The loan system in football is something which has become more and more of an option for clubs recently, but does it really work for all concerned?
Is it simply like living together before you get married? Try before you buy? Or is it evidence of an employer not really rating a player but giving them some first team football just to keep their value up? Is it a great way for a club to try out a player before they fully commit themselves to a purchase? There are pros and cons to both sides.
The system has recently been under the spotlight after Josh McEachran gave a radio interview and revealed a rather odd system Chelsea employ.
Josh was going to be the next big thing at Chelsea. He was expected to be a superstar making the leap from youth team to first-team at Stamford Bridge. Real Madrid were even trying to entice him from the age of 16. They had a five-year contract on the table, but being a boyhood fan of the club he elected to stay at Chelsea.
He joined the club when he was seven, and by the time he reached 17, he’d played in the Premier League and Champions League. No one since John Terry had burst through from the youth team to the seniors and all the word around the press box was Josh was going to be ‘the one’.
Chelsea’s Loan Group
But by 2011-12 he was put into something known as “the Loan Group”. No one knows whether this is unique to Chelsea, but this was something revealed by Josh in this recent radio interview.
This group appears to be a separate set of players who all train together but away from the other players in the club. This can’t be particularly inspiring and smacks a little of the structure Paolo Di Canio foolishly installed during his short stay at Sunderland. Di Canio wouldn’t let any players mix, eat or socialise around the first team in a belief this would motivate them to want to be part of that group.
Many young players at top clubs expect to be sent out on loan and therefore they should be prepared for it, but does it stifle their progress?
McEachran’s first loan spell was at Swansea under Brendan Rodgers, a former coach at Chelsea. For some reason, he wasn’t playing and by his own admission, it killed him. But does a recipient club have a duty to play a loan player? He is not theirs, after all.
From his disappointing time at Swansea, he bounced around the Championship spending time at Middlesbrough, Watford, Wigan and then even moved to Chelsea’s unofficial feeder club, Vitesse Arnhem.
Cutting the apron strings
Finally in 2015, aged twenty-two he decided to step off the loan treadmill and signed permanently for Brentford. He seemed happy again and was keen to prove to himself once more that those who had faith in him at a young age were not mistaken.
Chelsea are unusual in the way they treat young players. Under Abramovich, at any one time, they seem to have as many players out on loan as there are still at the club.
They currently have 31 players out on loan throughout Europe and South America. Would these players have been better staying at their clubs rather than take the wages offered by Chelsea? No doubt they’re on more money but are they developing as better players when they don’t get any exposure to Chelsea’s training staff?
The loan system caused controversy a few years ago when Watford, then a Championship club, appeared to take advantage of the rules. Having signed a deal with the owners of Udinese and Granada they had access to a crop of players they wouldn’t ordinarily have had. In one match against Palace, Watford fielded seven international loan players. Clubs can have as many loan players as they want but can only field five at a time. That limit does not apply to foreign players.
Did this do any good for Watford? If they had gained promotion how many of those players would’ve stayed? What about the players who were at Watford who were then losing their places to loan players? If this was the policy of the manager and he gets the sack, then the new guy comes in with a fragmented team and it could set them back years.
But Watford eventually gained promotion and seem fairly comfortable with their place in the Premier League.
How Does it Work?
In addition to being able to arrange loan deals during transfer windows, there are two emergency loan windows. One starts a week after transfer deadline day at the end of August till the fourth Thursday in November. The second starts just after deadline day in January and runs to the fourth Thursday in March. These give clubs the opportunity to see how their rivals have done in the transfer window and then strengthen their squad accordingly.
Loaning a player used to mean;
“We can’t find a buyer for you at the moment, and we want to get some money for you, but if we leave you in the reserves no one will see you and your value will reduce. So, we’ll loan you out to a team at a lower level and then more people will see you in action and may want to buy you”.
But it seems to have moved to;
“We can’t find a place for you in our first team, but there’s that little club over there who would do anything to have a player of your ability, so we’ll loan you out to them. They can play you more regularly and return you as a much better player. Then, if you haven’t developed, they can keep you permanently, and we don’t lose out.”
