Oct 23, 2010

Quest for First Team Football, Part Two: "Finishing School"

By Daniel Soffa

In a Five Part Series, Daniel Soffa deals with the struggles associated with some of the most talented young players & their quest for first team football. The first part dealt with the issue of youngsters at big clubs ("Forever Young!"). In this second instalment, we take a deeper look at the practise of loaning out talents as a "Finishing School".

A football player's career as a professional is very short in relation to other professions. And with examples set by young wonderkids in the recent past, such as Wayne Ronney & Francesc Fabregas, who have been able to secure regular 1st team football at a big club as teenagers, there's a growing sense of entitlement amongst younger talented players. These kids feel they deserve to play first team football as well, if not at their big team (parent-club), then on loan elsewhere.

Loans can seem an extremely attractive option for young talented players that are at "big" clubs, they find their chances for first team opportunities are being curtailed by the matured, experienced & often world class talent. These players who believe they deserve a first team role at their big club at a very young age are more often than not, fooling themselves. The answer, go out on loan to a lesser club without all the world-class players. As a talented youngster, although you still have to compete for places wiith experienced players, the prospect of regular first team football becomes a lot more realistic.

Clubs also look to loans as part of a young players development process. We hear on numerous occassions that a player is being sent out on loan to gain first team experience and develop as a professional, so on the surface it can seem the perfect scenario. Big clubs send their fledglings out on loan to develop, the talents get first team football and the club they are loaned to gain a talented youngster they couldn't afford to buy.

Jack Wilshere has this season broken into Arsenals first team as an 18 year old. However, last season when Jack was still on his journey searching for first team football, rather than being thrown into the deep-end in terms of Premier League games, he was used sparingly and in Carling Cup games. That was before he was packed off to the Reebok stadium (Bolton Wanderers) mid-way through the season, to ply his trade on loan, with Arsene Wenger declaring that this loan will serve as Jack wilshere's "finishing school".

Looking back on some of the most notable past gradutes who have risen through the ranks for the EPL's big clubs and then gone on to secure first team football for the very same club, Jack is in good company. John Terry spent a brief period on loan with Nottingham Forest, in a bid to build up his experience before coming back to parent club Chelsea in order to learn his trade as a Premier League player. Ashley Cole spent part of the 1999/00 season on loan, before breaking through in the following season. David Beckham spent a short time on loan to Preston North End to play regular first team football, notably scoring a goal directly from a corner kick... and the rest, as they say, is history. The glittering careers of Cole, Beckham & Terry, may make it seem right to send every talented young player out on loan, however they are not always successful.

John Bostock, a former Crystal Palace academy player, managed to play first team football for the club at the tender age of 15. He then decided to join big club Tottenham Hotspur, and since then his first team opportunities became distant. He was subsequently loaned to Brentford. The move began well with the youngster scoring both goals in a 2-2 draw with Millwall, but from there on he failed to secure a regular starting place even at the small club. Eventually culminating in Brentford deciding they no longer want the player, once fought over by the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea & Barcelona.

"Brentford haven't renewed the loan," Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp said, "He was on the bench on Saturday and the Saturday before. But they haven't got a divine right to play because they come from Tottenham. If they're not playing well enough then they don't get picked, do they?"

"I keep harping back to when I loaned boys like Rio and Frank out. Frank went to Swansea and was fantastic. Michael Carrick was at Swindon and I was getting calls saying they'd not seen anyone like him since Glenn Hoddle. And then you know you've got a player, don't you? That's what you're looking for when you loan them out, you're looking for them to make a real impact wherever they go. And when you get them back you think, 'Stick him in the team.' That's what you want."

"It's a different kind of football but Frank did it when he was at Swansea," he said. "I went down to see him play at the Vetch (Swanseas home ground), ankle-deep mud, and he was fantastic. It didn't bother him, he got on with it. You have to adjust. He's (Bostock) got terrific ability, you just hope he will do it," Redknapp said.

Perhaps Redknapp realises that being loaned-out isn't the perfect fit for everyone. "Maybe I need to get him working and training with the first XI, get him in the squad and see what he can do." David Beckham was part of a generation of young Manchester United players dubbed "Fergies fledglings", including the likes of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes & Ryan Giggs, none of whom went out on loan, they like Steven Gerrard have only played competitive football for one club, it does beg the question... in terms of development how important is the loan process?

