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.