How English Football Rejection Kicked Off My Dream Life Abroad
Words: Laurie Bell
Stood on the edge of Burscough FC's center circle, waiting for the second half of an Evo-Stik First Division North encounter to kick off, I couldn't help thinking of Sweden.
The countdown was on now; 48 hours to go. It was late February, and my Hyde United side were beating bottom-of-the-table Burscough one-nil. We would go on to double our lead for a fourth win on the bounce. Around the club, spirits were as high as a non-league goalie's clearance. Hyde were rocketing up the table.
Burscough FC 0-2 Hyde United FC - Winning on the road with strength throughout the squad. #moreforwardplease #upwardmomentum #winners pic.twitter.com/nYOzocWvn9
- Hyde United FC (@hydeunited) February 26, 2017
And so the club's CEO, presently muddying his Adidas Sambas while live-tweeting the game from the sideline, had spent the last month persuading me to stay. "We'll build a squad around you," he'd promised. "Next year we'll get promoted." I genuinely believed him. But as brown water pooled around my formerly red boots, and we all waited for two shivering Burscough substitutes - the smaller one perched on the larger one's shoulders - to refasten some frayed white netting onto the goalpost, under supervision from a chubby linesman who hadn't once kept up with first-half play, I was chuffed with my decision.
I was off to Sweden. I had 45 minutes of mud-ball left, but in my mind I was already on the plane.
Let me properly introduce myself. I'm Laurie - a pretty good footballer, born in Greater Manchester, now suffering from a chronic sense of wanderlust. I've been kicking balls about since I was a baby, and grew up playing close to home for Stockport County, Manchester City and Rochdale. Like lots of lads, my dream and total obsession was always to play football professionally in England.
I came about as close as you can come. But when Rochdale released me aged 18, those dreams were crushed.
On that day my outlook on life and sport changed forever. While I remain committed to my football, my horizons have broadened enormously.
This year I'll turn 25, and my quarter-century of existence has taught me three things: the earth is big, football careers are short, and there's no better way to spend your twenties than using the sport you love as a passport to see the world.
So I live by a motto: Have Boots Will Travel. Which is why, for the last seven seasons, I have taken contracts overseas wherever I can get them - from a palm tree shaded California beach town to a Swedish winter wonderland. I don't make much money doing it. But I am a footloose footballer with great friends and treasured memories dotted across the globe. I'm lucky, and I urge anyone presented with opportunities like mine to play abroad to grab them.
My current life might be a long way from my boyhood dreams, but I really wouldn't have it any other way.
After the Burscough game, I scrubbed my boots clean and tucked them in my kitbag. I said usual goodbyes on Twitter, Whatsapp and in person. By Monday night I was in Örebro - Sweden's seventh largest city - and straight into preseason training with Karlslunds IF HFK. Not that I really needed a preseason.
March 8, 2017. Still cold and snowy in Sweden :flag_se: pic.twitter.com/7uXk4Rnh3l
- Laurie Bell (@LBellBell) March 8, 2017
Normally, moving abroad brings a thousand introductions, a week of mild culture shock and no shortage of nerves. Not this year though. This will be my second spell with Karlslunds, the team with the best victory chant in the Swedish Second Division. Upon touchdown, the city - built around a grand old castle - looked familiar and teammates already knew my name.
Football seasons in Scandinavia are staggered differently to most European leagues, due to the winter climate. My contract last year with Karlslunds began when the snow melted in March and ran until October, just as it began to fall. Between blizzards, I enjoyed a successful debut campaign and a surprisingly sunny Swedish summer.
Tipped for relegation, Karlslunds enjoyed a fifth place finish, its highest for seven years. I was crowned Player of the Year for my 11 goals from midfield and overall shouty Mancunian presence around the sleepy, well-run club.
Skönt att vinna fotbollsmatcher!! #kifhfk #div2 #3poäng
A post shared by Karlslunds IF HFK (@karlslundsifhfk) on
"I have never known a player dominate a club quite this much," said 'Sports Chief' Andreas at the ceremony affectionately, perhaps a hint resentfully. I thanked teammates, coaches and staff in some well-rehearsed, terribly-pronounced Swedish. I think I thanked them, anyway - my Svenska needs much practice, but I'll crack it this time around.
Fun first day back at @KarlslundsIFHFK, where I have put pen to paper on a new deal for the 2017 season. Very happy to be back in Örebro, and ready to challenge for the Division Two title this year with an improved and talented squad! Cheeky interview this morning, then real work starts in training later on #KIF
A post shared by Laurie Bell (@lbellbell) on
I was settled at Karlslunds, had made close friends and taken a shine to Örebro. By all accounts, 2017 would be an exciting season, so I agreed a new deal before flying home. Technically, preseason training began again in December, but being a 12-year-old South American street footballer at heart, I couldn't stomach so many months without competitive action. The impending Scandinavian winter also slightly terrified me; the sun appears only six hours a day and snow is almost constant. It reminded me of past winters spent in Wisconsin, from which I've only just thawed out. So I became the only Mancunian in history to go home for the weather.
I asked if my contract could start in March again instead. Karlslunds agreed. I'd only miss a couple of cold, dark February friendlies so the club were happy to get me off their wage bill (and probably for a break from the annoying Englishman who needed every instruction translated).
Här är killarna som tar hem tre poäng från Motala!
A post shared by Karlslunds IF HFK (@karlslundsifhfk) on
In the meantime, I told my Swedish mates, I was off to England for a non-league football adventure. Back home, I called some old contacts and quickly signed dual registration forms for Macclesfield Town and Hyde United. In non-league football, players without permanent contracts can represent two teams at once. So I trained with Macclesfield every morning and rotated the shirt I wore at weekends.
