Trading Places: Time to Reform the Football League’s Loan System?
To look closely at the associated regulations is to acknowledge the Football League’s existing loan system as nothing less than a free for all.
‘Temporary loan transfer’ is the umbrella heading which comprises the following three types of move permissible under the current system:
• ‘Standard Loans’ (half or full season in length and arranged during the two transfer windows);
• ‘Emergency Loans’ (28-93 days in length and arranged both within the two transfer windows and during fixed periods outside these dates);
• ‘Youth Loans’ (identical to ‘Emergency Loans’ but applies to scholars or new professionals on a work experience-type arrangement).
Depending on the player’s age, up to 8 ‘Standards’ are allowable in a single season while limitless ‘Emergencies’ and ‘Youths’ can come and go. As many as 5 loanees may be named in a match-day squad or starting line-up.
This increasingly laissez-faire attitude to accessing players contracted to other clubs has entrenched itself over the past few seasons and, to my mind, we’re now at the point where the loan system can make or break a club’s season.
DJ Campbell and Fabio Borini, key in the respective elevations of Swansea and Blackpool to the Premier League, are two of the more obvious cases in point when looking for game changers. Focusing on the former, Campbell’s 11 goals from 18 appearances were supplemented in the 2009-10 run-in by the presence of fellow loanees Barry Bannan, Seamus Coleman and Stephen Dobbie. Manager Ian Holloway certainly played the system to a tee that year and although only Campbell would consequently figure in their solo top-flight season, few Blackpool supporters would argue against the flexibility and potential for momentum that an open-ended loan system helped to develop and foster.
Similarly, just as Alex Ferguson has utilized Manchester United’s excellent youth system to build a succession of new teams over the years, Watford have developed a reputation for successfully blooding starlets in their first-team; the only difference being that their ownership invariably lies away from Vicarage Road. Ben Foster, Adam Johnson, the ‘best midfielder in Britain’ Tom Cleverley, Henri Lansbury and Michael Kightly are just a few examples of young or out-of-favour players who have reaped the benefits of game time with the Hornets; a policy which has had a significant impact on safeguarding Watford’s Championship status in the past few seasons.
It’s not difficult to locate similarly fruitful examples up-and-down the Football League. The likes of Neil Sullivan, Matt Mills, Brian Stock and Billy Sharp have each played their part in Doncaster’s progression over the years having initially arrived in South Yorkshire on loan deals. Elsewhere, Yeovil are closing in on 100 loan signings since entering the Football League in 2003 and, currently on their fourth borrowed ‘keeper this season, perhaps provide the best example of a club making use of rivals’ players. Further down the pyramid still, Hereford became expert at working the system a few years ago, making it to League 1 under Graham Turner having borrowed a number of key individuals including Theo Robinson and Toumani Diagouraga.
Almost by stealth, then, the flexibility to make a number of loan signings through the course of a season has become an increasingly vital component of a club’s chances of success in the Football League. Yet, to what extent is this set in stone and how healthy is the system for English football in the long-run?
Some commentators have already questioned the rationale for its predominance and towards the end of December the Telegraph broke the story that the rules are set to change after FIFA declared that ‘Emergency Loans’ breach rules governing transfer windows. With these ideas in mind it appears to be a good time for an appraisal of the way in which we currently do things, linking the increasing use of loan signings to wider contemporary issues such as the EPPP.
The timing of the Telegraph’s scoop just before Christmas meant that it wasn’t much discussed but initial reaction speaks of lower league clubs being dealt a huge blow. Yeovil supporters have been understandably quick to leap to the League’s defence and the Telegraph story refers to how the move will hit those who ‘rely on emergency loans to cover unexpected injuries or weaknesses in their squads outside the two transfer windows’. Moreover, we’re told that the ruling will ‘also affect Premier League clubs who rely on loaning out promising young players who are short of first-team experience to clubs in the lower divisions throughout the season.’
