The way in which various clubs are free to use and abuse the loan system has been criticized on this website but, as a Plymouth supporter, I have to concede that the ability to bring in temporary signings has been a real blessing this season.
Having plummeted to the bottom of League 2, Argyle only began to emerge from the wilderness following a flurry of borrowed arrivals back in November, shortly after exiting administration. Indeed, at the very time I was questioning the extent to which clubs are allowed to rely on the loan system, Wolves winger Ashley Hemmings was sliding home an injury-time winner for Argyle at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day.
Similarly, Argyle’s three other victories since that November watershed – against Northampton, Burton and Accrington – have each been directly influenced by at least one player signed on loan. The Pilgrims’ results, then, have arguably been dependent on the quality and form of those they’ve been able to tempt westwards.
One of the latest in a steady line of temps, Alex MacDonald, has perhaps received more attention than any other this term. Having scored on his debut to rescue an unlikely point against Southend, the diminutive Burnley striker took little time to acquaint himself with Argyle supporters. To then follow that up with a brace at Accrington left us feeling positively amorous.
Going into Saturday’s game against Dagenham, an expectant crowd of 7,800 Argyle supporters were therefore interested to see whether MacDonald could continue this impressive run and help push the Pilgrims further away from the bottom of the table.
However, it wasn’t to be as MacDonald huffed and puffed to little avail in what turned out to be a terrifically dull scoreless draw.
Starting up front alongside Nick Chadwick, the brief resembled the plot of Twins: big one use muscle, small guy run around fast. It could so easily have worked on a different day; twice the Pilgrims should have scored after good work from the subject of this profile created chances for Chadwick and Conor Hourihane, only to see them both sky their efforts. Had either of the opportunities fallen to the livelier MacDonald himself, one suspects that a different result may have ensued.
Levels of frustration grew amongst supporters as the quality of service to Argyle’s main attacking threat worsened. While MacDonald had been impressive enough, using his squat frame and quick feet to good effect over the course of the first hour, manager Fletcher sensed the need for a change and the Burnley man suffered the same fate as so many low riders that have gone before him: he was moved out to the wing.
Other than a speculative effort that was tipped around the post, that was pretty much that. In conclusion, MacDonald had been impressive but perhaps not to the point that Eddie Howe might consider throwing him in while there’s still any chance of a run to the play-offs.
But what of MacDonald’s longer-term prospects at Turf Moor? With his one-year contract up at the end of the season, does the Scotsman possess enough ability to justify a new deal? On the premise that Burnley will be competing at the top end of the Championship, I’d say no.
Behind Jay Rodriguez, Charlie Austin, Martin Paterson, Danny Ings and Zavon Hines in the striking roster and shipped out on loan after manager Howe had brought in an old favourite in the same position, Josh McQuoid, MacDonald has probably suffered from the legacy of Burnley’s year in the sun.
On their third and final year of parachute payments next season, it’s likely that the Clarets will again try to maintain their assault on the promotion places. With the focus on keeping main man Rodriguez happy at the club, wages will conceivably be tight elsewhere, reducing MacDonald’s chances of a contract renewal. Moreover, in Martin Paterson Howe already has a willing runner who’s able to play both out wide and up front. Equipped with reams more experience, it could be Paterson who finally forces MacDonald out of Lancashire after a number of years on the books.
Whatever may come, this experience with Plymouth will certainly benefit. Having scored 3 goals in as many starts, the spell has already been MacDonald’s most successful in any first team to date, previous stints north of the border with Falkirk and Inverness CT doing little to capture scouts’ interest. With the amount of space that tends to be afforded to strikers at this level, it’s not inconceivable that MacDonald will add a few more to his tally before he makes his way home; whether that’s enough to justify a new contract at a Championship club is still open to debate.