From Gateshead to GAIS: former Bolton youngster James Sinclair on his overseas odyssey

Gary Speed once singled out James Sinclair for his character when he was a Bolton youngster and that attitude has led him to become one of Britain’s rare football ambassadors in Europe.

Sinclair was close to being released by Bolton in 2009, when the club were still in the Premier League, but rather than letting himself become dejected he worked his way into the first-team picture and earned a contract extension. It is a work ethic that has never left him.

Although things didn’t work out in the end at the Reebok Stadium, his determination to make the most of his talent has seen him enjoy an eclectic career overseas.

Once an unhappy spell at Gateshead was over, Sinclair upped sticks and headed for Israel. The plan was always to go abroad, but until then the destination was never set.

“After my last year at Bolton, the idea was to go over to America but that didn’t work out due to injury,” Sinclair told The Set Pieces. “Prior to the Gateshead move I was going to sign (for a club) in Norway, but that fell through at the last minute so I joined Gateshead as that was a club close to me.

“I wanted to travel and experience something new rather than drop down the leagues where it wasn’t as professional and people didn’t take it as seriously. As a youngster you’d be doing all the extra training and you’d see people who are only playing as they basically have no other way of making a living.

“We’re talking about drinking heavily at the weekend – that was the vibe I was getting – and I didn’t want to be stuck in that, so I thought I’d go over to Europe even though I knew it would be hard.”

It was a move that shocked his close friends but not his family, who encouraged him to take up the opportunity to join Sektzia Nes Tziona.

“When I went to Israel, loads of people were saying ‘what the hell are you doing?’ Luckily my dad had worked there quite a bit, and he said it was really nice and safe, it’s nothing like you see on the TV,” said Sinclair.

“If it wasn’t for my dad and my parents, I probably wouldn’t have taken that risk and would have just gone down the leagues back in England or potentially stopped playing.”

Sinclair’s spell in Israel didn’t last too long, but its failings did not put him off staying away from home as he felt he needed more time to prove himself. After reviewing his options, the Newcastle-born defender joined Polonia Bytom in Poland.

It was a different experience in Poland as Sinclair now knew how important it was to adapt to his new surroundings after his time in Israel.

“In Poland, the first six months I was (playing) with a Canadian with Polish parents, but after he left there were basically Poles, Czechs and Slovakians on the team so I had to learn the language quicker. When you’re forced to speak it more, you learn more that way,” Sinclair explained.

“You see round the city, what the people are like, how they speak. When I go on holiday, I’m not the sort of person who wants to go into the same restaurant every night. If you go to another country, you want to know you’ve been abroad – there’s no point in staying in the hotel, as you might as well have not gone away.”

After 15 months in Eastern Europe, Sinclair, who is currently studying part-time for a Sports Science degree, was on the move again, but this time it was a more permanent arrangement. He has spent almost four years in Sweden since first moving to the country in January 2013 to join Ljungskile SK, and is clearly settled in the country.

Now at his third club in Sweden, GAIS, Sinclair feels at home in Gothenburg having fully embraced the football and the lifestyle.

“I’m halfway into my fourth year. It’s the third club I’ve been at in Sweden, and I’m really enjoying it here.

“I’ve been with my girlfriend for three years and with all that’s going on with Brexit, I’ve looked into applying for a Swedish passport when my contract finishes at GAIS – that could be a bonus later on so I can travel around Europe. With my girlfriend here, it feels like home and I am not missing England as I did in the other countries.”

Sinclair worked under English coach Graham Potter at Ostersunds last season, earning promotion in the process before his move to GAIS. There’s been a heavy British influence at his last two clubs, which has helped give Sinclair a great feeling of familiarity on and off the pitch.

“At my club last year, it was basically an English club in Sweden. I think, including staff, there were ten British people there.

“Now, at GAIS, our coach is half-American, half-Swedish so he swings in between; a lot of it is done in English but then he will throw things out in Swedish. It’s just like a United Nations in the changing rooms, it doesn’t have a real Swedish vibe.

“The captain was the only foreigner on the team at his club last season and he said everything would be in Swedish, whereas when I played with him at Ljungskile SK the year before there were six or seven foreigners on the team so there was a lot more English.

“What brings the foreign guys closer together (is that) we don’t have friends and families in the area, so it’s good to be better acquaintances with the other foreign lads off the field.”

There’s been no shortage of ups and downs following Sinclair’s decision to move abroad six years ago but there’s no doubt in his mind that it was the right thing to do. He now believes more Englishmen should make the leap to the Continent, even if the recent Brexit vote has caused some mild concern about his future.

“I definitely think so (that more English players should move abroad). I remember when Roy Hodgson was appointed England manager one of the first things he said was that you don’t see that many English youngsters abroad,” said Sinclair.

“It’s such a culture shock as it’s such a different style of play; there are clubs here in the third or fourth tiers, who play on astroturf and they all play out from the back. In England you’d never get a lower league team playing out from the back.

“It’s something I’d definitely recommend to younger players, even if it’s just on loan abroad for six months. You learn so much about yourself, learn a different type of football and a different culture. I’m pleased I’ve had the balls to pack my stuff and move to a different country a few times. It’s had its positives and negatives, but it’s something I probably wouldn’t change.”

Sinclair has used every ounce of talent and every opportunity to his advantage in his career and life, allowing him to reap the benefits of what football’s diversity has to offer. The adventure is unlikely to end any time soon.

From Gateshead to GAIS: former Bolton youngster James Sinclair on his overseas odyssey
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