The loan system is killing football

examines how big clubs are exploiting the loan system, without thinking of the adverse impact on young footballers

Chelsea's FA Youth Cup-winning side of 2010, many of whom have endured a series of subsequent loan spells. Image: Free-ers.

Chelsea’s FA Youth Cup-winning side of 2010, many of whom have endured a series of subsequent loan spells. Image: Free-ers.

Last weekend I spent a delightful hour discussing the loan system in football with my equally fanatic cousin. He was for the prosecution, I for the defence. The discussion originated as a criticism of my club, Chelsea. Obviously, I’m used to it: your owner made his fortune from state theft; your managers last as long as the average haircut; you bought success. I’ve heard them all. But this angle was new and intriguing.

The loan system has its merits. It was originally conceived as an arrangement to benefit two clubs. One looking to shed an underperforming extra with no offers; the other short of cash but looking to strengthen in the short-term. What’s the harm? Well, in recent years the loan system has been exploited by certain clubs as a way of spread-betting on unproven young talent.

Chelsea are the worst offender. They currently have seventeen players on loan and counting. Some of those loans are legitimate. Thibaut Courtois has had two productive years at Atlético Madrid as he waits to succeed to Petr Cech. However, of the rest, twelve are aged between 18 and 21. They had little prospect of playing this season and, though they may improve over the next year, it’s unlikely that Chelsea will make room for all twelve when they return.

In reality, one or two may get a shot at the bench but the rest will have wasted their formative years on dead-end loan spells. Take Gael Kakuta, for instance. Chelsea lured him from Lens as a 16 year-old, and such was the furore (culminating in compensation and a brief transfer embargo), fans assumed he was a future star. After four loan spells at Bolton, Fulham, Dijon and Vitesse Arnhem, it appears Kakuta was just another fruitless, but ultimately risk-free gamble. 22 now, he either stagnates at Chelsea or starts again. Play again soon, better luck next time.

Chelsea simply play a numbers game. They spot young talent early, courtesy of a scouting network similar to any other big club, but instead of waiting until the player matures into a realistic first-team prospect before making their move, they cut out the risk of paying a significant fee and buy them for a fraction of the cost, probably no more than token compensation or a house for the kid’s parents. They can buy ten teenagers for the price of one finished article, and only one has to kick on for the numbers game to pay off. The rest are left to regret their decision.

Players should know better right? Probably, but most footballers aren’t that bright and it’s unfair to expect this level of foresight from a South American teenager plucked from a favela and offered the chance to fulfil his dream.

“Sorry Chelsea, it would be better for my development if I play competitive football here in Brazil for now, forging a reputation as Europe’s most wanted. Come back in two years.” It will never happen.

I’ve picked on my own club because I know them well, but Manchester City are guilty as well. They have eight reserve (or elite development squad) players on loan. I imagine Abdisalam Ibrahim is the Kakuta of the group. Signed in 2007 as a 16 year-old, he has made one senior appearance for City in six years, which have included loan spells at three different clubs. At the start of the cycle is Enock Kwakwa, a nineteen year-old Ghanaian midfielder. He was signed last summer and immediately loaned out to City’s feeder club, Strømsgodset, where he made one appearance in one season. Despite this wasted year, Kwakwa’s loan has been renewed for another six months. City couldn’t care less whether this time is productive.

The loan system is exploited in the arms race between big clubs to stock promising but extremely raw young footballers. Under-21 squads are huge. City have 37 players in their elite development squad. How can they possibly find room for even a quarter of these players over the next three years? The loan system serves as a pressure valve when clubs get greedy.

This has to stop. A radical solution would be to stop the transfer of players under the age of 19 or 20. However, a more achievable option would be to restrict clubs to two outgoing loans per season. This would at least prevent clubs acquiring more youngsters than they can take. We might even consider a squad limit on under-21 squads, as with senior squads. This is not like academies where players come and go, many of whom move on to other careers. Most players over 18 have committed to football, having declined further education or uprooted their family. They should not be treated as expendable.

So much unfettered emphasis has been placed on youth in recent years, with no restrictions on under-21s in senior squads and constant praise for youth-orientated transfer strategies. This must be reined in soon or else clubs like Chelsea and City will continue to run on greed and accumulate squads which they cannot sustain without any thought for player welfare.

13 comments

  1. 16 Aug ’13 at 6:29 pm

    Jamie Summers

    Very well-written article Adam, and I agree with what you’ve said. What I would also say though (this is not a criticism, just an extension of what you’ve talked about) is that the loan system is crucial for a lot of smaller clubs, especially those outside the Premier League. There’s no doubt that big clubs exploit it for their own ends, but a lot of clubs without the budget for transfers use the loan system as a way of putting a competitive team together. I think a medium needs to be found where the loan system continues to exist but the exploitation of it is ended.