Does the loan system mean lower league clubs don’t have to search for and develop talent? Does this make them lazy? The recipient club are getting a player employed and coached by a bigger club who will generally pay the majority of the player’s wages. They cannot really lose as they have no interest in the player’s development or his future career. They can just use him for as long as they want and send him back when he’s no longer required.
Why should the recipient club really care about a player who has lost form when he can just sit in the reserves with his wage tab being picked up by someone else? Had they invested in the player and the manager chose him personally, they’d be keener on his development and then need to turn his form around.
Short-term gain, long-term loss
You can hardly blame League One and League Two clubs for using the system as they could point to missing out on young talent through bigger clubs luring potential stars at an early age. With the rules currently surrounding age-restricted squads, many bigger clubs pick the cream of young talent to fill their academies, denying smaller, more local clubs, the chance to have these kids from an early age and then make money on the transfer.
Short-term loans are a particular problem. A club can loan a player for one or two months, not have to contribute much to his wages and gain an unfair advantage over their rivals. The recipient club can point to injuries and suspensions meaning they need to bolster their squad, yet as they don’t have to commit any finances to the transaction, they gain an unfair advantage over their rivals who may not have the same squad restrictions.
If a League One club uses three to four loan players and gets promoted, they then find themselves in a higher division without those players who got them there and needing to replace them before they go back down again. If they can’t attract more loan signings of sufficient ability then they face the prospect of having to play players who made way for those loan signings the previous year, when they weren’t considered good enough.
If a club doesn’t want to sell a player, they can send him out on loan so at least he gets regular football. It could ensure his value is maintained as a result. If the player was just playing in the reserves, would he receive as much exposure as he would playing at a lower level? At least by appearing in the lower divisions, he could well play in front of a larger crowd than if he was playing reserve football.
It is also a test of the player’s attitude. If he is handed an opportunity to go to another club on loan, it could be to test his ability to see it as an opportunity. If he is successful then it could persuade his employer to stick with him. They may have been unsure whether he was going to make it and so a decent loan spell could convince them.
In these days of player power, should a player view the circumstance of a loan deal as an opportunity to show his employer what he really can do? More often than not, he will be up against players of a lesser ability, so it surely represents an excellent opportunity to shine. If he is playing well and there is an injury at his parent club, this should put him in the running for a recall.
Should a club loan a player out rather than sell him? If they’re not sure whether he is for them then shouldn’t they just try and negotiate a deal with a club who do rate him? Are they giving the player false hope when perhaps they can’t find anyone to pay the money they want for him? Does the loan system encourage the bigger clubs to stockpile potential stars when they should really just cut them loose so he can try and make it with another club?
It is well known some players are bought by clubs in order to avoid their rivals buying them. Manchester United famously plumped for Wayne Rooney as they were concerned Newcastle United were going to snap him up. This is also a favourite trick of Jose Mourinho. When he was Chelsea manager, the second time around, he burst in on negotiations between Mohamed Salah and Liverpool and offered cash up front for a player he subsequently wasn’t that interested in. Funny how things change over time, isn’t it?
Salah was sent on out loan from Chelsea to Fiorentina and Roma, before his permanent move to the latter resulted in him coming under Liverpool’s radar again. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The recipient club is unconcerned with the development of the loanee as they have little financial stake in the player. Wouldn’t it have been better to pay something for the player and then they’d be keener to see a return on their investment? Few things in life are truly valued when we get them for free rather than having to pay a decent amount for them.
If the loan system didn’t exist or was at least a little more restrictive, then bigger clubs may not buy players they don’t really need. European clubs are often buying players only to send them back out on loan straight away. Wouldn’t these players be better staying where they were? It seems to be the player equivalent of land grab.
Going back to McEachran, he first went out on loan during the 2012-13 season. He finally left the club in 2015. In that time, think of the players who were bought by the club to play in his position.
He was handed his debut by Carlo Ancelotti. Andre Villas-Boas was in charge when he was sent out on loan. Between 2012-2015, there were three different managers at the club. Had he returned to Stamford Bridge, it was likely there would have been a whole different ethos around the place compared to when he was in the first team group.
How does a player adjust to that?