My first appearance came for Hyde on Boxing Day away to Droylsden FC. Dodgy pitches and congested schedules can make Christmas fixtures a lottery at that level. Usually, the least hungover team wins. Knowing this, a non-league manager once rang me Christmas Eve to deliver my strict alcohol allowance for the evening.
Football on 3G, by @HydeUnited (and my first goal for a while!)#3G #NonLeague #:dart: pic.twitter.com/BAh1hIcaPt
- Laurie Bell (@LBellBell) February 20, 2017
"Two bottles of red wine and not a drop more, Laurie - we need you up and down that pitch on Boxing Day," he instructed, before I could tell him I'd be driving, and teetotal, all Christmas. Two bottles of red and I wouldn't be able to get up and down the stairs.
So at Droylsden, I was relieved to walk into a changing room smelling more like Lucozade Sport than yesterday's Pinot Noir. Although I can't guarantee how the home changies whiffed.
"You ready for this today, lads? In training yesterday were you?" asked a bright-eyed ref in the tunnel, who seemed to have limited himself to only the leanest Christmas turkey.
"You must be fucking joking, mate," chirped one of the Droylsden line-up. "I only got in half an hour ago."
Laurie in action for Hyde United. Image: @hydeunited
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hyde won 3-1. The result kick-started our surge up the table. We climbed out of relegation danger to within dreaming distance of playoffs. I played my part, especially during home games on Hyde's state-of-the-art 3G pitch, but I didn't feature in the whole run. Because the week after, on New Year's Day, I made another debut, this time for Macclesfield Town.
The New Year's air was crisp. 3,300 filled the Moss Rose stadium. The Silkmen went 4-2 up against Tranmere Rovers. The ref checked his watch. On the touchline, half-exhausted, I took a breather. It was my first time in the squad and I'd been warming up for the best part of 89 minutes. The ref checked his watch again. Magnificently (not for him I imagine) David Fitzpatrick pulled up with a hamstring strain. Before the gaffer mouthed the last 'e' in "Laurie" I was hurtling down the sideline. I flung on shinpads, shirt and tape then dashed onto the pitch to a kind ovation. The ref checked his watch again.
Started 2017 by making my Macc Town debut! Full stadium & a 4-2 win. Grew up 9 miles down the road & watched @thesilkmen as a kid #HNY pic.twitter.com/zJAPMNaZhm
- Laurie Bell (@LBellBell) January 1, 2017
Desperate to make an impression, I leapt straight up for a header. My first touch in National League football! Seconds later, an opponent tried to break through midfield. Not today, pal. I sprinted. I slid. I crunched the poor fella. My first yellow card in National League football! Perhaps a league record to boot. The ref checked his watch again then blew the final whistle. My first win in National League football!
2017 was off to a flyer.
And for a while afterwards, life at Macclesfield, just a few short miles from my childhood home, had me questioning my traveller's motto. Because a Swedish award is all well and good, but turning out at the Moss Rose carried a special kind of local currency. For my mates, my parents, and even for me.
I found myself beginning to be seduced again by my first love: English football. In truth, I'd forgotten exactly what it was like and how much I'd missed it. The fiery changing rooms, ferocious, mud-caked training sessions, the sheer dedication of non-league fans and high-stakes atmosphere surrounding every match. Wherever you go, coming back to England, especially Manchester, feels like you're returning to the center of the football world.
So in the end it was a difficult to leave again. Although a round trip to Torquay - 6 hours each way - as an unused Macclesfield substitute made things easier. Torquay's a nice town, but it's long way to go for a walk on the beach and some half-time shooting.
Like I said, careers are short, and I'm not too interested in spending mine on a bench. Over in Scandinavia, the sun was peeping out on a brand new season. A season I would be a part of from the beginning and central to throughout. There was a contract waiting for me, as well as an apartment in the center of a lively city. I knew the team, the league, maybe not the language, but definitely the best coffee shops and coolest bars.
Besides, I had a motto to live by.
@LBellBell @hydeunited gutted to see you leave but thanks for your 100% and best of luck, we can't wait to see you back next season :wink:
- Lee Spencer (@Tigerlee_hfc) February 25, 2017
Off to Sweden to resign for @KIF_HFK! Big thanks to teammates, staff & fans @TheSilkmen & @HydeUnited for a memorable winter :airplane_departure::soccer: #komkomigen pic.twitter.com/FknCaB7H4n
- Laurie Bell (@LBellBell) February 27, 2017
So after a final flurry of wins for Hyde, I checked the Swedish weather forecast. Still snowing, damn. I was early! I eagerly boarded my flight anyway, a new winter coat vacuum sealed beside my shinpads in my suitcase. In Örebro, a friend dropped me off at a four-bedroom apartment with a revolving door of roommates. I traded places with another footloose footballer - a peroxide blonde Brazilian heading out town after his winter futsal season's end. "I go back to Brasil now," he said, and handed over the key. "Must be nice," I shivered.
The @KarlslundsIFHFK changing rooms looking :fire: in the :snowflake:
A post shared by Laurie Bell (@lbellbell) on
I bought some new bedding then unpacked. A pair of red football boots sparkled at the foot of the bed. Here we were, abroad again. I laid my head on an overpriced Swedish pillow and smiled at the ceiling, ready for my next adventure.
For the duration of the season, I promise to tell you all about my weird and wonderful adventures in Sweden and my past experiences overseas. If you have any questions about playing football abroad, or if you are a footloose footballer yourself, please get in touch with me on Twitter @LBellBell
Featured Image Credit: Laurie Bell/Twitter