By Jason McKeown
“We don’t want to come to the end of August saying we’ve got to go into the emergency (loan) market. If we do, we’ve done something wrong.”
The above quote from Julian Rhodes, which appeared in the Telegraph & Argus at the weekend, is worth preserving and digging out come the end of the first month of next season, in order to act as an early measure of how well City have started the campaign. It is reflective of a close season in which the club has had a lot to say about careful, professional planning for the next League Two battle. This time, unlike all the others, we are going to get it right. Apparently.
The subject of loan players always throws up a wide range of contrasting views – with a majority consensus that they are probably a bad thing. A player rocks up to play three or four matches in order to fill a hole or give the team a boost, and are judged very quickly and often very harshly. They are joining a completely new working environment, have to get familiarised with a different group of players and need to respond to a manager they’ve usually never met before. And they have to hit the ground running in terms of performance levels, because a slow-starting loanee will rarely keep their place for long and be very prematurely branded a failure.
Perhaps the best example of recent years was the striker Chris O’Grady, who joined Stuart McCall’s promotion chasing Bantams side in January 2009 and – due to the weather postponing matches – made just two substitute appearances that aggregated 39 minutes. An Oldham player at the time, O’Grady did not appear match fit and made little impact. He headed back over the Pennines with a flurry of criticism ringing in his ears; and McCall’s judgement was questioned too, as the man who signed him. O’Grady eventually moved to Rochdale, netting 34 goals from 98 appearances and helping Dale to promotion. Last summer, he earned a move to Sheffield Wednesday. Next season he will be a Championship player.
That’s not to say that we City fans were wrong to write O’Grady off from the fleeting evidence we saw of his ability in a claret and amber shirt, but it goes to prove how futile and badly judged the signing of a loan player can often prove to be. When we sign players on permanent transfers, we give them chance to find their feet and stick with them if the first impressions are not great. There’s a need for a club to invest time and development into their own asset, which they are much more prepared to do. A short-term loan signing fufills a very different need, and you sometimes wonder what the manager is thinking when they look for a quick-fix from signing an under-prepared loanee – or how much thought they actually paid over whether he would make a good addition.
Phil Parkinson, last season, was as guilty as any City manager of taking this route. Charlie Taylor, Andy Haworth and Will Atkinson all stood out as poor loan signings; not because they are bad players – I think all three have good potential – but because they did not have the experience to slip into the side and make the instant impact which they were recruited for.
City spent half a season investing time in the medium-term loan signing of Jack Compton and were eventually rewarded by a growing understanding with team mates that resulted in some influential performances from the Falkirk player. But when Compton chose to turn down another loan offer in January and Kyel Reid was sidelined for six weeks, we saw a couple of games from Leeds’ Taylor, then a couple involving Bury’s Haworth before Hull’s Atkinson was signed. No one could fill the Compton/Reid hole, but any of them might have been capable of growing into their role if City had have had the luxury of being able to give them a few games.
While Rhodes has not criticised Parkinson for this, you can understand if he did feel frustrated. Loan signings might seem cheap, but they are not free and City spent a considerable amount last season on temporary players such as Taylor, Haworth and Atkinson. They did not represent good value, and you have to wonder why Parkinson was so reluctant to try out Dominic Rowe, for example, over that same period compared to the three young loanees he turned to instead. Only last October City had been sufficiently encouraged by Rowe’s development – ironically aided by a loan spell of his own at Barrow – to award him a two year contract, but when his time appeared to have come round three months later he was overlooked and now has been told to find another club. This has happened too often at City over the years.
Despite Rhodes’ comments about not going down the emergency loan route again next season, it frankly seems implausible to expect anything but. We hope that the squad Parkinson builds this summer will prove good enough to live up to raised expectations, but realistically there will be some signings who do not work out, compared to others, and periods in the season where bringing someone in on loan could provide a short-term boost. Just like previous years, that will be something of a frustration and we will scratch our heads and wonder why other available squad players are being overlooked; but it is the way of the lower league football world that players who will probably have only the briefest of associations with the club will be looked upon to play an important part.
Certainly football has changed from a time where you could easily name the team for a particular season. City’s last successful promotion of 1999 was probably the last time we can realistically argue that the Bantams went through a campaign where the majority of the players involved in the latter stages were at the club the August before (and even then we had the loan signing of Lee Sharpe). The introduction of the transfer windows in 2005 heralded a shift in emphasis, from making mid-season permanent signings to dipping into the loan market (City were doing this already due to the administration problems, so the change was barely noticeable at Valley Parade).
We should not expect City to be quiet on the loan front next season, or believe that temporary signings are necessarily a sign of panic or desperation. Parkinson did not get all of the loan signings right last season, but no City manager I have seen has been any different on that front and we can look back over years and years of forgettable loan signings and be critical of the gaffer of the time.
A necessary evil, because for all the irritation some loan signings create, the rewards of getting it right are plentiful. For example, signing a player on loan often means we can recruit someone of a standard of ability we wouldn’t have been able to afford (Andrew Davies last season), or someone who proves themselves worthy of a permanent deal (Davies again, and also Ricky Ravenhill). Even having a loan signing who does not work out is better than signing the same player permanently and then finding out they are not good enough. In 2006, City signed Eddie Johnson permanently and David Graham on loan, to support Dean Windass in scoring goals. Neither were much use on that front, but at least we were able to send Graham back when his loan deal came to an end.
With some inevitability, we can expect a similar mixed bag next season. Parkinson will hopefully get some of them right, but he will also probably get some of them wrong. Yet despite the high ratio of failure that the loan market has been proven to provide, it is an important weapon that City would be foolish to ignore. Especially when every other team in the league will be going through their own mixed bag of outstanding and dismal loanees, looking for that short-term boost.