Issue #168 Boycott / Loans

As told by Michael Wood

I am not going to tell you to not go to tonight’s game with Stoke City u23 but I would like to play with your intuitions around the situation League One clubs find themselves in.

The English Football League Trophy (EFLT) should be boycott because – it is said – allowing teams of under twenty three players from the top two divisions of English football represents a first step towards allowing Reserve Teams/B Teams/u23 Teams into the Football League itself.

(Those top two division are referenced to as “Premier League” for the rest of this article. That would be a taxonomy that included Aston Villa more than Rotherham United.)

This would be inherently devaluing – the argument goes – because it would create a set of teams who were not representing communities but were using the resources of those who do. The upshot of this could be that competitions like League One are devalued by being won by teams which – by definition – are not as interested in them as they are other competitions.

Scunthorpe

Last season Scunthorpe United missed out on a play off place to a Barnsley team which had three loan players – Ashley Fletcher, Ivan Toney and Harry Chapman of West Ham United (now, and Manchester United then), Newcastle United and Middlesbrough respectively – who are the very type of footballer who will be playing for the likes of Stoke City u23.

As a Scunthorpe United supporter you might wonder how much of an impact Barnsley’s bringing in those players had and – considering the gap between Barnsley and Scunthorpe was three goals – you might conclude that without those three players your side would have been sixth not The Tykes.

You could think similar things about Josh Cullen, Reece Burke and Bradford City. What did Bradford or Barnsley do to bring those players in? Are we happy with a League where a decisive factor is the ability to maintain relationships with Premier League Academies?

That players can be borrowed from one club to another is a standard of football but we kid ourselves if we say what we have now is the loan system as we have always known it.

In the 1980s loans were used to cover injury – Liverpool’s Steve Staunton in for City’s Karl Goddard is a good example – and in the 1990s it was used to freshen up squads with an new face for a month or so and for try before you buy deals.

Now loans are a part of squad gathering. Each season a club looks at loans as a way to support the squad they are building. Signing Reece Burke was not to cover injury or because the players in that role were failing it was a cornerstone to Phil Parkinson’s summer recruitment.

So we kid ourselves if we do not notice the changes to how loans are used and we kid ourselves if we do not notice why those changes have been made and what the results are.

In a year Reece Burke went from squad man to valued asset at West Ham. The benefits of loan deals for Premier League clubs are obvious.

It is less clear what League One clubs get out of them.

League One’s clubs are now defined – in some part – by who they bring in on loan. The right contacts at the right Premier League academies would allow four Reece Burkes to be brought in by a team.

These loan signings happen at every club – more or less – and one could argue that they have a cancelling out effect. City only need Reece Burke because Barnsley have Fletcher and Coventry City have Adam Armstrong. If all loan players were to return to all parent clubs all League One clubs would be effected equally.

These loan players represent a cheap option for clubs – some free, some with subsidised wages, all without long term contracts – and loan signings make up three or four players in every squad of twenty two.

To make that explicit the Premier League is funding League One clubs at a rate of (around) 15% of their wage budgets and in return for that they are taking the value of having their players play a full season in League One which provides the experience needed to improve. They get to turn a young Reece Burke into an £8m rated player.

This has had a warping effect on League One squads.

The loan players available to League One clubs from the Premier League are young and because a squad must be balanced League One clubs know that they must build group of senior players. This necessarily stops League One young players progressing.

An example. A League One club wants three central defenders and – because they do not have to pay for him – they take a kid on loan from Premier League allowing them to spend more on the other players.

The manager – knowing he already has one kid at centreback – is not going to be able to progress one of his own team’s youngsters for fear of ended up with a situation where he has two teenagers at the heart of his back four. So he brings in older players to balance his squad.

So the manager makes a team of senior players and any value for progressing young players goes to the Premier League team. If you take a Gladwellian view – as I do – that good footballers are forged by playing games rather than born.

Which means that a Reece Burke is worth £8m to West Ham United while City;s 19 year old professional contracted defender James King has yet to play. With King it is almost impossible to say if he is worth a place in the team but a concern would be would a Dean Richards or an Andrew O’Brien be in the same position as King is now?

The Premier League clubs take all – or a lot of at least – of the value that comes from developing players in League One.

We have a situation in League One where the Premier League make a funding contribution to most of the teams in the division in some way, that the quality of loan players attracted has an unnatural and disproportionate influence on those teams finishing positions, and that the value from this transaction goes to the Premier League at the detriment to the teams in League One.

We worry about the Football League Trophy bringing B Teams into the Football League but I think we worry for no reason and that the problems that that would represent are already with us.

I’d suggest that if you consider the above you’d conclude that all the benefits of B Teams have been given to Premier League clubs and are already in League One today.