How Ben Foster Highlights The Farce Of The Loan System

11 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   May 22, 2010  |     14

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.



Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • May 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Nick OGS20

    Really fail to see how Foster highlights the ‘farce of the loan system’ at all. His career was going nowhere with Stoke really, United took a chance on him as a young keeper, allowed him to develop out on loan at Watford (and simultaneously help them significantly) and it’s only the refusal of Edwin van der Sar to succumb to the ageing process that has limited his games with United and forced him to move on. Regardless, he’s accumulated England caps and is now first-choice at a top-half Premier League club with quite possibly another decade left of his career. Where’s the problem? Where’s the farce? I don’t see who’s lost out here – the clubs he’s been on loan at have benefited, Stoke have benefited quite nicely financially from a player they seemingly had little use for, United have benefited from his performances at times and profit on his transfer, and the player is obviously in a better position than one might have expected looking at his career in 2005.

    The loan system could do with a little tweaking but there’s not a great deal wrong with it – in most cases it’s mutually beneficial to both clubs involved, as well as the player (an example you missed when going through the United players to have been out on loan is Jonny Evans, whose spells at Sunderland helped him develop into arguably the best young centre-half in the country while also helping the Mackems gain promotion to the Premier League and then stay there).

  • May 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Michael Wood

    The farce of the loan system is the fact that so many clubs buy into it.

    On the whole if club are loaning players in order to achieve success then the massive majority of loans fail and the results of that failure is that any money spent on the loanee player is wasted when compared to the idea of blooding one of the borrowing team’s own players.

  • May 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm


    @Nick – As you’re a Manchester United fan, I would expect that you’d disagree, as the loan system disproportionately favours bigger clubs.

    “in most cases it’s mutually beneficial to both clubs involved,” – taken in isolation, each loan is yes, but that’s an incredibly short term way to look at it. And let’s take the case of Man United “parking” Foster at Watford for two seasons. Watford get the benefit of treating a million pound goalkeeper as their own, despite not being able to afford him, but once relegated out the top flight, they suddenly have a gaping hole in their team, and need a replacement. It artificially skews the Championship in favour of which clubs have the best relationship with Premiership managers.

    I didn’t ignore Jonny Evans, yes, he’s had a year and a half at at Sunderland, but I woudn’t consider starting less than half the games this season as “making it”.

    I also didn’t bring up Ron-Robert Zieler. At 21, he should be playing games, or at least reserve games, but how many games did he get at any level last season, considering he was behind Van Der Sar, Kuszczak, Foster, Heaton and Amos in the pecking order. That’s the side effect of United’s quantity over quality approach when it comes to young players – hoover up as many as possible, and if they don’t make it at United, they don’t make it at United. But the best thing for players is playing games, and players like Zieler would be a lot better off plying their trade in the lower leagues, than being sixth choice at Old Trafford with an occasional loan to somewhere like Northampton for a game or two if they’re lucky.

    @Michael – Very much so. In that respect the smaller clubs are just complicit in their own oppression, but what can they do? The current system encourages top clubs to stockpile youth players. Twenty years ago, Manchester United had 30 players under professional contract, this season they had 57. Considering only 14 went out on loan, how can you give all the other 43 regular football?

  • May 24, 2010 at 9:13 am


    The stockpiling is due to the transfer window. The big clubs buy up lots of players simply so that they have cover available – if they send them out on short-term loan they can recall the players after a month with 24 hours notice.

    The solution is simple. Scrap the transfer window. That prevents the stockpiling because clubs can then buy in cover when they need to. Smaller clubs are in a better position because you can say no to a purchase – you cannot refuse a recall.

  • May 24, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Michael Wood

    Having watched a club fall down three divisions in ten years often with loan players making up the meat of the squad I’ve come to the conclusion that the kid from our reserves is a better bet than the kid from Manchester United’s juniors.

    Which is not to say that technically gifted footballer can’t be got from the top clubs but – as Blackpool prove – so much of being a good member of a football team is about things other than your technical gifts.

    There are exceptions to the rule but generally I’d think that you get more from a player who has committed to a long term future at your club than you do someone who knows he has an escape route and the more than you get in commitment is in excess of what you get from someone with better technical skills.

  • May 24, 2010 at 1:02 pm


    @kruador – the stockpiling has nothing to do with the transfer window – it’s just a handy excuse for the clubs. No club has ever used more than 40 players in a season (and the closest to it was Barry Fry fannying around at pre-transfer window Birmingham). Even with their attitute to the early round of the cups, Manchester United only used 32 players this season.

