It is probably fair to say that Alfred, Lord Tennyson was not referring to the EFL’s relationship with the loan system in English football when he wrote his most famous words: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
Yet, as the 2024 winter transfer window nears its climax next Thursday, the sentiment applies to teams throughout the pyramid who have known the joys of having a talented loan player in their ranks for the first half of a season, only to see him summoned back to his parent club and promptly farmed out elsewhere for the remainder of it.
Plymouth Argyle enjoyed the talents of Finn Azaz, Luke Cundle and Kaine Kesler-Hayden, who contributed a combined 12 goals and 13 assists before their respective recalls and moves, in the first two cases, to Middlesbrough (permanent) and Stoke City (loan). In their places, they have picked up Alfie Devine, a blow to Port Vale after he spent time on loan there in the first half of the season (scoring three goals in 26 games), his Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Ashley Phillips and Leeds United’s Darko Gyabi until the end of the season. And there are more deals like those throughout the leagues.
The half-season loan can be a blessing or a curse, and they are only going to get more common with the emergence of loans managers in the Premier League and Championship.
When clubs dip into the loan market — which they all do — they know what the arrangement entails.
“If you’re borrowing a player from a Premier League club, you will usually get a good deal on the wages because loans usually add value to their asset,” says Tim Keech, co-founder at MRKT Insights, a consultancy firm that advises EFL clubs on recruitment, among other services. “The one downside is: once they have shown they can do it at your level, the logical next step is to move them away to another good club. It’s a known quantity for League One or League Two clubs.
“Premier League clubs will loan you a player for barely any money, maybe a few hundred to a few thousand pounds a week for a young, quality player. If you go into the open market and try to buy the equivalent player, either you won’t be able to get them or a senior player would cost two or three times the rate. You can borrow a Premier League player and that’s the trade-off: you get an England youth international player for six months but you might lose them. The challenge then is: how do you replace that quality? But often that is part of a club’s strategy, to take a player and show you can look after them and add value.”
The rise of the loans manager has been key in shaping the way deals work between top-flight clubs and those in the leagues below, as Premier League teams look to get game time for players with the end goal of preparing them for their first team or putting them in the shop window to sell.
“Clubs are now employing people full-time just to dedicate themselves to player development through the loan system,” says Grasshopper Zurich president Matt Jackson, who worked as strategic player marketing manager, which included managing loan players’ progress, at Wolves until June last year. “In my case, that involved the marketing of players in terms of them leaving the club as well. You have people taking a forensic look at the development of players and understanding the responsibility that role has in getting a return from selling players. Every club wishes to bring every single player through to the first team. That would be perfect. But it’s never going to happen in practice.
“Ultimately, when clubs realise that player development is basically what underpins their whole structure and that there’s value in putting resources into devoting time to just looking at each individual as an individual and as a development project, then there can only be benefits. It’s good for the players as well to have someone care about them 100 per cent of the time.”
Among the players who made loan moves that later became lucrative sales while Jackson was at Wolves were Morgan Gibbs-White, who joined Nottingham Forest for £42.5million ($54.1m) after a successful season with Sheffield United, Dion Sanderson, who is now at Birmingham City after various loans, and Ryan Giles, who landed a move to Luton Town after impressing when borrowed by Middlesbrough. At Everton, loan spells for Tom Cannon to Preston North End bore fruit with a £7.5m move to Leicester City this season, Ellis Simms’ spells with Blackpool and Sunderland led to him joining Coventry City in the summer and Nathan Broadhead’s stints at Wigan Athletic and Sunderland secured a £1.5m move to Ipswich Town.
“Loans are normally always a year but have a break clause in January,” says Keech. “So the clubs have that option to recall. There are a few reasons (for the rise in half-season loans). Part of it could be down to the rise of the loans manager at Premier League clubs. These are relatively new people with the responsibility of finding the best pathways for player development and a lot of that is finding the best possible move for a player’s stage of development.
“The economics of borrowing players make sense for loan clubs and Premier League clubs have the ability later to sell players to Championship clubs for £4million to £5m a player (if they do well on loan). But if you get a loan wrong, then you wipe a year off a career, which isn’t great. Really, a Premier League to League One loan is the best combination. In League One, a player will play, whereas the Championship is often too high (a standard) unless it’s a second loan for a player. Going straight into the Championship and not playing can be a waste of a season, so you often see a player prove themselves in League One first.”
Failed loans in the first half of a season and subsequent recalls to try placing that player elsewhere in the second half of the campaign are not uncommon but an increasing number of players have been affected by the quirk of rules surrounding cup competitions, such as the EFL Trophy, in recent years.
This season, Leeds forward Sonny Perkins, Spurs counterpart Dane Scarlett and Chelsea attacker Mason Burstow are among the players either stranded with limited appearances out on loan or without a realistic chance of significant first-team minutes for their parent club in the second half of the season because they made appearances for the latter before being loaned out.
Playing for a parent club’s under-23s side in the EFL Trophy for example, which is considered a senior appearance played against first-team squads from EFL clubs, limits the ability to go on a second loan in that season.
With Perkins recalled from his loan at Oxford United and Scarlett recalled from Ipswich, a second loan until May is off the cards for them because a player can only represent two clubs in a given season. Meanwhile, Burstow remains on loan at Sunderland, having last played more than an hour for them in October, with just 13 league appearances in total.
Though some loans fail, clubs work hard to ensure they send their players somewhere that will enable them to thrive — which in turn has led some EFL teams to market themselves as the best prospective loan destination to add value to a player, as part of their own strategy.
“You want the players to have a different challenge all of the time, and you want different areas of their game to be challenged as well,” says Jackson. “Some players might need the physicality of lower-league football to start with but then to be rounded off in a more technical club, for example, that plays in a similar style to the parent club.
“We’re able, with metrics, to measure the way the other clubs play in relation to your club, so we can apply those metrics and know which clubs are likely to play in a style that’s going to suit our players. If the loan club has proven they can develop players and that benefits the parent club, then that’s great.”
“A lot of the League One clubs that do it well have good processes to support players,” says Keech. “It could be player liaison officers or a sporting director who is good with people and knows how to look after them. That can be part of the bidding process in terms of taking players on loan: how do we add value to your player by having them here? How do we look after them?
“Some clubs are trying to build a reputation as being the best place to develop young players and they make the players feel really welcome and part of the squad, even if they know they’re only going to be there for six months to a year.”
Though the system works more often than not for all parties — parent club, player and loan club — fans will always feel the loss when a star of the first half of their team’s season is recalled. And as more Premier League teams prioritise the system of loaning out and then selling players for millions of pounds, fewer League One and League Two clubs are likely to be able to afford former top-flight players.
“The only frustration that fans and clubs have in common is that a few years ago a player (without first-team prospects) would have been released, but now they have the option of keeping him on and putting him on the loan circuit because they might get £5million down the line to sell him in the Championship,” says Keech. “This is one of the ways the rich stay rich in football, because keeping a player on a £10,000 a week contract is relatively little risk to a Premier League club, whereas they would be a starter on that wage in the Championship.
“That’s to allow them to keep some resale value in that player but it affects the type of player a League One club with £200,000 to spend might be able to get these days. Once upon a time, it might have got you an ex-Manchester United reserve, but now it wouldn’t get you that. It makes sense from a Premier League point of view, but it reduces the pool available to lower-league clubs.
“It’s sad that, for League One clubs, it’s so difficult to build up playing assets that are actually yours.”
(Top photos: Getty Images)
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