George Cox knows how Erling Haaland feels, having spent the previous night watching Borussia Dortmund get ripped apart at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The defender’s Fortuna Sittard side have regularly succumbed to Ajax, including a 5-2 defeat in Amsterdam last season. Where Cox and Haaland differ is the former Brighton man scored twice.
A 30-yard first-time strike too hot for André Onana to handle and a second pinged across the goalkeeper into the corner made people take notice of the impact Cox was having in the Eredivisie. “After that game, my phone had never gone so mental, it was baking hot,” Cox says. “It didn’t sink in until a day after that I had scored two against Ajax at their stadium. Still to this day people ask me about it and it will be one of those moments that will stay with me for ever.”
Pitting himself against Champions League sides attracted Cox to the Netherlands in 2019. The left-back had spent time on loan at Northampton in League Two – a stark reality check after coming through the ranks at Brighton. To avoid having his development stifled in the lower leagues, Cox took the risk of moving abroad.
“It was key to go somewhere I would play and that’s what mattered most,” he says. “If you go to League One, you know what it’s like, if you make one mistake you are out for six weeks, which is not good for development.”
Cox’s success has not gone unnoticed back home and he came close to joining QPR in the summer, taking a tour of the training ground and working out where he would live before the deal fell through at the last minute. The 23-year-old knows the Championship or a move to another top-flight club abroad would be the ideal next step after more than 60 games developing at Fortuna. The left-back is being monitored by clubs in England, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.
“People are obviously telling you what needs to be better but it’s not like in England where you have four or five people screaming at you. It is very competitive but there is more of a learning process to making a mistake, whereas in England you need to ‘grow up and do this now’. For younger guys this is good and for me it’s been good but I am ready to take the next step now because I’ve gone past this stage. Younger guys who are learning get swallowed up by the lower leagues as they just can’t cope with it because if they make a mistake they’re out and cannot find a rhythm.”
At Brighton, Cox trained with the first team under Chris Hughton but never featured in a competitive match. “With the manager now [Graham Potter], I think I would have suited the way he plays. If I was two or three years younger I think I would have got the chance there but I was at a point where I was needing to play games, so had to leave. Chris was really good with me, he always had me training with the first team but I just didn’t suit what he wanted from a left-back.”
At Brighton heart monitoring detected an irregular beat which required surgery. If it had not been picked up during screening, Cox could have suffered a cardiac arrest while playing. With any sportsperson the news of a heart issue is concerning but the operation corrected the problem, allowing Cox to return to the game.
He has made the most of the life-changing moment. “It was a life shock, it made me appreciate things a lot more, as you never know what is around the corner. It really opened me up as a person and when it opens you up as a person, then you become more open to more stuff in normal life.”
Others have not been as fortunate as Cox, making each time he sees a player collapse on a pitch a stark reminder of what could have happened. “The [Christian] Eriksen one was a prime example and especially with how much was caught on TV was horrendous. It might have not got to that point but the fact they found it so early makes me very lucky.”
Cox is one of a number of players to show there is a different path to the perennial one-year deals in League Two. Young players and those who are not enjoying life in the lower tiers come to Cox for advice.
“Players who have gone down to League One or Two and it’s not worked out want to know what it’s like to play abroad. It is a good place for people to learn the trade.” He cites the example of PSV’s England Under-21 international Noni Madueke, who came through the youth ranks at Spurs. “It is a good place to play games and get experience against top teams. He is obviously playing in a top team but for me it is a case of wanting to prove yourself against sides like Ajax and PSV. It was the best thing to move here and it’s paid off.”