Much to the disappointment of Jim White and his hyperbole machine, the amount of money spent on transfers by clubs in the January transfer window was drastically down on the previous year. Even though the January 2011 figures were swollen by the deals involving Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, the 2012 window was still quieter than that of 2011. The obvious explanation for this is that clubs simply do not have the money to spend, apart from those supported by oil money from Russia and the Middle East. In the midst of continuing uncertainty around the global economy and UEFA’s much vaunted Financial Fair Play (FFP) restrictions, clubs are being more conservative when it comes to player recruitment.
As a result of these tighter margins, Premier League clubs are moving in to the loan market to bolster their squads. At the end of the January transfer window 13 of the 20 top flight clubs had at least one loan player on their books, with 24 players registered on loan to Premier League clubs. In the 1998/99 season only nine players played on loan throughout the whole Premier League season, a figure that was replicated in the 2000/01 season.
In recent times the loan system has mainly been used to allow younger players to go and get the experience of first team football that youth and reserve football does not provide. Out of the England squad who recently defeated World and European Champions Spain, Joe Hart (Tranmere, Blackpool), Scott Carson (Sheffield Wednesday), David Stockdale (Ipswich), Ashley Cole (Crystal Palace), John Terry (Nottingham Forest), Kyle Walker (Queens Park Rangers), Frank Lampard (Swansea), Stuart Downing (Sunderland), James Milner (Swindon) and Adam Johnson (Watford) have all been loaned from Premier League clubs to Football League teams. In addition to those, Rio Ferdinand and Jermaine Defoe both had loan spells at Bournemouth whilst learning their trade at West Ham and David Beckham was sent to Preston by Alex Ferguson in 1995, scoring twice in five games, one of which was a goal directly from a corner. The progression of these players in to the full England squad was no doubt aided by time spent on loan at Football League clubs. As well as introducing younger players to first team football, it will also help toughen them up, with the level of commitment and intensity a notch higher than they will have experienced in youth and reserve team football.
A more recent trend is the loaning of players no longer wanted at a club, rather than to gain first team experience. The introduction of the 25 man squad in the 2010/11 season meant that some clubs had players on their books that they were unable to place in their match day squad, and subsequently unable to field in Premier League fixtures. After yet another spending spree at Eastlands, Manchester City were unable to place Craig Bellamy and Roque Santa Cruz in their squad, and loaned them out to Cardiff City and Blackburn Rovers respectively. Parallels can be drawn with the spending sprees of Chelsea in the early Abramovich era which saw the likes of Alexi Smertin and Jiri Jarosik loaned out due to the size of the squad and competition for places. This was and is clearly not for the benefit of the player, and is just a stop-gap until either the player either finds form and falls back in favour, or more likely comes to the end of their contact or is sold on.
Of the 24 players on loan within the Premier League, 12 are on loan from fellow Premier League clubs. The most controversial of these loans has to be that of Togolese forward Emmanuel Adebayor. Following the signing of Sergio Aguero, who lined up alongside £100m+ worth of Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli, Adebayor was deemed surplus to requirements, but was understandably reluctant to leave his alleged £170,000 per week wage packet. It was rumoured that Real Madrid were eager to sign the Togolese following his loan spell at the Bernabeu, but they would not consider paying anything like the wages he was on at Manchester City. With the transfer window drawing to a close, Harry Redknapp sensed a deal could be struck and Adebayor joined Spurs on loan for the season. It is widely acknowledged that Manchester City are still paying a large proportion of his wages, but not the £170,000 they would have been liable for if he hadn’t moved. Spurs get a £25m striker for nothing and Man City gets an unhappy and unplayable player of their books. Win win? Well for Spurs yes, for obvious reasons, but also for Man City. As well as having a potential disruptive influence away from the club, they have furnished one of their perceived lesser rivals with a top class striker who can potentially score goals against their expected title race challengers (Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) but cannot score against City themselves due to the Premier League rules on loan players preventing him from facing his parent club (a fate suffered by Newcastle United when Lomana Lua Lua scored against his parent club whilst on loan at Portsmouth).
Adebayor included, 18 of the 24 players on loan at Premier League clubs are full internationals, not exactly untried youngsters in need of some first team action. Dedryck Boyata and Rio Miyaichi are at one end of the scale; youngsters who are registered with top six sides but don’t feature due to more established players ahead of them in the pecking order. At the other end of the scale are the MLS players signed on short-term deals. Messrs Henry, Keane and Donovan are established internationals, but their signings are purely for the benefit of the clubs that have borrowed them, and potentially at the detriment of any youngsters at those clubs.
Clubs can’t be blamed for looking to the loan market when they are quoted prices for unproven players from the Football League. When taking a punt on a non-league player could cost over £1m, taking Thierry Henry on loan for a few games is a no brainer. What isn’t sustainable is clubs overspending and being able to get rid of players to other Premier League clubs on loan rather than selling them on.
Arsene Wenger believes the current system is flawed and that loans should between Premier League clubs should be restricted. “What I would like to see is that you are not allowed to loan players over the age of 21.” Under Wenger’s proposal the like of Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck would still have been able to go and gain the experience that has helped them all to develop in to full England internationals, but the likes of Adebayor and Wayne Bridge would not be loaned out to fellow Premier League clubs. Just don’t tell Yossi Benayoun what his current gaffer thinks!
The future of the loan market will be an interesting one with clubs having to balance the 25 man squad rule with the FPP restrictions with the need to remain competitive often in more than one competition. With the growing discontent over some of the loan moves, the suggested age restriction may well be the best solution to allow young talent to continue to blossom without big clubs doping the league with big money failures cast off to other clubs.
EDIT: The nine loan players in 2000/01 season were Eoin Jess, Shaun Bartlett, Pierre Issa, Thordur Gudjohnsen, Marc Burchill, Andrei Kanchelskis, Daniel Cordone, Patrice Carteron and Kaba Diawara. Illustrious.