Five Bona Fide English Stars Who Plied Their Trade Down The Divisions

Wayne Rooney isn’t alone in providing his Premier League-level talents in the Football League
16:00, 09 Jul 2020

Wayne Rooney: record-goalscorer for club and country. At Manchester United, the Croxteth prodigy performed, with 253 goals from 559 appearances across a 14-year span. One of only two Englishmen to win the Premier League, FA Cup, UEFA Champions League, League Cup, UEFA Europa League, and FIFA Club World Cup. 

It has now been exactly three years since Rooney departed Manchester United and re-joined his boyhood club Everton. A year back in blue later he was on the well-trodden path Stateside, having two seasons in the MLS with Washington outfit D.C United.

However, the former England and United captain announced in August 2019 that he was making a return to England, not to return home to Old Trafford, nor Goodison Park. But to take on a player-coach role at Derby County. Derby: a team that had been the longest mired in the second division Championship, who had only enjoyed one season in the top tier since 2002, and that a disastrous campaign in which they gained the fewest points in the competition’s history.

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At the beginning of July, just six months after his Pride Park permanency come into fruition (and one that was, of course, unfortunately interrupted) 34-year-old Rooney produced his fifth goal in 15 league games for the Rams, an exquisite free-kick earning Derby a win over Preston North End and taking them to within a point of the Championship play-off places. It may ‘only’ be the SkyBet Championship play-off trophy, but Rooney has proven throughout his career that he thrives on silverware, and this is one cup not yet in his collection.

Rooney isn’t alone in providing his Premier League-level talents in the Football League; there’s a real salmagundi of prominent title-winning Englishmen with a lot of juice in the tank, who also shifted gears and moved down the tiers.


Joe Cole

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Looking back now it seems like the long goodbye. Joe Cole was last a Chelsea player way, way back in 2010. In his supposed prime aged 28, Cole made the move north to a rudderless Liverpool in the wandering Roy Hodgson tenure. Both player and manager didn’t last long on Merseyside, Cole exiled himself to France where he played alongside a future Blue-boy in Eden Hazard at Lille, then returned to ‘this other Eden’ to join up with boyhood club West Ham United after a decade apart.

That reunion didn’t last long either as the one-time England and Hammers’ Golden Boy continued to flounder despite his persistence in stopping his career from stagnating. He signed for West Ham’s Premier League rivals Aston Villa, but showed his capability for headline-grabbing when he signed on a 35-day emergency loan for League One side Coventry City in 2015. That’s right, it was a swift swap from the lofty heights of the EPL to the third division. 

"Primarily, it's just about playing football. I needed a team who play football the right way," Cole said after his surprise move. "Coming to Coventry just seems right.”

Cole, who earned 56 caps and scored ten goals for the England national side, not to mention playing at three World Cups, seemed to enjoy himself across the Midlands and down the divisions when he and the club extended his time at the Sky Blues until January, and subsequently until the end of the season.

"He's great to have around the dressing room," said then-City manager Tony Mowbray at the time of his second extension, "The rest of the squad feed off his experience.”

Cole announced his retirement from football when his time at the club ended in the summer.


Paul Merson

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It’s a myth that the arrival of Arsène Wenger in September 1996 signalled the beginning of the end for Paul Merson at Arsenal, a club he had played at since 1985 and had won a brace of league titles, and an FA Cup/ League Cup Double. In fact, the attacker played in the Gunners side under the Frenchman in every game in the 96/97 season, bar from when he suffered from a hernia.

At the end of the campaign, Merson was even offered a brand-new four-year contract to remain in north London. However, in the summer of 1997, Merson signed for Middlesbrough, who had just been relegated after a brilliantly tumultuous year, for a reported fee believed to be £4.5million. Why did he sign? Well, because the still-aspirational Boro doubled his wages! In fact, Wenger informed him he would be paid more at Middlesbrough than Arsenal’s jewel, Dennis Bergkamp.

Merson lasted a year at the Riverside but helped gain Boro an immediate return to the Prem, earned the affection of the fans who nicknamed him "The Magic Man", and won him a place in England's squad for 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, where he scored a penalty against Argentina in the failed shoot-out. 


John Terry

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Aston Villa, with all due respect, has turned into a bit of an elephant’s graveyard for the ageing star attempting to keep that ignition burning. For pretty much every football fan, the Marmite John Terry is Mr Chelsea. He’s one of just five players to have made over 500 appearances for the west London side, the club's all-time highest scoring defender and the Blues’ most successful ever skipper: the man who lifted five Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three League Cups, one UEFA Europa League and one UEFA Champions League title.

To prolong his career and move into coaching, Terry turned down the chance to be a one-club man (we’ll choose to ignore that loan at Nottingham Forest) by refusing to retire and instead joined Aston Villa, who had been relegated to the second tier after finishing bottom in 2015/16. The then-36-year-old defender signed a one-year deal with the Championship club, turning down offers to carry on playing in the Premier League for more money because he did not want to play against Chelsea, the club he had been a part of for 22-years.

He helped Steve Bruce’s Villa into the play-offs as a player, then hung up his boots but stayed on as assistant head coach to support new gaffer Dean Smith.


Kevin Keegan

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Kevin Keegan; the only Englishman to win the Ballon d’Or twice. Less than three years after receiving the most prestigious individual player prize in football for the second time, he was plying his trade in the English Division Two.

Think about it - that’s like Luka Modric playing at Millwall.

However, there was no other place Keegan wanted to be. In fact Keegan had threatened to quit football in order to gain his move from Southampton to sign for Newcastle United in 1982. In his first season at St. James’ Park, Newcastle finished an admirable fifth in the second division, narrowly missing out on promotion. King Kev’s sophomore year however led the Toon back to the Promised Land and Keegan consequently announced his retirement on a high.

Of course, the move was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that continued as Keegan moved into management exactly a decade after that infamous transfer.


Sol Campbell


Former England international Sol was used to controversial moves. Just ask those of a certain persuasion in north London. Those who thought he couldn’t surpass the notoriety he had gained when he had swapped Spurs for Arsenal in 2001 ended up with egg on faces when Campbell signed a five-year deal with League Two side Notts County in August 2009, moving from Premier League side Portsmouth with whom he won the FA Cup just the year before. 

Campbell said that County, where he would join up with ex-England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson who had been appointed as director of football, were the best club for "where I am at the moment in my life".

"I am delighted to sign with Notts County today and I am genuinely excited by what the club is trying to achieve," Campbell, then 34-years-old, said upon the announcement. "I feel I still have a lot to offer as a footballer and hope to repay the confidence that Notts County has shown in me.

"The hard work starts now but I am confident that something special is being created at the club.”

Alas this ‘moment in his life’ lasted a mere three days after his only appearance, a 2–1 defeat to Morecambe at Christie Park on 19 September. Sol walked out on the club and his deal was cancelled with the player ripping up his contract, saying that he ‘was being a mug’.

County's executive chairman, Peter Trembling, said the club were "disappointed Sol felt he could not adjust to the long-term long-term nature of the project". Exactly ten years later, Notts County, the oldest professional association football club in the world, were relegated from the English Football League for the first time in their 157-year history.

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