Do Smaller Clubs Get a Fair Deal?
The way bigger clubs use the loan system, is this simply an excuse to satisfy themselves they are sharing riches with the smaller clubs? By loaning their talented stars to the less well-off, is this a way of the bigger clubs ‘looking after’ them by letting them have use of their flash motors without having to find the money to buy them permanently?
Big clubs plunder the talent pool at an early age, denying the smaller clubs the opportunity of cashing in on a rising star they have nurtured, so by loaning back these players to the poor smaller club, is this simply a case of the bigger club being able to declare;
“Look, we are taking care of these smaller clubs and as they don’t have the money to find this talent themselves, we are giving them the opportunity of using our resources without having to pay for them.”
Rather than receive charity, in the long run, there could be an argument for tough love. Instead of offering clubs further down the food chain, a ready-made young prospect, restricting the flow of quick fixes might encourage smaller clubs to develop their own talent. At first, it might suffocate clubs that have come to depend upon loans, in some cases irreparably so. If that is the case, the real issue could be in the fragile running of smaller clubs, rather than the frugality of wealthier counterparts.
Nepotism and Resources
The other issue with the system is that a lower league club may well be unable to fund a large squad of players and with it a suitable backroom staff. Although a player may well receive regular first-team football, how likely is he to receive first class coaching?
Look at the Darren Ferguson example at Preston a number of years ago. He had two players on loan from his Dad, then when the club sacked him, Manchester United immediately withdrew the players. Surely that distorts the system? Surely that is just an example of United only loaning to Preston because Alex’s son was the manager. How is that fair towards the other clubs in their division who could never get access to those players as they employ the wrong manager?
Can you really fall in love with a player who is only just passing through? There are plenty of examples of players coming in and giving their all for a club to help them to promotion or at least stave off relegation, then returning to their parent club. Fans feel a real affinity towards a player who does his utmost for a club he has no real reason to love. When you watch your team half-filled with these players, however, there is surely a sense of anti-climax. No matter how much they do for your club they’ll be somewhere else next season, anyway.
There are some examples of deals which resulted in a player arriving at a club he’d supported as a boy, purely on a loan basis. Paul Jones at Liverpool was one. In January 2004, he arrived from Southampton as cover for Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland. He was a fanatical fan of the club and it was a dream come true. He only made two appearances, then he was off again.
For the player who is desperate for first team action, being sent out on loan can be seen as a real test from his employer. He is expected to knuckle down, work hard, and prove his professionalism. Once released from his own club’s monitoring, he is sent to a team where he is expected to conform to their aims and principles. He has to learn to fit in with colleagues who are more committed to the club they are playing for than he is. Then after he has proved himself and tried to develop his game, he returns to his parent club with no certainty of whether he is going to be kept on, sold or just sent out to another club to prove himself all over again.
Some loan deals work well. In 2008-2009, Leicester City sent DJ Campbell on loan to Blackpool and he helped them to promotion, ending up as top goalscorer. In 2011, Fabio Borini, yet another Chelsea player, was on loan at Swansea and helped them to promotion.
One famous instance was in 1999 when goalkeeper Jimmy Glass kept Carlisle in the football league with a last minute goal, and yet he was on loan from Swindon. Inevitably Glass became a bigger hero at Brunton Park than he ever did at the County Ground.
A test of attitude
Of course, many will point to the benefit the player will experience from playing in front of bigger crowds even at a lower level than they might in the reserves. But if he was playing in the reserves at least a good performance might put him in with a chance of first-team selection, whereas if he’s been sent out on loan, he’s likely to have to wait until the end of his loan period before he’s ever considered by his parent club.
Another bonus for the parent club is to use the loan system for a player who believes he’s arrived simply because the club signed him. Consider a young player now under the impression he’s made it just because he has a fat contract and is not really pushing himself as much as he should. The parent club can then send him out on loan to test his mettle and put him under pressure by giving him the impression he needs to prove himself otherwise they may make the move permanent.
There is a lot of talk these days about player power, but when it comes to the loan system, it seems to me the clubs, especially the bigger ones, are in complete control of the player and can treat him any way they please. Of course, the duty of any club is to maximise their assets and if they believe the best thing for the player is for him to gain first-team experience elsewhere, then who am I to question it?