The danger of the loaning system for talented young players today is when the development process goes out the window, and the reason for loaning the player out becomes solely as a means to keep him happy. Currently Chelsea have 2 young talents playing for the England U21's who are no strangers to the loaning process. Jack Cork and Ryan Bertrand have been on loan to 6 and 5 different clubs respectively. Another former Chelsea youngster Scott Sinclair, who cut ties with the club earlier this season, had also been shipped out to 6 different clubs on loan before he finally moved on.

This type of loaning is not loaning as a finishing school. There is infact evidence that multiple loans can prove to be the 'kiss of death' to talented youngster's chances of making it at their 'parent clubs'. Shared ownership of players, which is prevalent in Serie A, is non-existent in England. In Italy, big clubs maintain ties with talented youngsters by surrendering the players registration to play to the smaller club, whilst keeping (usually) 50% ownership of the players. This gives incentive to the smaller club to play the youngster, as an increase in his market value will benefit the smaller club. English clubs maintain ties with their young players by repeatedly sending them out on loan, as they are not yet ready for the first team, but there is hope for them to still be a useful asset.

David Bentley the former Arsenal youngster parted company with Arsenal after two loan periods to two different clubs. Frazier Campbell and Ben Foster were shipped out of Manchester United after multiple extensive loan periods. Chelsea have sold off talents like Israeli Ben Sahar after multiple loan periods. Sometimes while these youngsters see the opportunity for first team football elsewhere as a short-term solution, in the long term it may prove better for them to stay at their clubs and try to compete their for a first team place. Ashley Cole's break into the Arsenal first team came as a result with an injury to Sylvinho. Jack Wilshere's break into the Arsenal first team this season came as a reult of injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Francesc Fabregas.

When you are loaned out as a young player, it may become a case of out-of-sight out-of-mind... you are not considered by the manager anymore, and players are brought in to fulfil your position. The best of squads get stretched these days, there is so much football to be played in every season. So when an injury presents the perfect opportunity to break into the first team, if you are out on a loan you could very well miss that crucial window to make an impression. Incidentally, whilst John Terry was on his brief loan period to Nottingham Forest, Steve Bruce (then manager of Huddersfield Town) identified Terry's talent and put in a £750,000 bid that Chelsea had astonishingly accepted. The deal eventually fell through as Terry opted to remain with the Premier League club and learn his trade in the top division.

Many loans see talented young players on loan in the lower leagues and like Chelsea boys Jack Cork and Ryan Bertrand, perhaps they have learned how to become "N-Power Championship" quality players. With over 250 professional league appearances between the pair of them, Jack Cork & Ryan Bertrand are still yet to make their first team débuts for Chelsea. Sent on loan to get regular football experience, Cork and Bertrand watch as inexperienced youngsters 3 years their junior, such as Gael Kakuta and Josh McEachran are getting first team action at Chelsea. This could partly be a case of talent (or the lack of it), but I am sure their circumstance also plays a part.

Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown, are players like Gerrard, Giggs & Scholes who have only played for one club. They've made the decision to stick it out at their parent clubs rather than going out on loan. They have had different fortunes as whilst Darren Flethcer is now very much a first team regular, Wes Brown is yet to achieve that status. Therein lies the fine balance, do you stick around and hope to emulate Darren Fletcher's success? Waiting for chances as they present themselves, with the risk of becoming a Wes Brown, or do you go on loan to satisfy the short-term pursuit of immediate first team action and perhaps give the 'kiss of death' to your chances like so many others?

Loaning as a "finishing school" has proved a right of passage for many, but young players should discern between when they are being sent to finishing school and when they are just being shipped around like foster kids.


Look out Tomorrow (Sun, 24th Oct) for - Quest for First Team Football, Part Three: "The Curious Case of Lassana Diarra"

Click here for Part One: "Forever Young!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoying this series so far, Daniel.

One thing though, the reason Wes Brown hasn't made it is largely because of injury, not because he's not regarded as good enough.