On borrowed time

Allowing the biggest clubs to loan out their developing players could be distorting competition, says Simon Cotterill

The existing laws on player loans between Premier League clubs need urgent revision. In their present form they allow points to be bought and they are increasing the speed at which the league moves towards being a competition almost entirely devoid of, just that, competition. However, neither the bigger clubs, who use the loan system to farm out future stars, nor the smaller clubs, who use it to bolster their squads, see rule changes as being in their short-term interests. And sadly, the short-term seems to be as far as English football looks these days.

This summer’s squad size debates have drowned out previously audible voices of concern over the loan system. Notable complaint only came from Steve Coppell during his sojourn at Bristol City. Lower-league clubs were just helping Premier League fat cats get fatter by nurturing their youth, he grumbled. Many like Coppell think the loan system is just another example of big clubs exploiting the rest of football, but I’d argue that it’s within the Premier League itself that the system is having the most disastrous effect.

When Joe Hart exchanged Man City’s bench for Birmingham City’s first team last season it seemed to many to be an arrangement that suited both clubs. Birmingham City got a player who helped them exceed expectations by keeping 12 clean sheets. Man City’s goalkeeper returned with added value and experience. England also acquired a new number one, so you could even argue the Hart loan was beneficial in three ways. However, to do so you’d have to ignore Man City’s 5-1 victory over Birmingham in April when Premier League rules forced Alex McLeish to field his second-choice keeper rather than play Hart against his parent club.

Having arrived at the City of Manchester stadium on the back of impressive draws with Liverpool and Arsenal, Birmingham ought to have been full of confidence but, as we all (perhaps with the exception of Fabio Capello) know, changing a keeper often disrupts a team. Hart out, Maik Taylor in was the only change to the Birmingham team that had just drawn against City’s fourth-place rivals. While this alone can’t explain Birmingham’s capitulation that day, another cause is hard to find.

Plenty more results of games between transferor and transferee clubs may too have hinged on the absence of a loan player. Arsenal twice beat a Jack Wilshire-less Bolton side last season. In 2006-07 Manchester United beat both Everton and Watford twice when Tim Howard and Ben Foster were forced to watch. At the start of 2007-08, Aston Villa lost 2-1 to Liverpool when denied the services of the loaned Scott Carson, but then kept clean sheets against Everton, Newcastle and Chelsea once he was allowed to play in their next games.

Of course, as a Nedum Onuoha-less Sunderland proved against Manchester City last month, having to omit someone when playing against his parent club doesn’t guarantee defeat. But it’s obvious that when United host Wigan without Tom Cleverley on November 20 and then a week later face a Mame Biram Diouf-less Blackburn, they will have easier tasks than their title rivals will face when playing these clubs with their young loaned stars.

The ban on players performing against their parent clubs is often justified as preventing problems of mixed loyalty. When it was introduced it may also have been welcomed for ensuring all loans between Premier League teams fairly followed the same rule (clubs had previously been able to decide between themselves if a player could or couldn’t play in all games). But the rule clearly works against overall fairness within the league. It allows the richest clubs to buy a say in more games than those that directly involve them.

Clubs like Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton aren’t likely to raise much complaint. Their business plans, like those of most Premier League clubs, are sadly now all about survival. Their managers do not plan for points against the biggest four or five clubs, so deciding whether to weaken the chances of getting them in exchange for a better chance in the rest of their fixtures is easy.

The laws allow only one player to be loaned-in from a single club but say nothing about how many players a club can loan out. A rich club unscrupulously seeking success (naming no names) could, for example, buy 14 or so big-name players, then loan them to all teams but their big rivals, ensuring themselves a much easier race for the title. While something this extreme is unlikely to happen, surely no club should be able to influence the result of more than 38 games a season.

From WSC 284 November 2010