There are, to my eyes, three reasons for a team to dip into the loan market: a play for an extra bit of quality, a try before you buy and a desperate attempt to fill a match day squad. Carlisle’s signing of Miguel Comminges and Ashley Eastham before the close of the window brought Greg Abbott’s flirtation in that market to 9 ‘in’ so far this season so there’s no doubt each of these categories has been used.
I don’t want to dwell on how each of the ‘Carlisle 9’ have played this season (some fitfully, some poorly, some outstandingly) but rather to use them as an examination of the pros and cons of using the loan system.
The first, and most solid, criticism of using the loan system is that it fails to build you a coherent team. This can most certainly be true and is perhaps seen most desperately in the from of Peter Reid/Eddie Gray’s Leeds United team who took route one to the Championship with a side featuring borrowed ‘talent’ such as current Wrexham (then Marseille) striker Lamine Sakho, Cameroonian Salomon Olembe and, most famously Brazilian mercenary Roque Junior. Where Junior’s spell as resident barfly at Leeds Malmaison can be seen as the nadir of the ‘loan squad’ the plight of Graham Turner’s League 2 promoted Hereford United side in their first season at League One level is perhaps more cautionary.
Turner’s side’s promotion had owed everything to the borrowed talents of Watford duo Theo Robinson and Toumani Diagouraga and an in form Gary Hooper from Southend. The following season in League One and stripped of their three stars Hereford finished dead last with a derisory 34 points (including a gift wrapped 6 from Brunton Park’s finest).
It’s this fate that worries Carlisle supporters of late. The side is high on confidence after knocking Wednesday out of the JPT and well poised for a strong finish in a tight League One field but its fate inarguably lies in the post-January whereabouts of Manchester United centre back James Chester, Stoke’s flying winger Ben Marshall and the Leeds United duo of Mike Grella and Lubo Michalik.
All four have added undoubted quality to the Cumbrian ranks and there’s certainly a hint that the signings of Grella and Michalik at least fall squarely in the ‘try before you buy’ category. The giant Slovakian, frozen out by Simon Grayson at Elland Road, has been imperious at the back and a key tenet of a much improved United defensive effort.
Not since the early season defeat of Wednesday at Hillsborough have Carlisle chosen to field fewer than 4 loanees in a matchday squad. This has at times been down to rotten luck with injuries to defenders – the 1-1 draw with Rochdale on 23rd September saw United finish with their 8th different back four of the season. This has included four left backs (including a left winger) and deputations in the middle for two different right backs.
That the loan market can be used in this situation is without question – with summer signing Sean McDaid suffered a second career threatening injury in 3 years that we could go to Arsenal to pilfer Champions League left back Thomas Cruise or that a summer centre back crisis could be salved through a burgeoning relationship with Manchester United’s reserve team is credit to the management and bound to raise a smile with all fans. But a first choice defence, three of whom are deputed to leave on January 3rd is a straightforward concern for all.
There is cause for optimism as, while Abbott again sticks resolutely to his line that ‘my squad at the end of January will be better than at the start’ (this proved a lie last year largely thanks to the departure of Vincent Pericard), Marshall and Chester have been open about their wish to stay at Brunton Park whilst cautious optimism has been sounded about the Leeds pair. Regardless, the team diminished of even one of these 4 would lack its current sheen – though it figures that they can view these spells as an opportunity to relaunch their careers elsewhere.
The experience of the other five loanees raises another question. The Manchester United and Northern Ireland midfield pair of Corry Evans and Oliver Norwood were both unlucky with injury and are undoubtedly very talented young men but the signing of both appeared to smack of desperation or ulterior motive. Many put United’s early season form down to the resurgence of perennial ‘glass man’ and BMTHOKM favourite Paul Thirlwell, playing at the foot of a diamond midfield. His injury in Sheffield led to the signing of Norwood as an ill suited replacement (Thirlwell is more Ray Wilkins to Norwood’s Michael Carrick) when the squad offered more obvious replacements through a slight tweak in formation.
If this wasn’t a show of bloody mindedness from Greg Abbott then moving for Evans after a bad injury sent Norwood back to Old Trafford certainly did. The period with Norwood at the base of the diamond had seen United pull themselves out of trouble with second half formation changes and the coming form of Marshall and left winger Matt Robson. Evans one appearance at Bristol Rovers lasted an hour and was, by all accounts, neat and tidy but his departure precipitated a fightback and an almost remarkable late snatching of all three points. Some have argued that the growing links with Man United are worth carrying deadwood for but to take players who won’t improve a side for this reason seems somewhat regressive.
The recent signings of Comminges and Eastham are the most puzzling and dispiriting. Abbott, as with many other managers, has in the past reached for the loan market rather than trusting the club’s next generation. The worst example was 36 year old striker Gareth Taylor keeping FA Apprentice of the Year Tom Aldred out of the centre back places in 2008/9 season but the late season emergence of Gary Madine last year after a plethora of loanees were tried up front should surely have taught Abbott a lesson?
Seemingly not. Comminges, a left back, was brought from Cardiff to replace the ‘injured’ and out of form Cruise rather than choose the club’s talented youth team skipper Steven Swinglehurst, himself a natural left back. He departed 45 minutes into his FA Cup debut against non-league Tamworth, replaced by a miraculously recovered Cruise. One wonders if we’ll ever see him again. Eastham also played in the Tamworth game – signed to cover the suspended Michalik and injured duo of Peter Murphy and Danny Livesey at centre back. He too played very poorly and was unsurprisingly benched for the visit of Wednesday (Comminges failed to make the matchday 16). Before that game he had been limited to reserve football and was surely no better placed than a youth teamer?
Both signings seem to fall squarely into my latter category – desperation signings. Its these that irritate fans the most, inhibiting as they do the progression of clubs’ young players through proper football. Abbott has been quite vocal about not wanting to ruin the chances of a young player by blooding them early but his unwillingness to learn from the fate of Madine and Aldred, who pushed an out of form Murphy out of the team and earned a move to Watford with some impeccable late season displays, is dispiriting.
It’s not merely a question of stopping the development of youngsters but one of money – loan signings aren’t free after all – and when they backfire in a desperate bid to field side of ‘grown ups’ for no sane reason. On the flipside, just occasionally they come good – any good Carlisle fan would be able to tell you that – just ask them about that on loan goalie from Swindon Town…