another successful period for the forward who became one of the university’s most successful students ever in his two-year spell with the institution. The fact that he amassed an astonishing 51 goals from 50 games was impressive enough but he was also named as Men’s Soccer Player of the Year for the whole of the US in his division at college, the first time a student from Franklin Pearce had ever achieved national honours.
It was hardly any surprise then that after such a successful time at college that he was invited to the MLS Player Combine ahead of the 2006 where scouts from all MLS clubs would watch the best college graduates in trial matches ahead of the Superdraft. However, being nearly 25 at the time, the former Newcastle youngster believed is chances of selection to be low.
“I was invited to Los Angeles to play in the combine where all the MLS Clubs look at the college prospects from that season. I was an international and over-age player so there were not too many slots in this category for the clubs to trade. I thought I played well but did not hear anything after the draft so I returned to Newcastle. “
A return home proved to be premature for Joyce as he just a day after returning to the north-east, he had word that he had been selected by FC Dallas and would have to return to the States immediately to enter into pre-season training with the side. He caught the next plane to Texas although it would not lead to his first professional deal, despite the club’s best efforts.
“I was in Dallas for about six or seven weeks and I really enjoyed it,” he says. Colin Clarke was the manager and Steve Morrow the assistant. They offered me a twelve-month developmental contract but there was very little money in MLS at this time and the contract was only about $12-15000 a year.
“After six years as a student I really needed to start earning some money so I turned it down.
“They had just signed a forward who had been with Manchester United [Mark Wilson] and they had three other forwards who were all internationals, so I felt my playing time would be heavily restricted.”
He would not have to wait long for that elusive first professional deal though, as just like after the combine, his return back to the north-east was short-lived once more as yet another offer abroad arose.
“I returned back to Newcastle and had been home a few days when an agent rang me and asked me if I fancied doing something totally different. He told me Odd Grenland in the Norwegian Premier League needed a striker and if I would be interested in going over for a one week trial.
“I jumped at it for an adventure because I had never been to Scandinavia before.
“It felt amazing to be offered my first full-time professional contract.”
Joining Odd, the oldest club in Norway and also the most successful in the history of the Norwegian Cup, the then 25-year-old was going straight into top flight football after years of university and non-league football. Like most countries in the region, Norwegian football has a long pre-season period with clubs training hard for three months at the start of the year before kicking off their league campaigns in April. It was a big change in intensity for the Geordie.
“The first few months went really well,” he recalls. “I scored in most of the training games and felt like I was fitting in very well. The standard was good but very physically challenging. When I say that, I am talking about the amount of training we did and not necessarily opposition centre-halves. We had eight football sessions and one strength session a week plus a game during the off-season, which was a massive change from the USA.
“After a few months I felt absolutely exhausted and I started to pick up a few niggling injuries.”
Despite, that, Joyce managed 19 appearances that season, scoring two times. The following campaign, he would make just two appearances for Odd before being loaned out to third-tier club Nybergsund-Trysil. He would again spend time out on loan the following season at Odd’s Grenland rivals Pors Grenland, also in the third-tier before having his contract terminated with Odd in the summer of 2008.
“All in all I enjoyed the experience of playing at that level [top-flight] but wish I had sat down with the coaching team and told them how tired I felt.
I live in the same area now and often visit the club to watch games. It is a great club that does a lot of fantastic work developing young players from the local area.”
After leaving Odd, Joyce went travelling across the world, visiting the Middle East, Asia and North America but he was always going to return to Norway and it wasn’t just for the football.
“I met my wife-to-be after only three months in Norway so I realised quite early on that I might be in the country a little longer than my football contract!”
After returning to the country, he resigned for Pors, this time on a permanent deal before then spending two years with Asker, earning promotion to the second-tier in his first season at the club. Despite making 30 appearances in his second season at the highest level he had played at since his time with Odd, in 2012, he returned to Pors to take up a new job, having worked alongside playing for several years. His first job was working for a football website which worked with football coaches and helped them plan sessions before he took up a job at a telecommunications company.
After a year back with Pors in a player/coach role, Joyce joined fifth-tier side Tollnes in 2013 where he has been ever since. Last year, at the age of 37, he played four times for the first time as well as three times for the reserve side further down the pyramid. He is continuing to keep up his role as a player, coach, worker and father.
“I have had the assistant managers role in a few of the clubs I have played for and have recently joined the coaching team of Tollnes, the team I have been playing for in the fifth-tier. With three young children and a full-time job it is difficult to find the time I would need to invest in a very successful coaching career but watch this space. You never know.”
Having been in the country for thirteen years now, it’s hard to imagine how different the forward’s career would have been if he had never said yes to the agent’s offer of a move to Norway back in 2006. He has met his wife, raised three children and racked up around 200 senior appearances but his stay in the country may boil down to one simple statement.
“Norway is a beautiful country!”