Football, as we are regularly reminded, is about results. What perhaps now needs to be asked is whether those results supersede ethics. That was the word used by Mick McGuire, deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, in voicing concerns over the sharp escalation in the game's loan market, specifically in the Premiership where, for the first time, clubs are being permitted to loan each other players.
McGuire raised an official eyebrow at the piece of business which saw Alexei Smertin, captain of the Russian national team, signed by Chelsea and farmed out the next day to Portsmouth. No complaints, of course, from the canny Harry Redknapp down at Fratton Park, where pennies need to be counted, but according to McGuire: "That isn't in keeping with the spirit of the law. It can devalue the competition".
That law was voted through at the Premiership's summer meeting and permits clubs to take, from any of the domestic leagues, four loan signings in a full season, although only one from any one club. "The new arrangement is something the clubs wanted," said a spokesman for the League. "The system is used in Spain and Italy and it works. We feel it will be operated within the spirit of the rules."
It is, of course, a system which excludes foreign clubs, since Fifa do not recognise players from those as loans. They are deemed to be transfers because terms and conditions have been agreed. "We can't control that, it does not fall under our remit," said our man at Premiership headquarters. That is the Marble Arch-sized loophole through which clubs like Bolton and, more recently, Leeds have driven a cart laden with players from abroad.
Smertin, bought from Bordeaux by Chelsea as a lesser item in their summer splurge, is on a season-long loan with a clause prohibiting him from playing in either of Portsmouth's games with Chelsea. Ray Lewington, manager of cash-strapped Watford, has serious reservations about the deal. "I feel the system in place last season, where the Premiership were only allowed to loan to clubs in the Nationwide League, was a more upfront, honest one and benefited the smaller clubs like us. What they are doing now could be seen to be open to abuse, and if there is any doubt it is best not to use it. I can't see the sense of the new rule."
Nottingham Forest manager Paul Hart called the Portsmouth deal "a strange one that could lead to all sorts of things". One of those things was suggested by McGuire: "What would happen if Pompey now bring in a player on loan they couldn't have afforded before the Smertin deal?" The PFA man feels that by the end of the season clubs pushing for a place in Europe or for Premiership status could be affected. "You could have 40 players on loan at one time in the Premiership, excluding the ones from overseas. You are losing identity for spectators, devaluing the competition in the most exalted league in the world.
"More importantly for our members, you could have 40 people playing for a team where their performances could have a detrimental effect on the club they have moved from. That's a conflict of interest. Ten of the 15 moves on the last day of the transfer window were loans. That is indicative of the financial stress at the Premier level now, and it is an alarm bell. Discussion is needed to look at all areas of the loan business. There are some positives but also major problems."
Discussions will be forthcoming, in fact. The Professional Footballers' Negotiation and Consultative Committee who comprise the PFA, Football Association, Premiership and Football League, hold their quarterly meeting in a fortnight and the subject of Loan Rangers and Borrow Boys is certain to be on the agenda.
Those loans have been going on, according to the Football League, since 1967 and until very recently the intention was clear-cut: a temporary measure designed to assist clubs suffering injuries or suspensions. "It was then expanded," said McGuire, "to a season to allow a young player to gain experience through regular appearances for his loan club when a month's stay would have been pointless. That is very positive, a good example being Neil Mellor moving from Liverpool to West Ham, something of benefit to all parties. He can't affect the performance of his new team against his regular one. Gérard Houllier told me he is happy to see Mellor getting 35 games, maybe more, with West Ham rather than 10 with Liverpool. He's so pleased, in fact, he gave Neil an extra year's contract.
"I'm not against loans being used to help clubs like Leicester and Leeds with financial problems. We wouldn't want them extending themselves to the level where they run into trouble again. One positive from the transfer window closure last season was that people like Wayne Rooney, James Milner and Carlton Cole [now loaned by Chelsea to Charlton] were given an opportunity at a very tender age."
Hart, who has performed an excellent, funds-free balancing act at Forest by blending home-grown kids with shrewd loan deals, feels that a move often helps a player to get re-established. "Some Premier clubs have big squads, so it's in their interest to keep their people playing. I would prefer long-term loans because I like continuity but in the present financial climate loans help clubs to get through, both in the long and short term."
Having benefited from the presence at Watford last season of Jermaine Pennant (the Arsenal winger now loaned to Leeds), Danny Webber (Manchester United) and Michael Chopra (Newcastle), Lewington is in no doubt that such loans are a good thing for both parties. "It offered a chance for someone to get an extended run he isn't getting at his home club. It gives them a broader outlook, they get first-team football and it helps not only them but the clubs they go to. There is no way we would be able to bring in fresh faces at Watford otherwise." At that level of the English game, loans will not get a bad name. As Glenn Roeder said: "We're all in the same boat these days." That was, of course, before West Ham chucked him overboard.
Loan Rangers XI
Maik Taylor (from Fulham to Birmingham)
Danny Mills (from Leeds to Middlesbrough)
Markus Babbel (from Liverpool to Blackburn)
Chris Perry (from Tottenham to Charlton)
Paul Konchesky (from Charlton to Tottenham)
Jermaine Pennant (from Arsenal to Leeds)
Alexei Smertin (from Chelsea to Portsmouth)
Boudewijn Zenden (from Chelsea to Middlesbro)
Gaizka Mendieta (Lazio to Middlesbrough)
Francis Jeffers (from Arsenal to Everton)
Carlton Cole (from Chelsea to Charlton)Reuse content