‘EL BRITANICO’ wondered what he’d signed up for as he was chased out of a stadium stood in a bullet-proof police tank.
Four more clubs in as many years later and Islington-born George Saunders is embracing the crazy world of Colombian football… and loving it.
The only England-qualified player in South America reckons his “destiny” was life in Pablo Escobar’s hometown, where he turns out for top-flight Envigado – the first club of James Rodriguez, who he trained with last summer.
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And Saunders could soon be playing for the continental champions too, with a move to Atletico Nacional on the cards.
But any Arsenal players thinking they’re getting it in the neck from fans, this Gunners trainee’s tales might make them reconsider.
Saunders explains: “I was in a final to get promoted with Cali. We’re at home and got beat 2-0. The fans tried to invade the pitch to steam into the players.
“We all had to run for the tunnel and get taken away by a bullet-proof police tanks.
“Fans went berserk. They were all smashing up bottles and waiting for us. There was a week when we couldn’t leave our houses.
“The fans liked me so, so I was one of the lucky ones. But it was a mad moment.
“Then the ultras from Cali, ten fellas came to the training pitch once and asked for money for the transport.
“The club paid for them. But they came to the players to say ‘liven up or you could maybe have problems.’ It was a threat to the team.”
Saunders, now 27, ended up in Colombia after family friend and lawyer Luis Valero sent a tape of him in action to America de Cali.
'Bogota Bandit' who blazed trail for George Saunders
Former Manchester United forward Charlie Mitten left Old Trafford for Colombia in 1950 during the country’s ‘El Dorado’ (golden) era. The Colombian league was not under Fifa control and Mitten left to triple his wages – and was branded ‘The Bogota Bandit’.
He lasted a season before returning to England where the FA fined him six months’ wages and banned him for that period. Real Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano and Stoke duo Neil Franklin and George Mountford also played in Colombia during the 50s.
Schooled at the academies of Arsenal, Villarreal and Espanyol, he represented the Catalonia ‘Seleccion’ at Under-17s level
He says: “I don’t think there’s ever been an Englishman because they play with their own. At that time they had Jordi Alba, Thiago Alcantara, Bojan Krkic all with me there.”
But his development stalled due to growth problems, playing second-division football at Spanish club Eldense when Valero’s call came asking him if he fancied a move 5,000 miles away.
Saunders mulled it over why trialing with Leyton Orient over Christmas.
He says: “Russell Slade said ‘you’re more than capable of playing at this level but we don’t know if you’re experienced and we don’t have the money. We can’t make a bet.’
“I went to Woking for a game but the football was like rugby. It was horrible, disgusting.
“I said to my dad, ‘I can’t play that football, I’d rather knock it on the head and go and do something else.’
“The way they disrespected me, putting me on for the last ten minutes at left wing – I’d never played there.
“I asked my dad if I should go to Colombia. He said ‘if you want to take a chance and change your life, you’ve got nothing to lose. Take a bet.’
“After the third game Luis called me and told me the trainer liked me and wanted to give me a contract for six months.
“The first three months I never got a game. Then I played in a cup game, which I wasn’t going to play until a player went on the booze.
“He came into training drunk. I got my chance. I had a great game and won the fans, they loved me.
“I’m a worker, running and trying to get my foot in. They liked that.
“Then I had a problem, I was suspended and had some food and a bottle of wine with my girlfriend at that time.
“The next day it was really raining and when it rains in Cali they don’t train because two footballers have died from lightning strikes, gone straight through them.
“We trained in this little hut and I was sweating, I smelled of booze. I don’t really drink, but I’ve come into training and it’s come up on me.
“They made a big deal and starting putting things in the paper that I’d been out.
“You could only have four foreigners at the club. The owner only wanted me there for six months but suddenly I’d won the stadium, they loved me.
“He had a Brazilian player he wanted to bring in but he couldn’t really take me out because it’d be a problem with the fans.
“So he made a big deal and pushed me out. It was in the paper that I’d been in clubs and that wasn’t true. So my contract wasn’t renewed and I went to Fortaleza.”
It was then Saunders met Nana, his Cali-supporting girlfriend, who’s due to give birth to their first child together at the end of July.
He adds: “The Cali fans are mad – they live for their team. Nana met me then and said the fans were saying it wasn’t right. Cali just wanted to give me the elbow.
“I went to Fortaleza – a really small club in Bogota at the bottom of the second division, no-one really knew them. But we won the league and went up.
“We played a couple of times against Cali and beat them, which was a buzz as well.
“But six months into the first division I got a really bad groin injury, it hurt when I coughed.
“Fortaleza got fed up and sent me out on loan to Union Magdalena on the coast.
“It’s so hot. Play at three o’clock in the afternoon and it’s forty degrees. I couldn’t even breathe.
“The pitches were horrible, the training facilities were a disaster. There were dry, big holes in the pitch.
