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Exploring The Loan System In Football: The Ups, Down’s And The Facts

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 loan system caused controversy last season when Watford appeared to take advantage of the rules. Having signed a deal with the owners of Udinese & Granada they had access to a crop of players they wouldn’t ordinarily have. In one match against Palace, Watford fielded 7 international loan players. Clubs can have as many loan players as they want but can only field 5 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 still at Watford who are now losing their places to loan players? If this is the policy of the manager, Gianfranco Zola, and he gets the sack then the new guy comes in with a fragmented team and it could set them back years.

In addition to being able to arrange loan deals during transfer windows, there are two emergency loan windows. One starts a week after deadline day 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.”

Recipient Club

Does the loan system mean lower league clubs don’t have to search and develop talent? Does this make them lazy? But then for the recipient they are getting a player employed and coached by a bigger club who will generally pay the majority of the player’s wages. The recipient club 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 had the manager had personally chosen him, they’d be keener on his development and then need to turn his form around.

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 1 or 2 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 3-4 loan players and they get promoted. They then find they’re in a higher division without those 3-4 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.

Parent Club

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. Jonjo Shelvey’s loan to Blackpool from Liverpool is a good example of this. He had a great spell there and scored 6 goals in 10 appearances, including a hat-trick against Leeds United. He was recalled by Liverpool as soon as Lucas was injured and seemed to get more chances, as a result.


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?

The recipient club is unconcerned with his development 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. Manchester United has recently bought a young Uruguayan full-back, Guillermo Varela, who is highly rated in South America, yet already they have sent him back out on loan. Would he not have been better staying in South America? It seems to be the equivalent of player ‘land grab’. Chelsea currently has 24 players out on loan throughout Europe. 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?

One highly rated prospect, Josh McEachran, who has represented England at U17, U19 & U21 level, seemed destined for great things yet has spent the last 18 months on loan at Swansea, Middlesbrough and now Watford. Whilst he’s trying to impress his employers they are signing other midfield players who would seem to be jumping the queue ahead of him. He is not learning from mixing with these players as he’s elsewhere. Would he not be better at another club, or are Chelsea worried he might develop into a really good player for someone else? Since McEachran was handed his debut by Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea has three different managers so it is likely when he returns there that the club ethos may be very different to when he left, thereby making it even harder for him to know what is required of him.

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”.

Is the loan system tantamount to how the developed world has treated Africa for the past 50 years by passing on all their unwanted goods and ‘hand-me-downs’ when in reality what Africa needed was an opportunity to develop their own wealth? The result of this treatment has been for Africa to develop a dependency on the aid they’re given rather than have the desire to find their own way in the world. Compare this with a country such as India who refused aid and support just after the Second World War as they were determined to make it on their own. Look at the two now.

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. He had two players on loan from his Dad, then when 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, but when you’re watching your team half-filled with these players surely you get a sense of anti-climax, in that no matter how much they do for your club they’ll be somewhere else next season?


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, proving his professionalism. He is released from his own club’s monitoring and 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. DJ Campbell was at Leicester City when they sent him on loan to Blackpool and he helped them to promotion, ending up as top goalscorer. Fabio Borini at Swansea helped them to promotion. One famous instance was in 1999 when goalkeeper Jimmy Glass kept Carlisle up in league with a last minute goal yet he was on loan from Swindon. Inevitably Glass became a bigger hero at Brunton Park than he ever did at The County Ground.

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 and they spoke to Terry Yorath, who was then managing at Sheffield Wednesday. Wednesday had just been relegated from Premier League after spending 15 out of 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. It seemed to be a crunch time for English football and 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 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. Additionally, 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.

Perhaps if clubs could only have a professional squad of 40 and if they wanted another player, they might need to swap. Could that work? 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.

Surely the answer then is 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 and therefore a greater share of the wealth would benefit everyone. Of course that approach is completely dependent on Premier League Chairmen changing their own rules and with dominance from Spanish and German clubs in Europe competitions, it is more likely they’ll be reluctant to reduce their own wealth. Plus, 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. Demba Ba is a classic example of this. He’d be playing every week if he’d stayed at Newcastle yet seems happy to enjoy many days off with Chelsea simply to play the odd game. Now he has found the irony of a change of management at Stamford Bridge leading to a new striker being brought in ahead of him. Perhaps he should consider a loan back to Newcastle?

But then 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 & clubs.

Published in permission with Pete Spencer. Follow him on Twitter @irishpete67