Taking these two points in turn, there’s no doubt that many struggling sides have reached the mark at which they are reliant upon ‘Emergencies’. Seldom able to keep the kind of squad that will see through 49+ games in league and cup each season, the capacity to bring in temporary signings allows managers to add a spark here and there at pivotal moments and plug a hole in particular positions when injuries and suspensions bite. Moreover, in particular cases where a club has entered administration, the loan system has sometimes been the only way to ensure that a competitive eleven can be fielded.
Meanwhile, top-flight clubs have certainly benefited from the increased practice of loaning out potential stars. Taking the England squad that was named for the last international against Sweden as an example, 16 of the 25 players had spent time on loan in the Football League, with a further 5 having initially come through at clubs outside of the Premier League. Leaving just 4 players, Phil Jones, Gareth Barry, Jack Rodwell and Daniel Sturridge, who’ve yet to experience life outside of the EPL, the make-up of our national squad demonstrates the symbiosis that exists between divisions in the English game and the potential for trouble if the loan system is watered down.
But let’s stop and pause for thought. While the benefits of being able to borrow decent players in a time of austerity are clear and obvious enough, is it not worrying that more and more clubs are becoming increasingly dependent upon the system to make it to the finishing line each season? Taking Doncaster’s ‘innovative’ new transfer policy as a case example, are smaller clubs actually being recasted into mere feeders for the EPL hegemony and the agents that serve them, their spending power mocked by the TV revenue enjoyed by those in the higher echelons, their ability to develop their own youngsters effectively castrated through the EPPP and their progression ultimately dependent on borrowed or discarded individuals?
If this is the case, would the end of ‘Emergencies’, where clubs are encouraged to make quick fixes and are blinkered into planning for the short as opposed to the long-term, really be such a bad thing? There are plenty of counter-arguments, not least that the existing loan system manages to get around the problematic transfer windows (the precise loophole that FIFA seeks to plug), but the case against the system is surely a strong one.
To consider some of the many drawbacks associated with regularly fielding other teams’ players, the effect upon supporters’ emotional connection with those who represent their club has to come near the top of the pile. When last-minute winners fly in and tails are up then most of us will live in the moment and couldn’t care less who’s owned by who but, in the cold light of day when times aren’t so good, how can fans be expected to maintain a deep and enduring affinity with loanees who’ll be whisked away just as soon as they show a bit of form? Regularly attending football games is a habit that can quite easily be disrupted by reduction in income, poor form and the loss of feelings of attachment; clubs would surely do well to consider the provenance of their players alongside ticket offers and wider marketing strategies when attempting to maintain or improve gates.
It’s a simple point but, more tangibly, loans can also fail just as easily as work out. The relegations of Norwich, Charlton, Plymouth and Sheffield United from the Championship to League 1 in recent seasons were each, at least in part, due to an ill-advised dependency on a succession of borrowed players who, living out of a suitcase, were more often than not motivated by little else than the need to fulfil their basic contractual obligations to their parent clubs. One need only mention the name Nyron Nosworthy to Blades fans in order to validate this point in Sheffield’s red quarter.
Furthermore, contentious dilemmas abound current practice associated with the loan system. Should teams in the same division, for instance, be allowed to lend one another players? The problems posed by one club being able to loan a player to a divisional rival so that he can play against every other team but themselves (or, in the unfortunate case of Marcel Seip, his parent club as well) seem blatant enough, but apparently not so to the Premier and Football League who both continue to permit it.
Loan deals needn’t be struck between divisional rivals to cause controversy the game could do without, either. One only needs to consider Craig Bellamy’s temporary move to Cardiff last season, facilitated by the wages that Manchester City were willing to continue paying the player, to acknowledge the potential for nuisance under existing regulations. As a consequence, accusations of foul play hung around the Bluebirds’ neck like a millstone until the season’s end; should they have gained promotion to the Premier League, many rival supporters would have undoubtedly been left feeling bitter and twisted.
To take a step back, not all of these cases are directly related to those ‘Emergencies’ which are under threat from FIFA. Yet when combined, each of these different micro issues, of which there are many more such as the Ferguson-Ferguson-Pulis fiasco, amount to an unseemly whole which suggests that the changing face of Football League squads isn’t always a force for good when you scratch beneath the surface.
