From Zambia to Israel: The Robert Earnshaw Story

Lost Boyo in SCOTLAND: Greenock Morton (loan) ISRAEL: Maccabi Tel Aviv

Other Clubs: Cardiff City, West Bromwich Albion, Norwich City, Derby County, Nottingham Forest

Wales Career: Wales U21 (10 caps/1 goal) Wales (58 goals/16 goals)

Who is the only player to have scored a hatrick in League Two, League One,the Championship, the Premier League, the League Cup, the FA Cup and at international level?”

Sit amongst football fans in a pub and you might eventually hear this question asked as they try to outfox each other in a battle of football knowledge wit. I actually witnessed one of these quiz question defining hatricks, as I was at the Millennium Stadium to witness the player  in question (and the answer of course) put 3 goals past Scotland in Wales’ 4-0 win over the Scots in February 2004. The problem with this very question is that most people seem to know the answer these days. Of course, the answer is Robert Earnshaw – one of the latest Welsh players to venture overseas and to become a Lost Boyo. On the 20th September 2012 Robert Earnshaw signed for Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv on a season long loan from Cardiff City. However, the move to Israel is technically not Earnie’s first stint as a Lost Boyo.

Earnshaw celebrates his hatrick against Scotland with his trademark somersault back in 2004

To start with, Robert Earnshaw was not actually born in Wales, but in Zambia, which I guess makes him a real Lost Boyo. You may have noted that the name Earnshaw is not exactly the most African sounding of names, as his Dad, David Earnshaw was actually from Yorkshire. David Earnshaw was manager of a coal mine in Zambia when he met Robert’s mother, Rita. Zambia was not to be the only African home of the Earnshaws, as David moved the family from Zambia to Malawi where he had acquired a job managing a coal mine in the South African country in 1987.

Tragically, in 1990, David Earnshaw fell sick and it soon transpired he had typhoid fever; in May of that year he passed away. This dramatic turn in the Earnshaws’ family life led to Rita deciding to move the family to where her sister was living: a small town in the South Wales’ valleys called Caerphilly. Robert was still only 9. By the time he was 8, Earnie could speak 3 different languages: the Chichewa language of Malawi, the Bemba language of Zambia and a bit of English. On arriving in South Wales, Earnshaw admitted that he was no expert in the language and that Wales was completely alien to him.

“It was a completely different world. It was much colder and everyone spoke English and although I could speak basic English I had to learn a lot, but when you’re kid you just get on with it.”

Pontypridd’s Cardinal Newman school was historically a rugby school, so Earnie found his football outside of the school yard, firstly with Llanbradach and then more successfully with GE Wales, where he scored 80 goals in one season in his teen years. In 1997, Earnshaw would find himself signing for the academy of his local league side, Cardiff City. No-one expected that this Zambian-born striker would become a Cardiff City legend.

Robert Earnshaw in action for Cardiff City against future manager Malky Mackay

After scoring 57 goals in the youth team, a 16-year old Earnshaw was called upon by the senior team and he made his debut in a game against Brighton. August 1998 saw Robert Earnshaw become a full professional and he celebrated in style on the opening day of the season with an amazing overhead kick goal from the edge of the box against Hartlepool to equalise for the Bluebirds. Cardiff manager Frank Burrows gave him his first Lost Boyo experience by sending young Earnshaw to Scottish club Greenock Morton to ‘toughen up’; Earnie continued scoring with 2 goals in 4 games for the Scottish First Division club.

After a month in Scotland, new Cardiff manager Billy Aire recalled Earnshaw and he was soon to become the prolific goalscorer that the Ninian Park faithful would fall in love with. Earnie, as he became affectionately known, made sporadic appearances throughout his first three seasons, before making his name in the 2000/01 season with Cardiff playing in the Third Division. In the 2000/01 season Earnshaw scored 25 goals in all competitions, which helped Cardiff to promotion, and added a further 50 goals in his next two seasons in the Second Division to cement his reputation as a lethal finisher. The trademark somersault celebration was becoming a regular occurence at Ninian Park. Earnshaw was particularly prolific in the 2002/03 season with 35 goals which once again helped the Bluebirds achieve promotion, this time to the second tier. It was in this period that Earnshaw made his debut for Wales – what a debut it would prove to be! Seconds after the second half had kicked off, Earnshaw went one-on-one with the legendary Oliver Kahn and clinically finished past him to win the game 1-0 for Wales against the mighty Germans. Earnie was making a big name for himself in the Championship and on the international scene for Mark Hughes’ successful Wales side, so it was no surprise when a Premier League club came and swooped for him.