Over 10 years ago, there was a documentary on BBC about the parlous state of English football. They spoke to Terry Yorath, who was then managing at Sheffield Wednesday. Wednesday had just been relegated from the Premier League after spending 15 out of the previous 16 years there. Yorath shocked me when he said clubs like Wednesday weren’t going to be able to afford to run reserve sides anymore.
The price of developing talent
It seemed to be a crunch time for English football. When you consider the amount of clubs who have either entered administration or been very close to it since, it would seem to have been an accurate prediction. Lower league clubs have every right to protest about the lack of money trickling down from the Premier League and so you can hardly blame them if they take whatever scraps are tossed their way.
Premier League clubs seem so obsessed with hoovering up as much talent as possible to fill their squads that they give the impression of not knowing what to do with many of these players. On the other hand, many managers point to agents who will only offer a player if they can guarantee first-team football, no matter how unproven the talent is.
One solution could be for clubs to be limited to a professional squad of 40. If they want another player, they need to make space first. It would only work for Premier League clubs as that sort of a squad size is unrealistic for lower league clubs. But it still doesn’t deal with the problem of a young player choosing Chelsea or Manchester City because he can triple his wages, then find he’s not wanted by that club, only to then discover he must take a massive drop in wages for another club to employ him.
The problem seems to stem back to money. There is just too much of it around in the Premier League. Look at the sums newly promoted clubs such as Fulham and Wolves have been splashing around since they went up.
The latest rich clubs list even has a club with as little experience at England’s top table as Bournemouth in the top 30 richest clubs in the world.
With this in mind, the answer appears to be to have a fairer system of spreading the prize money. The Premier League is one of the richest in the world, yet the majority of the 72 Football League clubs seem to be a step away from bankruptcy. Of course, this approach is completely dependent on Premier League Chairmen changing their own rules and with dominance from Spanish and German clubs in European competitions, it is more likely they’ll be reluctant to reduce their own wealth. Given the vast amounts wealthy owners have invested in these clubs, they are less likely to sit back and watch a lot of the prize money go to lower league clubs and other owners who have invested less.
It seems players are not prepared to play in a reserve team and earn their right to a first-team place, believing they need to make the grade as early as possible. Maybe this reflects society today and maybe we get the system we deserve, but I cannot help feeling there is little good being done for the game, and ultimately, the players. Players are choosing to go to clubs playing Champions League football, without the certainty of a first-team place, rather than further their career at a club not under that spotlight.
However, there seems to be little protest over the system and clubs from both ends of the financial spectrum just seem to be using each other for their own benefit. Perhaps it is simply clubs trying to control the movement of players and retain at least some edge in an increasing power struggle between players, agents and clubs.
Finally, we return to Josh McEachran. After his radio interview, he Tweeted how he wasn’t so much having a go at the loan group system Chelsea employed, rather the fact his first loan spell killed him as he wasn’t getting a game.
“I said in the interview, going out on loan and not playing killed my confidence…not just going out on loan. At a top club, you expect to go out on loan to get experience.”
Chelsea then followed this up with a candid Tweet which, whilst wishing him luck, appeared to lay the blame fairly and squarely at his door.
“Engaging and interesting stuff from Josh McEachran this evening on 5 Live. Injuries (amongst other things) have limited him to 40 of a possible 140 league starts since he left for Brentford. Has apparently started this season in good nick, fingers crossed that lasts.”
Too many clubs lower down the spectrum rely on the loan system. For them, it works. Unless the bigger clubs are going to be less greedy with players then things are unlikely to change. But then maybe the players are to blame themselves. If a player is quite happy to sit in the reserves, or temporarily join a club which isn’t really interested in his development, simply for the kudos of being able to say he is their player, then how can you really blame the clubs?
McEachran took a pay-cut when he moved permanently to Brentford. Perhaps here lies the real nub of the issue: agents. How likely is an agent to look at a move to a different club if his client is going to take a drop in pay? The agent earns less and presumably, the fear is his clients’ value reduces too.