Is it time for a tightening up of the rules and conditions that apply to the loan market in football?
There was a time – and not so very long ago – when it was fit for purpose and worked well. Clubs would bring in someone to either cover an acute shortage of players in their own squad or a particular position – usually a crisis of the goalkeeping variety, else it would be used to get a young player a short period of playing time prior to possible immersion into the first-team squad of his ‘parent’ club.
The period of time for either was usually no more than three games or about a month.
Norwich certainly made use of it for both of those purposes.
When injury meant an end to Chris Woods’ 171 consecutive first team appearances for the Canaries in September 1984, the club found themselves in dire need of an experienced, albeit temporary, replacement – and fast.
Goalkeeping cover at Carrow Road at that time had not been considered a priority, such was the resilience and reliability of Woods; a fact borne out when the pre-season squad photograph for that season is studied. It features 22 players, the manager, coach, and physio but only one, in Woods, goalkeeper.
Had Woods been taken so much for granted that the club had been a little careless in not ensuring that he had sufficient back up in case the worse happened? Or was it simply because no goalkeeper would want to come to Norwich just to understudy Woods during the week only to end up with precisely nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon?
Possibly. But it is more likely the club were confident that they’d be able to get a replacement for Woods in on loan at very short notice and with minimal capital outlay. Why, after all, put a player on a two or three year contract when he is never going to play when you can get someone in and pay them for no more than three or four games.
A no brainer. And which is why former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Corrigan was only too pleased to come in and play a few games; a welcome return to the top flight for him at 35 as he joined from Brighton, then in the Second Division.
Corrigan made four appearances during his cameo spell at Carrow Road before heading off back to Brighton less than a month later, once Woods was fit to retake his place.
John Bond did much the same thing in the 1976/77 season. With Ted MacDougall gone and both Viv Busby and Roger Gibbins unavailable, the Canaries found themselves with just Phil Boyer available to lead the line that November. A temporary striking solution was needed to fill the gap.
Bond, ever the fan of the flamboyant, found it in Peter Osgood, once of Chelsea and then with Southampton (his place at The Dell, ironically, now under threat after the arrival there of MacDougall).
Osgood readily agreed to sign on for just three league games, appearing for Norwich against West Ham and Aston Villa at Carrow Road, as well as at Bristol City. He didn’t score but he combined with Graham Paddon to set up Boyer for the Norwich goal in the 1-1 draw against Villa, showing brief signs of both the player and onfield personality he had been in the process.
Like Corrigan several years later, Osgood was never going to become a full time Canary. He knew it, both clubs knew it and the fans knew it. But they did a job and went with our thanks – as well as, you would hope, some good memories of their short spells in Norfolk.
Bond utilised the loan market again when it came to eventually topping up his depleted strike force later that season. Kevin Reeves eventually signed for us from Bournemouth for just £50,000 but even he had originally signed on loan. His training session with Bournemouth on the Thursday before the game had been interrupted by former Norwich player and Cherries manager John Benson who more or less told him to get up to Norwich as quickly as he could; the two clubs having already agreed the terms of the loan deal.
Reeves had been preparing himself for a trip to Hartlepool with Bournemouth but found himself making his league debut for Norwich two days later at Highbury instead.
It wasn’t long before that initial and very much rushed loan deal became a permanent one with Reeves eventually becoming the club’s first ever £1 million sale a few years later.
In today’s game it is not unknown for the leading clubs to loan out their most promising young players for a season at a time in order for them to get “playing time” and first team experience, courtesy of another club.
Some players however, seem to spend most of their careers on loan without ever being given a chance to prove themselves at their parent club, the case of Ryan Bertrand being a good example.
Bertrand has been with Norwich for two separate loan spells covering parts of the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, making a total of 60 appearances for the Canaries in total – four more, to date, than he has made for Chelsea, who he joined in 2005 from Gillingham, and who remain his parent club.
Bertrand will therefore be eligible for a testimonial at Stamford Bridge from the start of next season if he is still at the club then.
As well as those two loan spells at Norwich, Bertrand has seen temporary playing service at six other English clubs since 2006, a career total (at the time of writing) of 227 senior appearances in English football, including just 56 for Chelsea in nearly a decade, one of which included a starting place in the 2012 Champions League final – his European debut!
Clearly Chelsea have had their reasons for not wanting to sell a player who clearly has no long term future at the club, indeed, probably never has. But why?
Has he remained at Stamford Bridge for so long because he ticks the right administrative boxes rather than the playing ones? Young, English, counting as home grown?
You have to think that might just be the case. You might also think that, with Bertrand turning 26 at the start of next season, his current loan spell with Southampton might just turn out to be one that finally turns into a permanent move.
For the sake of his career, I personally hope that is the case – although, of course, the situation may have suited him just as much as it has done Chelsea.
Whatever happens, the whole use and abuse of the loan system in his case has, I think, flown against the spirit of the game and the reasons the loan system was introduced in the first place. (IE. To provide clubs with a player for the short-term when needed or for a club to let one of their up and coming youngsters to get a few games at first-team level before immersing him into their own starting XI for the long term).
As turned out to be the case with Charlton Athletic, ourselves and Scott Parker.
Parker joined Charlton in 1997 and made 22 appearances for them, primarily from the substitutes’ bench in the next three years. The Charlton management knew they were onto a good thing with Parker however and had been, over that time; steadily preparing him for a permanent place in the team’s starting XI. He just needed some of the rough edges smoothed down and a series of games at that level with another team.
He joined Norwich on loan in November 2000 and made six appearances in just three frenetic weeks of football, scoring one goal in a 3-2 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday.
Parker returned to Charlton, a league higher than us much more versed in the demands of first-team football and all of its demands, going on to make, more or less uninterrupted, a further 100 appearances for them, displacing captain and erstwhile first-team regular Mark Kinsella in the process.
It was a loan spell that benefitted all parties and, crucially, most of all the career of the player in question.
A few examples then. But what used to be an isolated case has now turned out to be something pretty much regarded as the norm in the game and a means of switching a player from one club to another with minimal aggravation.
So convenient in fact that will loan transfers that involve one, two, even three year arrangements between the parent club and the ‘borrower’ soon be as common as those that involve transfer fees?
With the top clubs ever more intent on hoovering up the best young talent from around the world as soon as they possibly can, it does seem that this will more than likely be the case for much of the foreseeable future.