In August 2004, Robert Earnshaw signed for newly promoted West Brom in a £3m deal. After 7 games without a goal, a barren run as far as the clinical Welshman was concerned, Earnie eventually found the net twice in one game against Southampton. Earnshaw’s time at West Brom would be as successful as it was frustrating for him. West Brom’s Ronnie Allen Trophy would be awarded to him for being the club’s top goalscorer with 14 goals in his debut Premier League season – goal which would ultimately help West Brom pull off the ‘Great Escape’ and stave off relegation. However, the mastermind behind the escape, manager Bryan Robson, mainly deployed Earnshaw as an impact substitute rather than a starter, much to the striker’s frustration. Halfway through his second season at the Hawthorns, Earnshaw handed in a transfer request and during the January transfer window of 2006 he moved to Championship side Norwich for around £3m. With half of the season left, Earnshaw scored 8 goals in 15 games before scoring 18 league goals in the following 2006/07 Championship season (a more impressive stat considering he missed several months of that season with injury).

Earnshaw’s success at Norwich would lead to him returning to the Premier League, as  Derby County saw him as the goalscorer who could fire them to Premier League survival on club’s return to the big time. Unfortunately, Earnshaw’s time at Derby would be a torrid one as the club struggled collectively, alongside Earnie struggling personally. Earnshaw only managed one league goal  (plus one more in the FA Cup) during his spell at Derby whilst the club managed to accumulate the lowest Premier League points tally in the league’s history. Both parties decided it was perhaps best if Earnshaw departed from Pride Park as the club plummeted straight back down to the Championship. In a slight shock move, Earnshaw made the short journey down Brian Clough Way to join Derby’s big rivals, Nottingham Forest, a club where he would rediscover his lethal goalscoring form. Despite a slow start at Forest, Earnshaw would go on to become a real fan favourite scoring 43 goals in 111 appearances for the club with many of these goals coming from a starting place on the bench. Earnshaw’s last contribution to the club was to almost drag Forest into the playoff final as he came off the bench to score Forest’s only goal in the playoff semi-final against Swansea, before hitting the post  in the dying minutes (if he’d scored the score would have gone to 2-2 and probably extra time). This would be Earnie’s last game in the red of Forest.

Earnshaw scores for Forest against former club Cardiff.

Whilst Earnshaw travailed around several clubs, Earnshaw’s Wales career had taken a dip. His international career had begun with a flurry of goals as Earnshaw was used as an impact sub to back up to Wales’ main strikers of Craig Bellamy and John Hartson. However, as the years went on and Hartson retired and Bellamy’s injuries became more frequent, more emphasis was placed on Earnshaw to be Wales’ main goal-getter. Although Earnshaw has always given his all for the Welsh national team, he would never truly bring his prolific goalscoring at club level to the national stage and managers, John Toshack and then Gary Speed, turned towards people like Sam Vokes, Ched Evans and Steve Morison instead. Sadly, most people will probably now remember Earnie’s time in a Wales shirt best for his unfortunate glaring miss against England at Wembley, when he should have put Wales level with the ‘old enemy’ after a period of Wales dominating the game.

The prodigal son returns! Following a breakdown in contract talks at Forest, Earnshaw made a surprise to return to his boyhood club, Cardiff City. After Cardiff performed their annual playoff collapse in the 2011 playoff semi-final against Reading, the Bluebirds underwent a squad and management overhaul with many players departing and Dave Jones being sacked and replaced by Watford manager, Malky Mackay. Earnshaw, the blast from the past, would be one of the first new faces in the door of the new look City. Earnshaw was excited to return to the club as were the fans and Earnshaw rewarded them with his first goal back at the club in the Severnside derby against Bristol City, before scoring his 200th career goal a week later against Burnley.

Earnie returns to Cardiff City much to the delight of the Bluebird faithful

As the 2011/12 championship season developed, Mackay adapted Cardiff’s system, usually playing with a lone striker. This change in system led to Earnshaw dropping down to the bench with Mackay opting to play fellow countryman, Kenny Miller, in the lone role up front. The figure of Kenny Miller would divide Cardiff fans massively, as many saw him purely as a workhorse and not as proficient a finisher as the legendary Earnshaw. However, Mackay would stick with Miller for the majority of the season and Earnshaw would finish the season with just 3 league goals (2 of those scored in the opening month of the season). Despite having a good preseason, as his second season back at Cardiff was about to begin, there was a whole abundance of strikers at the club vying for a starting place with the signings of Heidar Helgusson, Etien Velikonja and the returning Craig Bellamy, as well as Rudy Gestede remaining at the club. Earnie wanted to stay at the club and he vowed to battle for his place, but soon he saw little chance of first team football and began to look elsewhere. Elsewhere turned out to be further than anyone thought.

Maccabi Tel Aviv are the most successful team in Israeli football history. The club’s history reads as follows:  18 league titles, 22 national cups and 2 Asian Champions Cups, as well as being the only Israeli team never to play outside of the top-tier of Israeli football. The club have also had numerous forays into the UEFA Cup (or Europa League in new money) and the Champions League. In September of this season they made the ambitious attempt to sign Robert Earnshaw and succeeded. Earnshaw moved to Maccabi Tel Aviv on a one-year loan deal.

