The beggars of Brunton Park aren't choosy when it comes to loan players. Roger Lytollis highlights the one advantage of being the worst club yet to be relegated from the League

Loan players are the cavalry for a Third Division club. No matter how badly you’re struggling – and in the case of my team, Carlisle United, that’s usually very badly indeed – there’s no problem so great that it can’t be fixed by a 19-year-old midfielder on a month’s loan from Rotherham.

The great thing about being bottom of the league is that any loan player will always come from a better club. The fact that he can’t get a game for that club is some­thing we prefer not to dwell on. Until a few years ago, Carlisle used loans mainly to assess players with a view to a permanent signing. During recent seasons the loan system has turned the lower divisions into a glorified training ground for young Premiership squad members. They get league experience, we get the chance to see what a decent footballer looks like.

Last season, Carlisle took six young players on loan from the Premiership. It’s becoming easier for lower-division clubs to get their grubby paws on Prem­iership players because the big clubs are increasingly likely to fund a proportion of the player’s wage. This arrangement is in keeping with the hand-to-mouth existence which takes the place of planning in Division Three. It’s easier to borrow a couple of promising kids than to try to look long term.

Like the sarong, this trend seemed to start with David Beckham. Alex Ferguson loaned the 19-year-old to then-Third Division Preston, for whom he scored on his first start against Doncaster in March 1995. After five appearances and two goals Beckham was whisked back to Old Trafford. Whatever happened to him?

Last season, Carlisle benefited from a po­tential star of the future when 21-year-old Leon Osman arrived for a three-month loan from Everton. Osman was superb as a cen­tral midfielder and transformed the team in his first few appearances.

But the manager at the time, Roddy Collins, then decided to play Os­man in the hole be­hind one stri­ker. He was so in­­effective here that by the end of his loan spell he was used only as a substitute, des­pite being the best player available.

Premiership managers are doubtless wary of let­ting Third Division defenders loose on their bright young things. Maybe they should worry more about tactically challenged Third Division managers ruining their players. I’ve lost count of the loanees from Prem­iership and Division One clubs who look a class apart during their first few games at Carlisle before being dragged down to the level of their team-mates.

Some don’t even have that brief honeymoon. Last season, Blackburn centre-back Michael Taylor had qualities that were apparent only to Collins. Many Premiership players look as though they just don’t fancy it, or as if they think they only have to step on to the pitch to set Div­ision Three alight. But there are plenty who seem like no-hopers here before ex­celling elsewhere. While a good player can’t single-handedly salvage a lost cause, he can shine in a half-decent team. The ones that got away include Paul Robinson, who looked bad even by Carlisle standards during last season’s loan from Wimbledon, but is now one of Division Two’s leading scorers with Hartlepool.

Very occasionally, the right player arrives at the right time and is used in the right way. During 2001-02, midfielder Stuart Green played 16 games on loan from Newcastle, during which Carlisle picked up 24 points. In the 30 games without him we managed only a further 28 points. Goalkeeper Matty Glen­­non spent most of 2000-01 on loan from Bolton and was the main reason Carlisle stayed up.

And, of course, in April 1999 Car­lisle signed a goalkeeper on loan from Swindon for the last three games of the season. In the final min­ute of the final match Jimmy Glass ran upfield and scored the goal which kept Carlisle in the Foot­ball League. Sometimes the cav­alry arrives just in time.

From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month

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