Coventry's fall from the Premiership in 2001 and financial decline have now led to a team reliant on players borrowed from others, to the confusion of Neville Hadsley
Standing on the temporary, open, terrace on a freezing day at the National Hockey Stadium watching Coventry recently, I found myself squinting at our back four, feeling puzzled. It wasn’t the garish Ajax-style red away shirts, incongruous as they were. Nor the fact that the numbers on the four shirts seemed to add up to a ridiculously high number – 98, in fact, a total surpassed the following week when it reached 114. It was the fact that I didn’t recognise two of our defenders.
One of them, it turns out, was Martin Grainger, who I had clocked the previous week making his debut. The other was Peter Clarke, who was making his debut that day. Both were on loan and we had two other players on loan in our starting XI – Bjarni Gudjonsson and Stephen Warnock. In other words a third of our team was made up by what are the footballing equivalent of temps or supply teachers. In mitigation, we did have injuries and suspensions, and no one could fault the quartet’s efforts on behalf of their temporary team-mates. But I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated. Was this my team? Or a borrowed one?
The system of loaning players was seen as a solution to increasing financial problems brought on by the wage explosion. Club A could have a player on a massive contract but wanted to see the back of him. Club B, usually lower down the food chain, wanted him but could not afford to buy him outright. So, if the player was willing, a loan seemed like a mutually agreeable solution. Except somewhere along the line it became too agreeable and the traffic in loan stars became a jam.
It increased when the Premiership clubs began to see loans as an easy way out themselves and allowed such deals in the top flight. Now there’s hardly a team in the Nationwide without a couple of loanees and the disease has spread upwards. Only four teams in the Premiership do not have a loan player in their ranks at time of writing – Liverpool, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Chelsea. Bolton, famously, attributed survival last year to their loan players and Leeds are currently trying to pull off the same trick with six loan players in their squad.
To take Coventry as another example, we have so far this season taken seven players on loan. Last season we took ten – and most of them did nothing for us other than keep younger players out of the first team, many of whom ended up being loaned out to other clubs. This phenomenal traffic in human flesh – we also signed another eight players on free transfers – helped us break at least one Coventry record in what was a miserable season: the highest number of players (44) used in one season, a record that had stood for over half a century.
You can probably tell that I’m sick of loanees. It’s not just the case that it’s hard to keep track of them, although you need the sort of memory that could make you a circus act to keep up. It’s more to do with the feeling that I can’t see how we can progress with all these players coming in for a month or so then going away. What purpose does it serve?
Too many managers see loanees as a handy quick fix that “proves” that they are “doing something” about bad form. But the only real solution to bad form is good coaching and loans are too often a mask for bad management. In some cases, as in Ritchie Partridge, who spent a season at Coventry last year, the less short-term nature of the deal proves a success. The player has time to settle down and make a real contribution.
This year, Warnock, who like Partridge was a gift from Anfield, has also done well. But others, such as last season’s man from Blackburn Matt Jansen, just frustrate. Jansen was recuperating from a serious injury but, whether the medical opinion or something else was wrong, he showed little of the talent we know he has and he just blocked the path of one of our own.
As a supporter, I can’t build up any affinity for a player who I know will be off in a few weeks’ time and I doubt that a constant influx of loans does anything, in the long run, for squad morale. It can’t be very good for the players that are constantly farmed out, either – players such as Craig Hignett, who came to us on loan last season and now finds himself borrowed by Crewe.
It’s a sordid, cynical business where traditional loyalties and coaching values are being sacrificed and a new breed of footballing odd-job men has been created. Only a return to stricter loan limits can reverse the feeling of alienation creeping into our game. And who knows? That might encourage clubs and managers to run their affairs better as well.
From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month