Football: You've just got used to a player when suddenly he's off

OLIVIA BLAIR ON THE INADEQUACIES OF THE LOAN SYSTEM
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The Independent Online
Among the many snippets of information I've gleaned in recent weeks from the pages of this newspaper was one telling me that the Portuguese striker Paulo Alves had returned home after a loan spell with West Ham. In essence, it wasn't a particularly spectacular nugget of information; Alves had made such little impact at Upton Park that I (and, I suspect, many Hammers fans) had forgotten he'd even arrived in the first place.

But that's loan deals for you. In my opinion the loan - or temporary transfer as they like to call it - is a strange beast. It's as integral to our game as the penalty shoot-out, yet it can be as infuriatingly unsatisfactory.

For every player who has a loan deal to thank for kick-starting his career (Brett Angell hadn't managed to score for Sunderland when he went on loan to Sheffield United, West Brom and finally Stockport, where his goals earned him a permanent contract), there's another for whom getting farmed out on loan is essentially a passport to obscurity (Shaun Teale, an England possibility just a few seasons ago, went on loan from Tranmere to Preston last February and little has been heard of him since).

And for fans, loan deals can be maddening. I mean, you've just got used to a player when suddenly he's off without so much as a "so long and thanks for the memories" (if there are any; some deals last no longer than a month).

Take Alves' compatriot Hugo Porfirio. His skills made him a cult figure during his loan spell at West Ham, yet the Hammers couldn't match the pesetas on offer for him.

Not that it bothered Harry Redknapp much. He says Porfirio "did a good job for us at the time", and claims loans are "a great idea. You get a player on loan for a few months, he tries his heart out to win himself a contract and you just pay his wages while you get to have a good long look at him."

Bet he wishes he'd got Marco Boogers, Paulo Futre and Florin Raducioiu on loan before shelling out the best part of pounds 5m for them.

Still, the West Ham manager has other reasons for advocating loans. If it were up to him he'd farm out every kid, to broaden their horizons as well as their skills. Most recently, Rio Ferdinand sampled life on the South Coast at Bournemouth while Frank Lampard Jnr went to Swansea; both returned better - and (supposedly) more mature players - for the experience.

Redknapp says: "You don't get the same experiences playing reserve-team football where it's a mix of slightly soured seniors and youngsters trying for their lives. First-team football is a different ball-game altogether, plus they don't get pampered in the lower divisions. They might get a cup of tea, but you can forget the laundry and the boots cleaned. It's character building, if nothing else."

Alex Ferguson would no doubt agree. He's made a habit of farming out his fledglings, among them Terry Cooke (to Sunderland and Birmingham), Michael Appleton (to Lincoln and Grimsby) and Ben Thornley (to Huddersfield and Stockport). Even David Beckham was loaned to Preston.

Similarly, Newcastle sent Darren Huckerby on loan to Millwall, but their hand was rather forced since Kevin Keegan had disbanded the reserves at St James' Park and Huckerby wasn't playing any football at all.

But for all a loan deal benefits a young player and is useful to a manager as a precursor to a permanent signing, loans are arranged, more often than not, to get a club out of a spot of bother. Call me a cynic, but I can't see Jurgen Klinsmann staying at Spurs beyond May. Spurs say they've signed him until the end of the season; I say it's just a glorified loan deal. And will Tomas Brolin really stay in London SE25 when the season ends, particularly if it means playing First Division football? I think not.

Over in Europe, of course, clubs can sign as many players as they want on loan and those players are even allowed to play against the club holding their registration. (In France, they have a "joker" system whereby clubs can apply to sign a player on loan at any time of the season - even outside the transfer windows - when a crisis deems it necessary. In other words, when they can make a good case for doing so.

But then in most European Leagues there is greater fluidity of movement between the divisions; our top clubs are more self-interested. Football Association rules decree that Premier League clubs cannot conduct loans deals between themselves, except in the case of goalkeepers, and only then when the circumstances are "extenuating".

So, loans can only be conducted between Premier League and Nationwide League clubs, and each club can only sign two players on loan at any one time up to a maximum of five per season. (That latter figure has increased this season, so if it seems to you - as it does to me - that there are more and more loan deals nowadays, then you'd be right).

Which means that the temporary transfer is here to stay, in its many shapes and forms. Still, I have to admit that for all my dislike of it, were anyone to lend us a full-back or a ball-winning midfielder (and I'm speaking as a Spurs fan here), I wouldn't say no.

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