The Great Loan System Mockery

by | Sep 6, 2016

As headline figures go, it’s certainly an arresting one. Chelsea now have thirty-eight players out on loan with other football clubs, a number so great that it has finally really caught the imagination of the press with a series of articles published over the last few days. Chelsea aren’t the only club to have a large number of players in this position. In the Premier League of clubs with players out on loan, however, they are comfortably clear at the top of the table, with Manchester City in second place with a comparatively paltry sounding seventeen.

The number of players that Antonio Conte apparently has no use for at Stamford Bridge this season is great enough that they could, should Chelsea wished, play all season in three way round robin tournament with substitutes, and they cover the full spectrum of European club football, from former European Cup winners Juventus and Ajax to Metropolitan Police, in the Ryman League. They represent a degree of control in the hands of one club hitherto unseen in European football, and one can only wonder what the clampdown on such a practice will look like if or when it should ever rear its head.

At present, though, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite on the part of the Football Association, the Premier League, or the Football League to rein the worst excesses of what looks increasingly like a broken loan system. In the cases of the Premier League and the Football League, this is, perhaps, understandable. As with most changes in professional football over the last thirty years, the current loan system seems to have been tailor-made to be taken advantage of by clubs, and the bigger the clubs are, the greater are the opportunities to take advantage of it.

The biggest tangible advantage of the current state of affairs from a club’s perspective is financial. They get to retain the ultimate decision over whether a player stays with them in the long-term whilst the clubs doing the loaning pay the majority of the wages and increasingly a further fee. They also get the opportunity to keep tabs on them, monitoring their progress for signs that they may be capable of the level of development required to compete at the very highest level of the club game whilst not having to spend a great deal on the resources usually required to develop a player. And if a player turns out to be a success, they have the option to recall the player, a more completed version of the player that left the club in the first place, or to sell to the highest bidder, which may or may not be the club that loaned him in the first place.

Of course, the clubs themselves are keen not to be seen to be acting entirely selfishly in playing the system in this way, so when questioned on the matter they tend to focus on the successful stories – Thibaut Courtois is probably the clearest example of this, playing in a Champions League final for Atletico Madrid while on loan to the Spanish club before being installed as their first choice goalkeeper two years ago, a position that he seems likely to hold onto for as long as he wants to – and somewhat nebulous benefits to the players concerned. The Premier League has revamped its academy league in am apparent attempt to make it more inviting, but this doesn’t seem have had much of an impact upon the stockpiling that has been taking place.

It is important to point out at this juncture that the clubs concerned aren’t doing anything illegal in this respect. This is not a matter of them breaking rules, but of what little regulation of the loan system there is being being unfit for purpose, in a sporting sense, at least. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that clubs are using the loan system to game events that occur on the pitch, although one perception of the current loan system – that there is an inherent risk in moving any degree of control over which club a player is registered with away from governing bodies and towards the clubs themselves – lends itself to this borderline conspiracy theory without too much extrapolation.

If we accept the premise that the current loan system being to the benefit of clubs – and that it benefits the wealthiest clubs the most – alone, then many would agree that it needs to be changed, and this may inform the reasons behind why clubs are so keen to accentuate the benefits that players themselves get it all. But do they? Patrick Bamford, for example, was a signed by Chelsea for £1.5m from Nottingham Forest in 2011, but has yet to make a first team appearance the club that retains his registration, and last month began his sixth season as a loanee with Burnley. Each of his five previous seasons have been spent with different clubs, so he has received no continuity terms of the development that we might expect a player hoping to improve himself to the level at which he can play Champions League football, and if he has found his level, this seems to be at the lower end of the Premier League or at the top end of the Championship, where he has proved himself before.

The key, however, is in the numbers. Were Bamford to have a successful season in the Premier League with Burnley this year, he would almost certainly sell for ten (or, in the current inflationary world of transfer fees, perhaps up to twenty) times the amount that Chelsea paid for him, and that is a pretty good return on an investment made five years ago. And profits of that nature can make the whole exercise of hoovering up young players and then farming them out worthwhile. Clubs don’t need anywhere near a one hundred per cent hit rate to make the whole exercise more than worthwhile, with even occasional returns of that nature. The question of what may or may not be good for a player’s development is really a supplementary one, in comparison with the question related to money.

The fact that it is ultimately about money (and arguably control) means that it’s unlikely that anything will change in the near future. There were tight restrictions in place over player loans, and the fact that they have been largely dismantled over the last few years to little opposition has probably emboldened those who would like even greater relaxation of the way that we do things, so long, of course, as they benefit those concerned. With three year loan deals, however, there is a growing feeling that the spirit, if not the letter, of the loan system rules are being flagrantly broken, and there is a chance that the authorities may act over it. Not the FA, of course. They seem to have entirely vacated their role as the overall conscience of the game in England, after all. The Premier League, however, could arguably be a different matter. One club having thirty-eight players out on loan across the whole of Europe is not terribly good publicity and could be easily remedied. The question is most likely one of whether the league itself might in time begin to take a dim view of such goings on, and whether the costs to the league itself could come to outweigh the benefits. No, we’re not especially optimistic that they will, either. 

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