Star players in the Championship are often on loan from big Premier League clubs and unlikely to stay for long. Adam Bate explains why this trend is distorting competition
There have been many changes to the game over the last 20 years. One aspect that sometimes gets overlooked is the changing nature of the football loan system. It's not like the backpass rule or the tackle from behind – you don't instantly see the impact it has on the football field. And it's not as conspicuous as an Arab sheikh or a Russian oligarch when it comes to transforming a club. But if there is one thing that is distorting the Football League Championship today it is the use of the loan system.
When I was growing up, a high-profile loan signing was like Christmas come early – and it lasted about as long. I still remember Mark Walters pitching up at Molineux and banging in a couple of screamers before swaggering off back to Liverpool. This was how it worked, if you were lucky. Nowadays, the season-long loan is commonplace and things are getting out of control.
On New Year's Day, Portsmouth fielded three loan signings among their back four. It was not newsworthy. It happens all the time. Indeed, Leicester City had already trumped them at Barnsley in November by fielding an entire back four of players whose permanent contracts were held by other clubs. With the rules stating that up to five loan signings can be used in the matchday squad at any one time, it is an understandable occurrence. In the 2007-08 season, Stoke City manager Tony Pulis even utilised a staggering 12 different loan players in gaining promotion to the Premier League.
It is alarming that sides can potentially rely so heavily on other teams' players to achieve success. And yet, the numbers game isn't even my main gripe with the system. After all, as long as the clubs are paying the players' wages then everything is OK isn't it?
Of course, we all know this is often not the case. The most high-profile example may be Craig Bellamy's loan move to Cardiff but in fact the practice is widespread. The ever-rising Premier League pay packets make it impossible for many Championship clubs to match the salaries of out-of-favour players. The result is that heavily subsidised transfers occur. Also at Cardiff, both Jason Koumas and Andy Keogh are having their earnings part-funded by top-flight parent clubs. And when the clubs loaning the players out continue to pay most of their wages, it seems their priorities change. We are in the age of patronage.
It is of little surprise that Sven-Göran Eriksson's Leicester received a couple of players from his old buddy Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. It was even less of a shock that Sir Alex Ferguson should give a helping hand to his son's ultimately doomed efforts to succeed at Preston North End. But that doesn't make it right.
Sir Alex went on record last season saying that Danny Welbeck would not be going out on loan – only for the story to change very quickly when Darren Ferguson took the reins at Preston in January 2010. This season Joshua King and Ritchie de Laet arrived at Deepdale before being hustled out of the exit door the moment the Preston board decided Fergie Jnr had to go in December.
You may argue that this is a special case. After all, blood is thicker than water. But the tentacles of Ferguson's power stretch beyond familial ties. Within days, Tony Pulis had also recalled Danny Pugh and Michael Tonge from Preston – leaving the side decimated and seemingly doomed to relegation. The events may serve as a warning of what can happen when a club comes to rely on someone else's players. But, as Kenny Dalglish highlighted, these shenanigans could hardly be in the players' best interests either. Dalglish said: "The decision raises interesting questions all round about the system. I always thought the most important aspect of a loan deal was to benefit the player himself."Not any more it seems.
So where will this end? In WSC 284, Simon Cotterill speculated that a club without financial constraints could sign players specifically to loan them out to other clubs in order to weaken their rivals' chances. Given this possibility, it is no wonder there is so little outcry when Premier League clubs pick and choose which Championship sides to extend a helping hand to and which ones they will leave to fend for themselves.
Maybe the time has come to limit the number of players a club can loan out as well as loan in? One thing is for sure – the days of the big boys "playing God"with the Championship league table must not continue.
From WSC 289 March 2011