The last couple of days must have been filled with conflicting emotions for Gunnar Nielsen. The twenty-three year old Faroese goalkeeper became the first person from his home island to play Premier League football when he stepped in to replace Shay Given during Manchester City’s 0-0 draw against Arsenal on Saturday, but today he could be forgiven to starting to wonder what his club think of him. He managed a clean sheet during his fourteen minutes on the field at The Emirates Stadium, but the injury to Given was sufficient for City to request an emergency loan for another goalkeeper until the end of the season.
Perhaps predictably, considering the state of play in the race for the fourth Champions League place, this request has been met with a degree of controversy, not least because the Premier League’s rules on emergency loans are practically non-existent. The league’s rules state only that a player can be signed at this point at the “absolute discretion” of the league itself, but there seems to be no absolute definition as to what this “absolute discretion” actually is. Manchester City currently have what could be described as five first choice goalkeepers. Shay Given, as we know, injured, and the man that could have been described as their second choice, Joe Hart, is on a season-long loan at Birmingham City and cannot be recalled.
Their third choice, Stuart Taylor, is currently suffering from a knee injury (although he is believed to be back in training). David Gonalez Giraldo, a one-time Columbian international (literally – he won one cap) who played over two hundred league matches in his home country for Deportivo Cali and Huracán, as well as in Turkey for Çaykur Rizespor, is the fifth choice. He is also injured at present. Nielsen is the fifth choice, but they also have four youth team and academy goalkeepers. The problem, then, isn’t that Manchester City haven’t got somebody that has caught or punched a football in anger before that they could use to make up the numbers. The problem seems to be that none of the choices that they have got to play in goal are, if we remove Given, Hart, Giraldo and Taylor from the list, guaranteed to be good enough.
At first sight, this seems to be reasonably cut and dried. If City have goalkeepers that they can be used, even if they are utterly inexperienced and/or worse than useless, they should have to play them. The transfer deadline exists and has existed for a considerable amount of time. True enough, they have been somewhat unlucky in losing their two fit first choice goalkeepers, but those are the breaks. They still have a Faroese international at their disposal. Manchester City are multi-millionaires and if they haven’t got enough goalkeeping cover that’s their problem, isn’t it?
Well, it isn’t quite that simple. There are a couple of precedents for signing goalkeepers as emergency cover. Gabor Kiraly played half a dozen matches for Aston Villa on emergency loan in 2007 (although this came earlier in the season) and, more relevantly, Andy Goram played two games on loan for Manchester United in 2001 after the transfer deadline has closed. In other words, there is precedent for this sort of thing happening, but it has seldom come so late in the season, in such a tight battle and with so much at stake. Considering the madness that followed the Carlos Tevez situation a couple of years ago, the authorities need to ensure that they make the right decision this time and it is generally considered that two “senior” goalkeepers is the minimum requirement. However, the definition of “senior” is fuzzy – three of City’s four youth and academy team goalkeepers are eighteen or over. Would this classify them as “senior” and, if not, then why not? Does a player only become “senior” when he has played for the first team or the reserve team?
Whether these precedents apply in this specific set of circumstances, however, is open to question. City are said to be looking at Sunderland’s Márton Fülöp, whose Premier League experience is scant, although he has made twenty appearances in goal for the Hungarian national team. It is difficult, however, to escape the fact that City made a decision to loan Hart out for the season in August and that they had until the transfer deadline to bring in a replacement for him. If Nielsen isn’t good enough to be in the first team for Manchester City for three matches, what is he doing in the squad in the first place? Indeed, if every time a club is left short of players with a handful of matches left in the season they get to sign one on loan, what is the point of having a transfer deadline in the first place?
Whilst it is easy (and in some respects justifiable) to criticise Manchester City for leaving themselves short of goalkeeping cover for the season, the buck for what may be a row that will drag on for the rest of the week ultimately stops with the Premier League. On the one hand, it is clear that there is a reason for the rules as they stand being as open-ended as they are. The Premier League wants to give all eventualities due consideration before a decision is reached over whether to allow an emergency loan or not. However, the lack of clarity in this situation hasn’t served to help anybody and it now seems likely to cause an argument no matter what the final decision of the Premier League is. It is a loophole that needs to be closed one way or the other before next season.