Ben Foster has made news today by becoming the first player to openly criticise the Manchester United fans’ Green and Gold campaign to oust the Glazer family. However, something more surprising struck me in the Daily Telegraph’s report. Ben Foster is 27 years old. Who else realised that? Seemingly seen as one of the young pretenders to the England goalkeeper role, Ben Foster, is pretty much halfway through his career, yet his career statistics read less flatteringly than his competitor Joe Hart. Here’s a breakdown for comparison:

Ben Foster Joe Hart
Age 27 23
Premier League Appearances 41 86
Football League Appearances 63 65
Cup Appearances 19 16
European Appearances 3 9
Other Appearances 1 0
England Appearances 4 1
Total Appearances 131 177

Despite being older, and having become a professional footballer earlier, Ben Foster has the sum total of about three seasons worth of football behind him, and only of those seasons has been in the Premier League (spread over four seasons worth of football). Which for a goalkeeper than Sir Alex Ferguson claims is good enough to go to the World Cup is staggeringly low. What is more alarming is that of those 158 appearances, only 23 have been for the club he’s employed by. What is even more astonishing is that Birmingham City have paid a sum in the region of £6m for a Manchester United who has only one full season behind him, in the Championship, in the 2005-2006 season. It’s fair to say that had Foster had a regular place in the season just gone (not necessarily at Manchester United, but elsewhere as Hart will tell him), then Fabio Capello’s decision of who to take to South Africa would have been a lot tougher, and maybe Foster would be on the plane – volcano permitting. In fact, Fergsuon suggested the reason that he’d let Foster go, was based on the fact that Foster needed first team football, despairing that playing less one in four games isn’t enough to let you into international football any more.

Foster has made a career out of playing for other clubs’s teams. Foster was spotted playing Southern League football with Racing Club Warwick in 2001, when he signed for Stoke City. Four years later, Manchester United signed him for £1million, without even making his Stoke debut, in fact since Stoke had signed him, he’d played just 40 games – all on loan – almost half of those at Southern League Tiverton Town, and the rest in League One and Two with Kidderminster Harriers and Wrexham. Foster’s first game as a Manchester United player – like his next 80 – were for Watford, as he went on two successive season long loans to Vicarage Road.

Foster’s first game for a professional club who owned him finally came eighteen days shy of his 25th birthday, as he kept a clean sheet away at bottom of the table Derby. Since then his appearances have been sporadic (his second league game for United was over a year after his first), mainly thanks to the form (and the injuries) of Edwin van der Sar. But at the age of 27, he’s no longer considered potentially great. In fact, as England’s great young keepers go, he’s been usurped by the man whose place he will take between the posts at St. Andrews, Joe Hart, a man who is no stranger to being on lona himself, having spent time at Tranmere, Blackpool and Birmingham, since he signed on the dotted line at Manchester City.

All of which is a convoluted way of saying that the loan system in this country is out of hand, just in the one example of a player otherwise seen as one of the best goalkeepers in this country. As the richer clubs have grown richer, the more their youth scouting has leaned towards quantity, rather than quality, Manchester United can help turn a youngsters eye by showing their track record of bringing through youth team players, and while the same isn’t generally true at the rest of the so-called dominant Big Four clubs, the idea of being a Chelsea/Arsenal/Liverpool player to a sixteen year old, who is yet to play with players better than him is always going to be easier to sell than being a Brentford/Barnet/Tranmere one (no disrespect to those clubs). And as the bigger clubs academies grow, the smaller clubs have to fight over the scraps – or take the easier option of just borrowing one groomed by the bigger clubs. Just to take Manchester United as an example, this season they have loaned out Ben Amos, Febian Brandy, Craig Cathcart, Tom Cleverley, James Chester, Daniel Drinkwater, David Gray, Tom Heaton, Sam Hewson, Matthew James, Danny Welbeck to English clubs, and Mame Diouf, Rodrigo Possebon and Zoran Tosic abroad. That’s over an entire team.