    @Michael – although in Blackpool’s case, they had their full quota of other team’s players on view (Leicester’s DJ Campbell, Villa’s Barry Bannan, Swansea’s Stephen Dobbie and Everton’s Seamus Coleman). That Cardiff didn’t (only Kelvin Etuhu was on loan), owes a lot more to their transfer embargo, than anything else.

  • May 25, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Matt Boothman

    I’m going to defend the loan system here. Not because I think it’s beneficial to the top teams, which it probably is, or even the players in question, which it definitely can be, but simply because of the massive positive effect its had on my own team, Rochdale.

    Being within such a short distance of so many big clubs, with expansive ‘hoover’ scouting systems (Man Utd, City, Bolton, Liverpool, Blackburn, Everton), quality young players are thin on the ground here. Let’s face it – Man Utd are going to stockpile players regardless of whether there is a loan system or not. At least by utilising this system, we can access ‘talent’, which in a more equitable footballing world we would have more access to anyway. The way I see it, it’s either we get good youth in on loan or we don’t get it at all. I would rather have the former.

    That’s not mentioning how positive it can be for players too. Of our current squad, Chris Dagnall, Chris O’ Grady, and Marcus Holness all joined initially on loans; previously, Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert, and Adam le Fondre all resurrected their careers at Rochdale after successful loan spells (I’m sure you’re aware of their exploits now). Marcus Hahnemann certainly found his loan spell at Rochdale instructive, as he has said in interviews, it saved his career. (from the Independent) “It was such a contrast to reserve team football there,” he recalls. “At Rochdale every game was life or death to the 3,500 fans. You felt real pressure, real adrenaline. It was great.”

    The point I’m making is that football is one of the least equal playing fields of any industry; (where else can you find businesses willing to employ staff NOT to play, simply to deprive other businesses of their talent?) This isn’t going to change anytime soon. As long as it doesn’t ruin the integrity of the competition (as far as I’m aware there ARE limits to loan players in all leagues), loans – including season-long loans – have a place in football.

  • May 25, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    William Abbs

    We could also consider how going out on loan affects the life of the player. FourFourTwo ran an excellent piece a few months ago about how lonely and stressful it can be for a footballer to up sticks and move to another part of the country for a few months, just to get a game. Of course, I’m talking more about lower league players here, as was the article in FFT, but it’s worth remembering what some footballers are risking when they go out on loan. They’re leaving behind their wives, girlfriends, kids, mates, and setting up home in a hotel for weeks, maybe months, with only a few DVD box sets for company – and often no contract at the end of it. For a player outside the Premier League in the last year of his contract, the offer of a loan deal must be a source of both hope and apprehension.

  • May 26, 2010 at 9:37 pm


    If there were no loan system it would mitigate against the hoovering up of young players. Firstly, these ‘big’ but debt laden clubs get income from these arrangements, forcing smaller clubs to contribute to the overblown wages they pay to secure these yougsters.These youngsters would be unlikely to be able to negotiate similar contracts directly with smaller clubs. Secondly, loans allows big clubs to relieve some of the internal pressure of having loads of players with very little meaningful football to play. Thirdly, if the system prevented the bigger clubs hoovering up local talent there is a greater possibility of the smaller clubs benefiting from the bigger transfer fees if they do make the big time after an apprenticeship in the lower leagues. The current hoovering up has reduced this trickle down process of wealth sharing.

    The situation can be fairly easily resolved by limiting sqad sizes at all levels

  • May 27, 2010 at 9:00 pm


    @Michael Wood

    Your lot should probably stop signing ex-Huddersfield goalkeepers. Simon Eastwood is available on a permanent transfer now by the way.

    Go on, you know you want him…

  • May 27, 2010 at 9:52 pm


    I hate the loan system. One of the reasons you identify with “your” club is “your” players. Over time, you learn of their strengths, weaknesses, foibles and character. You even give them nicknames(not always good)as the bond strengthens. Last season I watched upwards of a dozen – quite a few upwards I think but can’t be bothered to check – players turn up on loan. Some stayed for a couple of months, some for a couple of weeks. Some managed more than a dozen games, some warmed the bench for a couple of weeks. And this at a club with average gates of 25000.

    Now, the Chairman probably thinks it’s great not having to fork out for your own squad when you can fill it with players not good enough for someone elses, but the bonds stretch, they weaken and they break. If you’re turning up and you recognise about as many players in the opposition team as you do your own without the aid of the programme, then you start to think – what’s the point? What’s the point of investing time, money and emotion in a collection of players here today, gone tomorrow and replaced with another anonymous bloke who’ll be gone before you recognise him either. They don’t care, they’re temps ffs, why should they? So why should you?

    As a result, for the first time in a decade the ST didn’t get renewed. I think it’s borderline cheating.

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