In recent years, lower league clubs have increasingly become breeding grounds, where young Premier League players are sent out on loan in order to further their professional development.
On the face of things, this may seem a convenient situation for all parties concerned.
The Premier League clubs benefit from having players of greater maturity after their stints on loan, who might have progressed enough to challenge for the first-team.
The players gain valuable game time and are in a better position of pushing for a starting berth upon returning to their parent clubs. They may have been playing 90 minutes regularly for their youth teams, but that is no substitute for rubbing shoulders with experienced professionals in a more competitive league.
Meanwhile for the lower league clubs, the loan system has become an integral part of surviving in this tough financial climate, as they are able to reinforce their squads without having to pay a transfer fee nor having to contribute to the loanees’ wages.
A resounding success, you might think?
Unfortunately, from a supporter’s perspective, there are many serious drawbacks.
Loans are often as short as three months or even a ludicrous one-month period.
As a lifelong Yeovil Town fan, I have barely been able to keep track of the constant incomings and outgoings in recent years, to the extent that I have begun to lose some of the interest and enthusiasm I once demonstrated in following the side’s fortunes.
This goes for many supporters of the Glovers, where attendances have seen a steady drop from 6,667 in 2005-06 (Yeovil’s debut season in League One) to the current season total of 3,831.
For many, the days of visiting the club shop to buy shirts complete with players’ names emblazoned on the back are a thing of the past. After all, the shirt could be outdated within weeks or even days, if the parent club of the player in question were to enact their powers to recall him whenever it wants.
Indeed, at this rate, no ten-year-old fan will ever be able to repeat the feat of Gordon Ottershaw’s son in Michael Palin’s classic ‘Ripping Yarns – Golden Gordon,’ who learnt by heart the names of all eleven players of his father’s favourite (but comically inept) team long before his birth.
Indeed, one can imagine even a most loyal supporter such as Gordon, who has struggled through six years without witnessing a single victory, losing the will to follow a side, with which he would no longer be able to identify.
The logic is quite simple. True supporters generally devote themselves to their clubs for long periods, if not for the rest of their lives, and are therefore inclined to show, at times, immeasurable levels of appreciation and respect to players who reciprocate their loyalty by remaining at the club for many years.
This is not to say that all short-term loanees are incapable of endearing themselves to supporters.
Yeovil fans still look back with great affection on Leon Best’s three months at Huish Park between November 2006 and February 2007. Despite having to return to Southampton for the final part of the season, his ten goals in fifteen matches in Somerset were crucial to maintaining our promotion push in a season which culminated in a Play-off final defeat to Blackpool at Wembley.
Tottenham’s quartet of Steven Caulker, Andros Townsend, Jonathan Obika and Ryan Mason are also remembered for the positive impact they made while on loan with the Glovers.
The problems arise when a club becomes dependent on loan players, who are subject to recall from their parent clubs at the drop of a hat. Much rests on the strength and breadth of a manager’s contacts in order to keep the cycle going of replacing one loanee with the next.
Even if a manager is able to bring in the new man promptly, it can rarely be guaranteed that he will add much, if any, extra quality to the original squad. Needless to say, there have been a number of youngsters loaned in, often from large Premier League clubs, who have simply failed to make the grade.
Several players can claim to have used loan spells as springboards to bigger and better things, very noticeably Steven Caulker, who has started in defence for Tottenham this season and scored on his England senior team debut against Sweden in November.
But for every beneficiary there will be a loser. One need only look at Caulker’s Spurs team-mate, Obika, who doesn’t look like ever making the first-team, having returned to White Hart Lane after eight separate loan stints of varying success in just three years.
The loan system, as we know it today, has depersonalized clubs, while a large share of their supporters, and indeed players, has been cast into somewhat of a football wilderness.