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Jonny Rowell: The former Hartlepool midfielder on his ten years in Belgium

Jonny Rowell is one of the originals for me. Ever since I have been interested in the subject of English players abroad, the midfielder from Newcastle has been plying his trade overseas so it was great to finally get in contact with him last month.

Now 30, Rowell has spent a third of his life playing and living on the continent, although he admits he never expected to stay more than a season or two.

The midfielder spent his formative years at the academy of his local club, Newcastle United. At the age of 16, he left the Magpies, joining fellow north-east club Hartlepool United in January 2006.

Two years later, Rowell signed his first professional deal with the club and in the following season, he made his senior debut, playing the final 25 minutes in a Football League Trophy match against a Leicester City side which included Andy King, Lloyd Dyer and Paul Dickov.

Rowell (left) in his youth days with Hartlepool United

He would finish the 2008/09 season, his first in senior football, with seven appearances, including three starts in the league as Hartlepool avoided relegation from League One.

The following season, was strikingly similar to his first. He would again go on to make seven appearances in all competitions as the Pools narrowly avoided relegation, this time on goal difference.

With his game time limited, the midfielder took the bold decision to head abroad, joining third-tier side Olympic Charleroi. It proved to be the perfect move for the midfielder as he gained the first team opportunities he craved. He made 27 appearances in the league, scoring four times as Charleroi finished the season 8th. On a personal level, Rowell was a revelation and his performances made teams from higher in the pyramid take notice.

One team who would take particular notice were Waasland-Beveren who would give the former Hartlepool man a chance in the second-tier – and it wouldn’t be too long until he got his first taste of top-flight football. Rowell, playing alongside former Everton striker Tomasz Radzinski, would made 18 appearances as his side won promotion via the play-offs to secure their place among the big boys of Belgian football.

The promotion would lead to a golden period in the Geordie’s career as he went on to spend three more seasons with the side in the top-flight playing against the likes of Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Gent. He was an important presence for his side, becoming a driving force from his spot in front of the back four, equally adept at neat short passing and long-range finds.

Rowell during his days with Waasland-Beveren

However, what would follow his golden period was arguably his most disappointing spell. Having impressed for Waasland, Rowell declined the option to stay with the club with the hope of securing a new deal elsewhere but instead, missed out on a season of football as deals fell through and promises were broken.

He returned for the 2016/17 season, this time playing in Holland in the second-tier for FC Eindhoven. The past three seasons the midfielder has been back in his adopted home of Belgium and now plays for Dender where he has been a regular for the past two years.

Rowell’s highlights from the Belgian top flight

I caught up for the former Hartlepool United man to see how life has treated him abroad, what the differences are between Belgium and Holland and whether he still keeps an eye on his old team.

English Players Abroad: Your move to Belgium came nearly 10 years ago now, did you ever expect to be playing abroad for this long? Does Belgium feel like your home now?

Jonny Rowell: There is no way I imagined staying in Belgium this long. I thought it would be a season or maybe two at most, just to gain a bit experience and game time. After one year I did want to return to England but just had no opportunities and that’s the summer I signed for Waasland Beveren. That season we gained promotion to the top league and I signed a long-term contract with the club as it was a great opportunity to play at a decent level. Towards the end of my contract, I did want to move back to England again or to another country, and in the end I went to play in Holland which turned out to be a bad move.

I am married now and do own a house in Belgium which is now the main reason why I stayed here, if it wasn’t for that I think I might have moved back a few years ago. Still Belgium does not feel like home even though I’ve been here a third of my life. I’m very comfortable here and have a wife and son here but still I miss England. We do plan on moving to England in the coming years and will just depend on how I can transition from playing football into moving into a new profession when I finish playing.

EPA: You’ve played in the top three tiers of Belgian football, where would you say you’ve felt most comfortable?

JR: I would definitely say that playing in the highest league suited me the best. I played my best football playing with and against better players. The standard of coaching and training facilities are a lot higher as well which makes a huge difference. There is not a lot of money in Belgian football lower leagues so as you go down to the third league, which I’m currently in now, the pitches are quite poor, games are often scrappy and it’s not easy to play good football. The standard of refereeing is also poor as they are just part-time officials and players are always looking for free kicks and time wasting. Although some clubs in my league have a good fan base, the majority of teams don’t get a lot of fans, which can have an impact on the intensity of the game. So I definitely do miss playing higher up but its very difficult to get an opportunity there as there is only 16 teams in the top league and eight teams in the Second Division.

EPA: You also had a season in Holland, how did that compare to Belgian football?

Playing in Holland was a total different experience. It was in the Second Division there and whilst there are five or six teams who push for promotion every year, the other teams are just used to take young players on loan from first division or are actually the reserve team of a team in Eredivisie like Jong Ajax, for example. When you play these teams it feels like an academy game. The players are more interested in playing football, playing out from the back and developing their game, rather than trying to get the three points.

In Holland there is also a lot more passion for football than in Belgium. The Holland national team has always had a tradition of playing good football and I think that has slowed the progress of their leagues a little bit. Games especially in the Second Division were all about playing football, passing the ball and trying to score as many goals as possible. It’s very rare to see a 0-0 game and I was involved in a lot of high scoring games where the mentality is just to score one goal more than your opponent. Most defenders are able to play with ball, whereas in Belgium or to a bigger extent in England, defenders are there to defend first and foremost. I can never remember the defenders at Hartlepool playing out from the back and into midfield.

In Belgium many teams mentality is to not get beat. Teams are set up to be difficult to break down and often get a lot of numbers behind the ball. Games are also rarely end to end and can be quite boring at times. The first goal is so crucial in Belgium as teams will often drop deep and make it difficult to score rather than push on for the second. 

Rowell on the ball for Dender

EPA: Would you recommend for other English players to play in Belgium?

JR: I would definitely recommend coming to play in Belgium. Playing in the top league is great. You get a lot of scouts watching, a lot of media attention which can be used as a stepping stone to go to bigger and better clubs. In England, if I had stayed, I could have possibly have played in the lower leagues, like League One or League Two, but in those leagues its very difficult to get a chance to play higher up. In recent years there has been a lot of transfers from the Belgian leagues into other better leagues and a lot to Premier Leagues clubs. I personally believe that some of those players would not have got the chance if they had been playing in the Championship or League One. Playing in Belgium in the top league definitely gives you a huge platform to go onto bigger things, or like myself, gain great experience and manage to keep playing professional football, which is becoming increasingly difficult with the amount of young players coming through academy every year. Off the field, Belgium is a very nice country, the majority of people speak English and a flight to the UK is very short so your never to far from home. 

EPA: Finally, you made your debut for Hartlepool United back in League One, has it been difficult to see how far they’ve fallen in recent years?

JR: It seems so long ago since I made my debut at Hartlepool and to see where they are now in 2020 is really sad. I still follow the results every week. When I was at Hartlepool, the club had a great youth system, a fantastic training ground and brilliant fan base.  However, as teams drop down the leagues, the money rolling into the clubs is inevitably a lot less. Hartlepool have had to move training grounds and also the academy is not what it was. Hartlepool gave me my opportunity to be a professional footballer so to see the youth system struggling is perhaps the more unfortunate side to football and relegation. It does look like the club is currently bouncing back at the moment and pushing for a play off spot, so it would be great if they managed to get back into the Football League. It’s great to see them still getting a healthy fan base both home and away!

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