The Loan Approach
How important is it as a club to own all of your own players? Much has been made of Doncaster Rovers’ perceived over-reliance on the loan market this season, but is it really a bad thing?
An Unfair Perception
Loanee players are often held to a different standard by fans than their permanently contracted team mates. As if the reality of a legal document dictating that one player is paid by the Rovers and another is paid by a different club temporarily ceding his services makes any difference to their performance. Clubs who use the loan market as a key aspect of their football and financial strategy are often derided for doing so, despite its legitimacy.
Where did this all stem from? Modern football has changed many aspects of the game, but the system of loaning players has existed in England for as long as we’ve been able to boast a World Cup win. In fact, the only goal in the very first F.A. Cup Final way back in 1872 was scored by the Victorian era’s equivalent of a loanee, so what’s all the fuss about?
A change to the rules in 2016 abolished the practice of short-term loans outside of the Summer and January windows, a practice which helped many EFL clubs maintain appropriate squad sizes. Senior ranks have shrunk slightly as a result, but it has led overall to a better commitment to developing players and creating consistency in squads and contracts. Criticisms of how clubs like Rovers utilise the system remain though, for a number of reasons.
A Mutual Benefit
One school of thought amongst fans is that loans are a largely needless facet of the modern transfer market, an approach to building a squad that benefits other clubs to the detriment of our own. Why bring in promising young players that we are never likely to sign permanently to develop for someone else, rather than our own academy prospects for instance? Why spend precious chunks of the transfer budget on temporary fixes?
Such questions were no doubt posed in the summer of 2017 when Rovers signed 21-year-old Ben Whiteman on loan from Sheffield United, but a bit of patience and foresight at the time would have allowed those questions to be answered: Whiteman is now club captain, a vital part of the team and a player who is likely to command a record transfer fee if he is sold in the next year or two.
In one sense, this is speculating to accumulate. In another however, it is a method of squad building that can have an enormous benefit to the club and the player or players in question. Not every loan addition turns out to be as good as Whiteman, but it is reasonable to suggest that Rovers have had at least a 50% success rate on their group of temporary additions in each of the four seasons since the rule change to abolish short-term loan deals.
Short-Term Gains Matter
A big anxiety-inducer around the loan market also seems to be when factoring in the borrowed crop of players to the club’s future prospects in the following season. The ongoing nature of the sport being what it is, many fans are constantly keeping one eye on the future so seeing a team of eleven players turning out every week almost half made up of loanees raises eyebrows. Fans want to see stability, and a consistent squad that largely sticks together always helps that.
Reality though often makes the ideal scenario unrealistic. Rovers are a League One side, and in many ways a mid-tier one at that. Finances and circumstances dictate that there is pretty much always going to be some form of evolution in progress at all times, until such a time as the club is either at the very top of the pyramid or languishing near the bottom. Therefore, accepting that some planning must stay in the present, short-term realm is inevitable.
This is where the loan system really benefits clubs of Rovers’ standing, especially in the age of increasing disparity between the elite and everybody else. Chris Brown is the best example of this benefit in action at the club: a young striker destined to play his entire career at a higher level than Division Three joining us at that level and contributing mightily to a title-winning campaign. We could not get a player of Brown’s calibre in permanently, and thanks to the loan system we didn’t have to.
That philosophy has been enacted this season and last as well. Herbie Kane and Mallik Wilks are surely on course for careers in the top two divisions, yet played a pivotal role as temporary Rovers players in a successful season. Wilks became a £1 million player off the back of that, a price only one or two League One sides can afford to pay. The same is likely to be true of several current loanees, particularly goalkeeper Seny Dieng who manager Darren Moore has touted for a career in the Premier League.
Approaching The Future
In the four seasons since the end of those month-long deals that saw clubs bring in upwards of a dozen players on loan every year, Rovers have steadily increased their quota of temporary signings. Six acquisitions were made in each of the last two seasons, whilst Darren Moore has made eight this season, spending the majority of the campaign with one more loanee in the squad than is permitted on a Match Day, a limit capped at five.
Moore felt he had to do this to maximise his resources in the summer in the face of joining the club later in the window than hoped and finding it difficult to secure quality signings on a permanent basis in the final weeks of August. If anything, he should be commended for his efforts to put together a team capable of competing for a top six place considering the mess left by his predecessor, and without the use of loan players he may not have had us anywhere near our current league position.
As long as this reliance does not become the norm going forward, there shouldn’t be a problem. A summer of stability, enacting a plan drawn up throughout the current months should mean less temporary additions in future, but adding the right players in the right areas will only serve to help the club achieve its aims. It is easy to forget that Rovers legends like Brian Stock, Billy Sharp and Neil Sullivan all initially arrived on loan, as did young guns later to go for sizeable fees such as Matt Mills.
Rovers’ use of the loan system is here to stay. That is no bad thing. How we use it going forward will be important, but accepting its merits is something we all need to do as the club plots a path up the EFL ladder.