It’s all well and good criticising the current way of doing things, but is the path that we’ve followed so narrow that there’s no going back from here? At the top, Arsenal and other large clubs are expected to invest large sums in academies but, lacking a truly competitive youth and reserve environment in which to ready their myriad players, have transformed the loan system in to some kind of self-serving Finishing School stroke Shop Window. There are wider advantages which follow from this, many of which I’ve attempted to cover above, but at what stage does this practice begin to benefit the big clubs to the point that they’re simply exploiting those further down the chain?
It’s fantastic for both parties that Blackpool can take on someone like Jonjo Shelvey from Liverpool, for instance, and the knock-on effect means that the Seasiders can lend out their peripherals such as Thomas Barkhuizen, who’s currently doing well at Hereford. But, over time, who’s really winning out here? While Liverpool and Blackpool have a treadmill of talent coursing through their veins and are able to retain ownership of their in-demand players, where are the Bulls left when each and every loanee returns home? With a youth structure prone to cherry-pricking courtesy of the EPPP and the cost of setting up a second string in a dire reserve league about as prohibitive as it’s ever been, the capacity to bring in rivals’ players for a limited period, with little chance of benefiting from their progress beyond the expiry of their loan, really does seem like a weak substitute that will inevitably damage smaller clubs’ ability to rise up through the divisions.
Where to Now?
On the premise that football does not exist merely to serve a cabal of super clubs, what can be done to avoid the situation worsening? For, with the Premier League’s influence ever-expanding and top clubs stockpiling talent like never before, who’s to say that we aren’t hurtling towards a dystopian future where larger clubs will end up establishing links with ‘official feeders’. Given the reduced ability to keep and develop a decent-sized squad towards the foot of the professional pyramid, is the prospect of Stockport joining forces with Manchester City, or Spurs setting up a shadow side at Yeovil really that incomprehensible and, if it isn’t, what safeguards can be put in to place in order to preserve our professional divisions?
I’d personally argue for wholesale reform in terms of the allocation of TV revenue and the provision of youth and reserve teams, but given that we exist in reality and how the intended focus in this piece is on the loan system I’ll narrow my scope accordingly. Therefore, in order to ensure that clubs lessen their reliance on temporary measures and are encouraged to think in their own longer-term interests, some of the following changes might be usefully considered by the powers that be:
• 25-man maximum squads similar to those introduced by the Premier League, inclusive of those who are loaned in;
• Limit temporary moves to a finite number of half and full-season loans in tandem with the two transfer windows (with the possible exception of goalkeepers);
• Impose a maximum of 3 loanees in a 16 man match-day squad;
• Prohibit loans between clubs in the same division;
• Finally, and perhaps more radically, introduce a system whereby clubs are able to gain some kind of share in the ownership and / or future sell-on fee of an individual player if they play a significant role in his progress.
These are just a few suggestions that I’ve either come across or thought up while researching and writing this piece. There are no doubt many more that might offer an improvement on the current way in which we do things in terms of both diluting the stagnant pool of players that seem to hop endlessly from one club to the next and distributing the prospective financial benefits of their development more evenly.
In order for such suggestions to be adopted, however, it’s likely that further changes would need to be implemented higher up the ladder so that the reams of individuals graduating from our foremost academies wouldn’t fall by the wayside. A more competitive reserve league at all levels; a dedicated under-21 or ‘development team’ equivalent; and the transformation of the League Cup into an Olympic-style under under-23 competition are, again, just a few of the possibilities that might be worth discussing as and when league officials meet to discuss potential reforms over the next few years.
By now, if you’re still with me, I hope that I’ve at least managed to raise a few questions in regards a system which allows almost half of a team’s starting eleven to be contracted to rival sides. While there are immediate benefits for smaller clubs under the existing regulations, this piece has argued that this is not sustainable given both the numerous issues and dilemmas that the system presents. In a time when knee-jerk short-term thinking seems to reign, the chances of reform seem unlikely, but having moved to reduce the number of substitutes from 7 to 5 at the start of the 2011-12 season in order to encourage financial prudency, who’s to say that the Football League aren’t already on the case?