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  2. 16 Aug ’13 at 8:15 pm

    Everyone's favourite gills fan

    I agree with the general crux of your argument that young players careers are ruined by bigger clubs but if anything the loan system gives them more of a chance. If players go to big clubs (hate that phrase) early in their career they take a huge risk. Gillingham had a player called luke freeman a 16 year old, he was poached by arsenal and gills got a then record tribunal fee for this next premiership star. Only he failed at the top level, never played again and now plays for Stevenage in league 1 (respectable enough). The truth of this is that basically clubs are only ever going to make good use of a few of the players they sign at young ages. 20% of success would be a remarkably good ratio of young players making it into first team squads. This will never deter clubs from signing such players as the costs are relatively low and 2 out of 10 successes is better than nothing. The loan market allows lower league clubs to obtain better young players which improves the standard of the leagues. But more than this, it provides a shop window for these loan players be it to make the first team at their clubs or to achieve a transfer to a decent side after being released from the bigger club. Surely this is better than just rotting in the reserves? I think players need to understand the risks they take when younger and the PFA should do more to advise such players. Think this would help more than reforming the loan market. But good article!

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  3. Agree with you there about the loan system’s benefits. Made the same argument for Courtois. However, the key point is that this use of the loan system is reactionary. It’s a solution to the problem of top clubs overstocking on youth and stagnating (not always ruining) careers and that is a problem which should be tackled at heart with more restrictions. Gills et al. wouldn’t get to enjoy a Chelsea U21 for a season but they would get to keep the Freemans of the world until it’s clear they’re too good.

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    • looks really cool! Me likey .errrrrr any new upaedts on the transfers Nic. I’m super nervous about who we gonna purchase this time around. Really hoping for a good/superpotential CB and LB with nice physique as a bonus!! #gredy4moretrophies#

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  4. 16 Aug ’13 at 9:13 pm

    Everyone's favourite gills fan

    It’s noticeable that the better players to leave us (Matt Jarvis being a good example) play a large amount of games for the club then move on to better things. But ultimately players that play for the top 5 or 6 clubs rarely come through this system. I actually think that more needs to be done to get home grown players through, do you not think that less loans would just mean clubs sign more foreign older players as the gap between the football league and the premiership gets wider? Also with such huge financial incentives i think clubs are less and less likely to throw new players in, meaning youngsters will never get the chance without the loan system. Has to be said, Chelsea are probably the worst exponent of the system, but had it not been for loans would lukaku and chalobah be as highly rated?

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    • i hope we get the signing right this time anurod. The Signings/purchase of players department is the only not too pleasing’ department of our team this past 5 years. We seem to splurge in less accurate directions =)

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  5. This is a good example of an article about an issue written by someone with no knowledge of football below “the big 4”. Loans do so much more than just serve up talent for these super clubs…

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  6. Excellent article, Adam. And I’m pleased to see that you took on the words of your “fantatic cousin”.

    It is a weird problem with no obvious solution. I personally like the idea of prohibiting players from moving before they are 18/19/20/21, but this would be in breach of EU law and would no doubt be totally un-workable. Restricting clubs to loans makes a lot of sense. No club can loan out more than two players at a time; not loan in more than two at a time.

    In addition to the “top clubs” hoovering talent and playing a numbers game, there are countless examples of the loan system being exploited:

    – Manchester City loan Bellamy to Cardiff and paid his wages as they didn’t want him, wouldn’t loan him to a rival, and were paying him too much to persuade him to leave. This meant that for a season Cardiff had a “Premier League quality” on their books for free. How is that fair?

    – In 2010 Harry Redknapp while Spurs manager once famoulsy slammed Jamie O’hara – on loan at Portsmouth at Spurs – who had said he hoped Tottenham would lose its FA Cup match so that Portsmouth wouldn’t meet Spurs and he could play in the semi-final. Redknapp spoke of O’Hara being “a Spurs player”. O’Hara never actually played for Spurs again after loans to Portsmouth and Wolves.

    – Lukaku is held up as a success of the loan system after an impressive year at West Brom. However, there are two issues to have flowed from that particular loan: (1) is it really fair on the rest of the league that West Brom should have to have their hands tied behind their back for the game’s against Chelsea where Lukaku cannot play; and (2) the short-term ‘fix’ of Lukaku at West Brom is looking as though it could be to WBA’s detriment long term as they look totally ill-equipped up front this season.

    – Last year there was controversy in the Championship when Watford managed to find a loop-hole to the inadequate regulation of loaning. Clubs aren’t supposed to select more than five loanees in a matchday squad and cannot loan more than two players from the same team. However, Zola had 12 loanees (at one point 14), five of which were from Udinese. How was this allowed? The rules only applied to English clubs. Had Watford hung on for promotion Ian Holloway and Steve Bruce could rightfully have been very angry.

    There are a lot of problems in football (not least the wasted expenditure on needless goaline technology), many of which seem irreconcilable. The loan system, however, is a problem that I’m sure the big-wigs at the Premier League, Football League, UEFA and FIFA could sort out.

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  7. The home kit looks great, with the navy blue.But i’m not sold on the away kit, why are they always odtalnuish?I’m sure the green kit from this year will become the 3rd kit, if the 2 new kits clash with that of our opponents, though doubt that, that would happen

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