Three years ago Ian Holloway dug out his contacts book, called in a few favours, and wheeled and dealed his way to taking Blackpool into the top flight for the first time in three decades. Now he is at it again, with Crystal Palace hoping to be the beneficiaries.
While the attention may have been on Queen's Park Rangers' trolley dash and Aston Villa's lack of activity amid the Premier League relegation battle, the January transfer window is equally significant for teams seeking to get into the top flight. Funds, though, are in shorter supply in the Championship and the smartest managers are often those who can work the loan market.
Holloway is the master at this. In January 2010 he loaned in DJ Campbell, Stephen Dobbie and Seamus Coleman. They joined Barry Bannan, who had arrived in the October. Fortified by this combination of seasoned experience and talented youth, Blackpool climbed the table, finishing fifth. They were then promoted through the play-offs, with Campbell adding three goals in the series to the eight he scored in the second half of the regular season. Coleman started all three play-off matches while Dobbie and Bannan had an impact off the bench. Thus Blackpool competed with, and beat, clubs with larger resources.
So it was no surprise when Holloway hit the phones as soon as the window opened, telling the media in his inimitable style: "I've lots of fishing nets going out to sea, but we are not ready to trawl them in yet." When the catch was landed he had hauled in three youngsters from Premier League clubs, players at the same stage of development as Coleman and Bannan were. Alex Nimely, of Manchester City, and Swansea's Ashley "Jazz" Richards are at Selhurst Park to the end of the season, Norwich's Jacob Butterfield is there initially for a month. As the clock ticked down Holloway cast his nets again in response to Palace's midweek defeat at Huddersfield, bringing in two experienced strikers, the evergreen Kevin Phillips and Dobbie – who had followed play-off promotion with Blackpool by repeating the feat at Swansea. In between, potentially crucially, he arranged for Wilfried Zaha to be loaned back by Manchester United for the rest of the season after the tyro's move to Old Trafford.
Holloway has been the most active user of the loan market in the Championship but he is by no means the only one. At Hull Steve Bruce has brought in four loanees, and would have made it five had Campbell been persuaded to join him on Humberside.
Even without Campbell, Hull, like Palace, look stronger, which shows the value of a manager with good connections and a persuasive tongue. Is this fair? The loan system certainly helps the well-connected (witness Peterborough United's continuing ability to attract Manchester United youngsters). In that respect it favours those managers who have been around a long time – though access to hard cash should not be underestimated as a factor; many loaning clubs will demand a fee, or for the bulk of a players' wages to be paid.
The clubs with real cash will, though, buy players, not rent them. Last year's key deals were permanent ones. Reading bought Jason Roberts, whose goals and experience helped them win the title. West Ham signed Nicky Maynard and Ricardo Vaz Te. Both scored in the play-off semi-final against Cardiff and Vaz Te's late Wembley goal won them promotion. Well-heeled Cardiff, incidentally, have not borrowed anyone this window, but they have paid for Fraizer Campbell from Sunderland.
Thus the loan system helps level the playing field for those clubs, like Blackpool in 2010, who are unable to commit to a permanent transfer. It is a risk-free deal in that the club is not committing to paying for a player long-term, but the flip side is that loanees are merely passing through. Can a manager rely upon them to provide the same level of commitment to a team as a permanent staffer? Having too many loanees risks disrupting the dressing-room, and long term it is harder to establish a pattern of play when a team is constantly bringing in loanees.
Coincidentally Palace today host a Charlton side whose only January activity was the arrival of Kevin Feely, a young Irish defender from Bohemians, on a permanent deal.Manager Chris Powell's lack of action can be partly explained by the fact Charlton are unlikely to go up or down this season and after three years straining to escape League One are happy to consolidate. Powell can experiment with his own staff, bed in plans for next season, and give his club's own youngsters a chance.
This is significant because what is notable is that with the prime exception of Matthew Upson's switch from Stoke to Brighton, most of the players dropping down from the Premier League are youngsters unable to get a match in the elite. As Holloway said of Nimely, "he's one of the ones that they tend to stack and rack at clubs like Manchester City".
This is the modern game. Big clubs stockpile players. Chelsea, for example, have 22 players on loan around the world including Josh McEachran (at Middlesbrough), Sam Hutchinson (Nottingham Forest) and Todd Kane (Blackburn).