Earnshaw had claimed during preseason that he had the potential to score 25 league goals for Cardiff in the coming season, but it soon dawned on him that first team football would be limited at the newly rebranded ‘Redbirds’. In recent interviews, Earnshaw has stated that he had always wanted to play overseas at some point and when the offer of football in Tel Aviv was put to him, Earnie seemed to be prepared to fully delve into a new footballing culture. The week of Earnshaw’s departure to Tel Aviv, his twitter was full of excitable tweets from the Welshman raring to go in his new football adventure and pictures of stunning coastal views from his hotel. Earnshaw declared in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post:

“When I was out of a contract a year and a half ago at Nottingham Forest there were different options of going abroad with different teams. Ever since I was young I wasn’t always set on just playing in England. I always wanted to experience different things and different football. It’s not been a case of it’s just something that has come up and I’ve done it. I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I’ll play abroad somewhere.”

Earnie arrived as a marquee signing for Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Israeli League as a whole and much was expected from a player that had scored plenty of goals in a league seen by many on the continent as the league that was the pinnacle of a player’s career to play in. The man behind the deal that brought Earnshaw to Israel was also a player who had played in the Premier League, but did not have quite the impact that was expected: Jordi Cruyff – formerly of Manchester United and Barcelona. After a nomadic end to his playing career with him playing at Metalurh Donetsk in Ukraine and Valletta in Malta; he then began coaching at the Maltese club, before becoming manager at AEK Larnaca and then sporting director at Maccabi Tel Aviv.

However, after Earnshaw’s high profile move, he has not been as prolific as hoped. After Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s shock clinching of the Israeli league title last year, this season has seen normal order restored with Maccabi Tel Aviv currently heading the league table with their rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv in pursuit of them. Many may have expected the Welshman to fire Maccabi to the summit, but instead the goals have come from Eliran Atar, with the Israeli striker currently leading the goalscoring charts in Israel with 14 goals. Unfortunately, Earnshaw  slipped to the periphery of the Maccabi team and had to settle for a place on the bench. Although Earnshaw’s contribution had been arguably significant after his only two league goals proved to be winning ones with Earnie netting winners against Ashdod and Maccabi Netanya.

Earnshaw scores for Maccabi Tel Aviv

Despite Earnshaw’s claims that he was enjoying life on foreign shores, there were moments of actual terror for the Welshman. The volatile political situation in the East directly affected one of Earnshaw’s training sessions. As conflict between Hamas militants and Palestinians flared up again, a missile shell exploded near Maccabi’s training ground; as a siren blared near the training ground Earnshaw was startled to what was actually going on, as his team mates screamed at him to run to cover in a nearby shelter, as he told the Sun:

 “The foreign boys like me did not have a clue what was going on until the local Israeli boys were shouting and screaming at us, ‘Come in, come in, come in. You have to take shelter. Apparently you’ve got about 60 seconds to take cover. When they tell you that — and you hear the word ‘missiles’ mentioned — you move pretty fast!..I used to think that Cardiff on a night out could get a bit lively. I can assure you it’s a lot livelier out here in Tel Aviv right now!”

Malky Mackay and Cardiff had been watching Earnshaw’s situation out in Israel closely and publicly stated that if Earnshaw felt uncomfortable or in danger at Mediterrean city that the club would immediately recall him. The ceasefire called a couple of months ago has calmed things down in Israel for the moment and Earnshaw appeared happy to remain in Israel.

Earnhsaw had not had the impact out in Israel he would have liked, although, admittedly, Earnshaw had been hampered by some inconveniently timed niggly injuries. Earnshaw spoke determinedly of helping Maccabi win the league to add silverware to his CV, but there has been a sudden U-turn in Earnshaw’s stance.

As the January transfer window was creeping open, Earnshaw announced that he was returning to Cardiff, after 9 games and 2 goals at Maccabi (as well as 1 appearance and 1 goal in the Toto Cup). Earnshaw spoke of his regret that he would have to leave Tel Aviv and spoke of genuine affection for the place and the club, but ulitmately his decision was dictated by “family reasons” and “certain circumstances”. Cruyff also spoke of his sadness to see Earnshaw depart Tel Aviv and thanked him for his efforts at the club:

“Robert played a significant part in helping us capture top spot with two winning goals against Ashdod and Maccabi Netanya. We all appreciate his professionalism and attitude over the past four months and we wish him all the best for the future.”

The Robert Earnshaw story is an interesting one, from Zambia to Israel via South Wales. How much of a future Earnshaw has at Cardiff City remains to be seen and it’ll be interesting to see if Mackay gives him a chance in the coming months, especially since Cardiff have been flying high without him. Mackay already has hinted at the fact that Earnshaw will be farmed out to another club for first team football.

Although the Tel Aviv experience may not have worked out exactly as  Earnshaw had hoped, he has already talked about how he hopes the whole experience will aid him in the future with the Welshman even hinting at a future coaching career by claiming, “Maybe later on I’ll become a coach or manager and I think the experience (out in Israel) will help me.”

Pictures courtesy of The Guardian Sport, walesonline.co.uk, bbc.co.uk, inthestands.co.uk and maccabi-tlv.co.il

One thought on “From Zambia to Israel: The Robert Earnshaw Story

  1. Pingback: Lost in…Bournemouth « Lost Boyos

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