A few weeks after the transfer window has closed, this would usually be a period of frantic activity for Football League clubs. In past years, they were given a week or so to catch their breath before the ’emergency’ loan window would open.
This would generally be a significant convenience, as clubs lower down the ladder could assess their squads and work out what holes needed plugging, while those a little higher up were able to consider who they could do without.
Players could be loaned for a maximum of 93 days and, while the ’emergency’ part of it was a fairly absurd description (generally ’emergency’ meant ‘I could do with some cover in midfield’), it broadly seemed to work for everyone. Smaller clubs got a (theoretically) higher calibre of player than would usually be available, bigger clubs could keep their younger/fringe players happy and well-raced.
Not anymore, though. While the Football League managed to skirt around it last season, Fifa have declared that such loans are against the “sporting integrity of competitions”, and are thus no longer allowed. Squads are closed from the end of August and that’s your lot until January. Loans can still be made, but only during transfer windows.
On the surface, this seems fair: after all, why should the Football League be any different from the rest? The new rule is merely promoting consistency. And yet the needs of Football League teams are so much different to anyone else. Their squads are smaller, their financial resources are thinner.
The job of a manager in the lower divisions is often to patch things up as they go along, to desperately plug what holes they can by whatever means. It’s almost impossible to make grand plans unless you have great financial resources, and it isn’t news that most clubs in the Football League do not have great financial resources.
“It makes things tough but it is a punishment for clubs,” Bolton manager Phil Parkinson said recently. “You’re restricted in terms of numbers and in this first season of no emergency loans it makes it very difficult because if you pick up some injuries like we have then the squad can look threadbare.”
It’s notable that the three clubs who were promoted from the Championship last season – Hull, Burnley and Middlesbrough – were three who did not have to dip into the emergency loan market. By coincidence, these are three clubs who benefit from rather deeper pockets, the former two because of parachute payments from recent spells in the top flight, the latter thanks to the brilliant backing of chairman Steve Gibson.
Boro did benefit from some loan signings, notably Gaston Ramirez and Ritchie De Laet, but they were moves made in the transfer window (i.e. ones that would still be allowed now), so are more ‘bigger picture’ transfers, rather than necessities.
Those who can do without emergency loans will not be greatly affected by the rule change, but that’s not a representative story. Burton Albion, for example, managed to ascend to the Championship – the highest level in their history – with the help of emergency loans. They could have still secured promotion without the likes of Hamza Choudhury, loaned from Leicester, but it would have been much more difficult.
Even if you don’t think the well-being of smaller clubs is important, loans can be vital to the development of young elite talents, to gain first-team experience or to toughen them up. Harry Kane is the most recent, prominent example of this, a player who had various loan spells at various clubs.
“He wouldn’t be the England striker without him going to Millwall, Leicester and Norwich,” Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy told the BBC last year. “Without having those experiences going out, they don’t get to be the players they are today.”
They will still be allowed to leave on loan for a whole season – rather than the previous 93-day ’emergency’ spell – but we come back to finances again. Some clubs simply cannot commit to the outlay of paying even a portion of a top-flight player’s wages for that long.
There might be benefits. It might force clubs to plan a little more carefully, or give chances to youth team products that would not have ordinarily have been given those opportunities.
It could discourage bigger clubs from stockpiling talent, in the knowledge that they would have to play in under-23 games now that reserve football is a thing of the past. That said, even with these rules the Chelsea loan machine currently has 38 players out on temporary duty, so it doesn’t seem to have put them off too much.
In some respects the decision is understandable, a levelling of the playing field. But this seems like the imposition of a ‘one-size fits all’ policy. The needs of smaller clubs are harmed by the desire for uniformity.