Some of these youngsters will learn from their time out in the "real world", return to their parent clubs, prosper and make a career there, like Coleman has at Everton and Bannan, to an extent, at Villa. Others will be passed from loan to loan before eventually being released, at which point they will hope they have impressed someone, somewhere, enough to give them a second chance.
Thus perhaps the best-case scenario for players such as Richards, Nimely and Butterfield is that they will play such an important role in taking Palace up that Holloway, bolstered by an influx of Premier League cash, upgrades their loan into a permanent transfer – as he did with Campbell in 2010. In that respect they, like all loanees, are playing for themselves rather than the team, but if the team benefits, who cares?
Premier League: Loans to Championship
* Loans from January to end of season, except where stated
Barnsley Rory Delap (Stoke)
Birmingham City Rob Hall (West Ham, monthly), Ravel Morrison (West Ham, whole season), Jack Butland (Stoke – loaned back)
Blackburn Rovers Todd Kane (Chelsea, month)
Blackpool Reece Wabara (Manchester City), Nathan Delfouneso (Aston Villa, season)
Bolton Craig Dawson (West Bromwich, to 27 April), Jay Spearing (Liverpool, season), Benik Afobe (Arsenal, season), Steve De Ridder (Southampton, month)
Brighton Wayne Bridge (Man City, season), Matthew Upson (Stoke)
Burnley Joseph Mills (Reading, season)
Crystal Palace Alex Nimely (Man City), Jacob Butterfield (Norwich, month), Ashley Richards (Swansea), Wilfried Zaha (Man Utd – loan back)
Huddersfield James Vaughan (Norwich City, season)
Hull City David Stockdale (Fulham), Ahmed Elmohamady (Sunderland)
Ipswich Town Steven Henderson (West Ham)
Leeds United Ross Barkley (Everton, to 12 Feb)
Leicester City Michael Keane (Man Utd, extended to end of season)
Middlesbrough Josh McEachran (Chelsea, season)
Millwall Rob Hulse (QPR), Adam Smith (Tottenham, extended to end of season)
Nottingham Forest Sam Hutchinson (Chelsea, season), Billy Sharp (Southampton, season) , Daniel Ayala (Norwich, season), Gonzalo Jara (West Brom), Elliott Ward (Norwich)
Peterborough Davide Petrucci (Man Utd, month), Scott Wootton (Man U), Alex Pritchard (Tottenham)
Sheffield Wednesday Leroy Lita (Swansea), Jérémy Hélan(Man City, extended to end of season)
Watford Nathaniel Chalobah (Chelsea, season)
NONE Bristol City, Cardiff City, Charlton, Derby, Wolves
1. If Harry pulls this off, it will encourage more gambles
Loftus Road is a proper football ground, Harry Redknapp is great copy and Tony Fernandes appears to be genuine. Some of my friends are QPR fans. But I can't help thinking if they succeed with this wild gamble, and Aston Villa go down instead, it sets a terrible example.
2. The true cost of Chelsea's charitable gesture
Chelsea sent out a press release trumpeting the £71,000 raised for a trio of charities through an event this week featuring the first -team squad. All very laudable, but the club's £500,000 daily wage bill provides some perspective.
3. Put those outdated club shirts to good use
Don't need that Demba Ba Magpies shirt any more, or are you a Baggies fan not quite sure what to do with your Odemwingie-adorned jersey? Kits4Causes has a solution: add it to the 16,000 football shirts donated to under-privileged communities in 19 countries worldwide. "We're appealing to those supporters not to bury it in the bottom of a drawer for years, but to put it to greater good," says director Chris Grindley.
4. When National Service did not mean Croatia away
This season Gillingham have modelled their programme covers on historic editions to mark the centenary of changing the club's name from New Brompton. They also reproduce pages from each of the originals used. This week's Northampton Town match carried extracts from the teams' 1957 meeting. The Cobblers' pen-pics revealed two players had joined the club after being demobbed from National Service. Not for the first time the thought occurred that footballers (indeed, most of us) do not always appreciate how fortunate they (and we) are.
5. What price watching Torres in another European final?
Fed up with the cost of watching football? Tickets are on sale for the 2013 Uefa Women's Champions League final hosted at Stamford Bridge on Thursday 23 May, 7.30pm kick-off. Adults £10, under-18s and senior citizens £5. Torres may even be playing – that is the Sardinian ladies team, who face Arsenal in next month's quarter-finals, not Fernando.