But how many of these players will make an impact at Old Trafford? History suggests probably only one or two at the very most. In fact, Amos, Welbeck and the foreign loanees will probably turn out to be the pick of the bunch of the “Loaned Class of 2009-10”. Especially when you consider that of the domestic loanees, only Welbeck has donned the red shirt for the first team in the League. All bar Drinkwater and James are aged over 21, and Heaton has made the bench a couple of times, but at 24, you’d think if he was that good, he’d have played for the first team by now. If you’re good enough at that age at Old Trafford, you don’t get sent out on loan. Just ask Darren Fletcher, Federico Macheda, Gabriel Obertan or Rafael. Or even Paul Scholes, Gary Neville or Wes Brown. If you’re going to make it at United (and I mean really make it, not almost make it like Luke Chadwick or Jonathan Greening), you stay at United. John O’Shea’s loan to Bournemouth in 1999, and Beckham’s spell at Preston in 1992 are the only exceptions.

It might seem like I’m picking on United, but given the opportunity, any club will do it. Too many clubs these days are allowing their managers bring in players on huge multi-year contracts, that if they don’t make the grade at the club, lesser clubs won’t be able to afford. The player doesn’t want to stew in the reserves, the “selling club” don’t want him/can’t afford his wages anymore/he doesn’t feature in the new manager’s plans, but he won’t take a pay cut just because the “buying” club can’t afford it. And why should he? If someone was daft enough to offer me a contract for £40,000 a week for five years (and I am open to offers of that nature) without thinking whether they could honour it all, or even I was still going to be of use in five years, that would be their problem not mine. But it’s that sort of forward thinking that sees so many clubs go into administration, and find themselves on the wrong end of winding-up orders.

It’s also the thinking that sees so many players on season-long loans. The loan system needs overhauling. There’s nothing wrong with loaning players, but when we have a situation where more players transfer on loan than they do permanently, or players spend more time on loan than they do at their parent club, and larger clubs scoop up players to either loan them, or have them rot in the reserves, something needs to happen. At present in the Football League, loans are unlimited, but you can only play four of them at a time. So you can in theory name 10 loanees in a matchday squad (three starting, seven on the bench), as long as you only substitute a loanee. This allows situations where loaning gets beyond a joke, as it did at Norwich in the 2008-2009 season, where sixteen loanees (and all the lack of continuity that brings within the course of a season), helped see the club relegated to the third tier for the first time in forty years.

The changes don’t need to be too drastic. Ending the practice which has crept into the game where clubs pay a fee to loan a player should be paramount. That way, the loaning club has less to gain. Loaning players for more than three months should go too. You want a player for the whole season? Buy him. Can’t afford him? Tough. Players shouldn’t be able to be loaned to the same club twice in a season, or even in two successive seasons for the same reason. Reduce the number of loanees a club can have. This was raised in 2002, to try and help clubs deal with the ITV Digital fallout, but only to eight in a season, and four at a time, rather than the free-for-all we have now. Half of that number should be more than enough. After all, clubs managed to cope in that respect in the 70s, 80s and 90s, when there was less money in the game. Reducing the number of loans a club can have would force clubs to concentrate more on scouting, and would force managers to manage, instead of just bringing in seven or eight new names when they arrived at a club. Sir Bobby Robson only bought thirteen players in as many years at Ipswich, and it neither he, nor they fared too badly.

Next season, Premier League clubs can “only” have a squad of 25 players. Anyone else who plays has to be under 21 and have been with an English club (or clubs) for at least five years. This will in all likelihood make little to no impact on the clubs, because most of them meet the criteria already, and some have stockpiled academy youngsters “just in case”. This may have seen a overwhelming change when it was first mooted, and if the loan system does get overhauled, it would need a similar amount of notice in order to protect the players (mainly younger ones) who could otherwise fall through the net. That clubs would need so many years notice to do something as simple as concentrate on playing their own players is probably the most damning indictment of how much the loan system has got out of hand.

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