“I twisted my ankle two or three times. I was thinking ‘what have I got myself into’.
“We played in a little town, like a favela. People were walking around with no shoes on. I had an apartment on the beach, but I didn’t enjoy it and football-wise it wasn’t a good time for me.
“The Fortaleza trainer had left me for dead. I had to battle my way forward. I was then lucky to go on loan to Patriotas, a first division club.
“But I was playing as a right-back, which wasn’t my natural position. I like playing as a No8, neither staying too far behind nor too far up the pitch.
“I’m more of a box-to-box player. I was there another six months and then came to Envigado.”
The club, just south of Medellin, is creeping out from the shadow of Escobar’s ‘Envigado office’ – the enforcement arm of his Medellin cartel.
Gustavo Upegui, a known associate of the drug kingpin, was owner the club’s owner when he was tortured and murdered in the middle of his night at his mansion by six hitmen dressed as police.
It was just 35 days after the man who discovered James Rodriguez had handed the 14-year-old his debut.
Saunders says: “The captain of our team knew Upegui and said football was his life.
“He knew all the young kids and watched all the training sessions.
“He absolutely adored football. He apparently made Envigado the team they are.
“I don’t know the other stuff, but he had passion for football. His older son was then the major shareholder, now my friend owns the club.”
Valero successfully got Cali removed from a US government list of entities linked to drug trafficking — nicknamed the Clinton List as it was set up by former President Bill Clinton.
But Envigado remain on it. Saunders says: “All that’s in the past. I love Medellin.
“It’s one of those places where if you show it respect, it’ll do the same to you. If you don’t it will chew you up and spit you out.
“There are obviously people here… you know where I’m coming from. I keep myself to myself.
“If I go to a place where it’s a bit dangerous, I go with someone who knows the areas.
“We went up to a favela at Christmas to give presents to the kids who haven’t got much and it was a great experience.
“Our security was a group of well-known Cali fans who suggested it to Nana.”
Upegui set up a scouting network which ensures Envigado consistently produce the best crop of talent in Colombia – with the youngest team in the top flight.
Centre-back Jorge Segura, 20, will move to Watford before being loaned out.
Saunders added: “As a foreigner here they’re maybe looking at me to do a bit more than others do.
“I try and give that leadership and bring a bit of order. Show the young kids how to live their life, live for the football.
“My family have driven me. I knew I had to make something out of my life. I could go back to England, get a job and live okay.
“But I’ve come here, I’m doing what I like, met my girlfriend and now I’ve got a family and baby on the way. It’s like my destiny was to be here.
“I’ve got a really good name here. My dad told me to make sure that wherever you go they can only say good things about you and you can feel strong and put your chest out. When you’ve got that, things become easier.”
Saunders’ stock is rising and Medellin’s two biggest clubs have taken note.
Independiente Medellin and Atletico Nacional are both interested in signing him, with a major chance he could move at the end of the season.
Copa Libertadores champions Nacional – who were also set for the Copa Sudamericana final before Chapecoense’s tragic plane crash – appear his likeliest destination.
He adds: “My objective is to end up at Nacional or Independiente, that’s where I want to be.
“Nacional is a big possibility for next season. The owner tells me there are a couple of clubs asking about me, so let’s see what happens at the end of the year.
“He told me he needs me in the team, to push these younger kids and set an example with the way you live, work, maintain the group.”
SunSport watched Saunders and Envigado train ahead of a 2-0 league derby defeat to Nacional, as the visitors squander chances and are punished.
The Englishman is evidently the young team’s leader, full of energy and comfortable on the ball. He plays as a No10 in the first half before dropping in front of the back four after the break.
What’s the perception of his game in Colombia?
He says: “On TV they call me ‘El Britanico’. They called me ‘white bread’ when I first got to Cali… or ‘El Colorado’ – red face!
“I’ve got English things but my schooling hasn’t really been in England. I’m an English player, I get stuck in and work hard.
“But I learned my football in Spain where it’s one or two touches and move. I don’t really lose the ball.
“It didn’t really fit with Orient at the time, they maybe wanted a long ball up the pitch. Sometimes it just had to be. If I’d have signed for them I wouldn’t be here. It’s my destiny.”
Saunders has a clear view of life after his playing days are up. He doesn’t rule out coming home to England but he’s happy for now.
He says: “I can go to Spain and do an intensive course and get my coaching badges, that’s a dream of mine. I’ve got that on my mind, but I don’t want to take my eye off the ball.
“There’s a lot of raw talent here. Who knows, in the future I could be sending players back to England, or Spain.
“I know good people. There’s always going to be something for me after football if I prepare myself properly. If I want to be a trainer of an agent, I’m in the world of football.
“I’ve had some real knock-backs. But I’ve been taught to fight and push forward. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You need a bit of luck, too.”