One window closes and another one opens. Starting on Tuesday, eight days after transfer activity apparently shut down for four months, agents will be hitting the phones again as Football League clubs are allowed to make further loan signings right up until the end of November. The more ambitious of those clubs will have scanned the official squad lists released by the Premier League last week and will again be targeting just the sort of players the new FA chairman, Greg Dyke, was referring to in lamenting that so few Englishmen are appearing at the highest level of club football.
Take Josh McEachran. His experience sums up everything Dyke and the England manager Roy Hodgson are worried about. Groomed by Chelsea from the age of seven, he played in the Champions' League aged 17 and was being hailed as one of England's brightest young talents; England's, despite having two Scottish parents, because he appeared destined for the very top. At the end of that season, with 17 first-team appearances to his name, McEachran was named the club's Young Player of the Year and signed a long-term contract along with full-back Ryan Bertrand, about whom a similar story could be written.
To cut that story short, McEachran is now 20, has won caps for England in four different age groups but has played a mere six more Premier League games, gone on loan to Swansea and Middlesbrough and has not been given a Chelsea squad number this season. The midfielder therefore seems certain to be sent back to the Championship once fully fit and remains far away from a place in the England senior team that once seemed to be his destiny.
Being sent elsewhere by Chelsea on a temporary basis hardly makes him unique. As our panels shows, the club have an extraordinary total of 23 players farmed out to other clubs even before the new loan period starts. Eyebrows were raised that Romelu Lukaku and Victor Moses, signed at a joint cost of £20million, should be among them, but Jose Mourinho made it clear that he would not work with a bloated squad, having unhappy players banging on his door and spreading disaffection. "I don't like to work with big squads, I think 22 is the perfect number to answer our needs," he said.
Mourinho was not short of choice. Including under-21 squads and scholars, Chelsea have 75 contracted footballers over the age of 16 on their books; Manchester United and Tottenham have 74 each and Manchester City no fewer than 82. Many observers and smaller clubs believe there is a dog-in-the-manger attitude about this, with the big clubs intent on grabbing whatever young talent they can so it does not fall into the hands of rivals.
Steve Coppell, the vastly experienced director of football at Crawley Town, used a different animal metaphor to describe the loan system as it relates to Premier League clubs lending young talent to the Football League. "Fattening lambs for slaughter," he called it when manager of Bristol City. "Talented youngsters who can't get a game in the Premier League club's first team or reserves are coming here, getting some real value added, then being sold on at benefit to [the parent] clubs. These youngsters would have come anyway, for free."
Gareth Southgate, recently installed as the manager of England's Under-21s with extra responsibility for the lower age groups, takes a more benevolent view, arguing that if the country's best young players cannot always force their way into the first team of a Premier League club, the next best thing is to get playing time on the pitch lower down.
"Manchester United and Tottenham are probably as good as any at the process of giving their young players experience," Southgate said after naming eight from those clubs for his inaugural match in charge, the 1-0 win over Moldova on Thursday. "They're meticulous in how they do the development of young players. So people like Steven Caulker, who had loan spells, came back and has now gone to Cardiff. Tom Carroll's had loan periods, Danny Welbeck went through the same process at Man United. They don't necessarily want their players to just sit and wait, they look at how they can get them experience. [Nat] Chalobah had it at Watford last year and I'm sure Chelsea won't keep him just to sit and not play. They want him to become an asset that's ready for their first team. And I'd certainly trust people like Neil Bath and the guys that run their junior set-up to plot the pathways of their players."
If those pathways lead to a dead end, however, the question is whether that could have been avoided by a greater show of faith in the first place instead of buying in foreign talent. Caulker, permanently, and Carroll, on loan to Queens Park Rangers in the Championship, will both miss out on Tottenham's Europa League campaign because of the number of players brought in from abroad, and the striker Harry Kane could move on loan this week. So could others of the five United players Southgate picked, Nick Powell having already done so (to Wigan).
By March last season, half of the England Under-21 squad chosen to play Romania and Austria had left their parent clubs, mostly for Championship teams. Among them was one Josh McEachran, hoping like the others that the new season would bring greater opportunity at Chelsea.
In the next couple of weeks his hopes are likely to be dashed again and English football, it could be argued, will be the poorer.Reuse content