Wigan Athletic and the loan system

How many of the club’s most successful youth team will ever play for its senior side?
Photo courtesy of Wigan Athletic FC.

Critics of the loan system in English football say that it is there for the benefit of bigger clubs helping them to stockpile young talent. They cite the example of Chelsea as taking things to the extreme.

At the beginning of this season Chelsea had no less than 38 players out on loan. Half were sent to English clubs, half overseas.  In addition to those coming through their academy Chelsea buy up young talent from all over the world, typically sending them out on loan immediately to get experience. Some will come back and get a first team place, but for most the experience helps boost their market value and they are sold off.

But clubs in the lower divisions are so often happy to take the loanees. Using a loan player over  a relatively short period of time frees them from tying up their capital in long term contracts, which can be problematic if the club runs into financial difficulties. Moreover the clubs can use the loan market to cut wage bills by sending their own players on loans where other clubs pay their salaries. Andrew Taylor was signed for Wigan Athletic by Uwe Rosler in the summer of 2014 on a three year contract. He played 26 games for Latics in that first season, but has played no competitive games since for them. Last season was spent on loan at Reading, this season at Bolton.

The loan system also provides a lower division club with the opportunity to assess a player’s capabilities prior to making a decision on a permanent signing. In Wigan’s case it enabled them to sign Yanic Wildschut from Middlesbrough in January 2016 after a three month loan period.  It proved to be the most lucrative financial transaction the club has made in recent years, making a sizeable profit, even if critics might say it contributed to the lowly league position Latics now find themselves in. Reports suggest that Wildschut was signed for less than £1m and sold for a figure approaching £7m, although there may have been clauses in the deal made with Middlesbrough assigning them a portion of a future transfer fee. Nevertheless the club had used the loan system much to their benefit.

But Emyr Huws had been brought to Wigan on loan in the summer of 2014, resulting in Latics paying Manchester City reputed to be around £2.5m near the end of the summer transfer window. An ankle injury in the early part of the season severely hampered Huws, leading to him making only 16 appearances in 2014-15. After expressing his desire not to play in League 1, Huws went on loan to Huddersfield Town the following season, only to sign for Cardiff City last summer for a fee in the region of £1m. Latics had made a considerable loss on Huws, although we can only surmise on what would have happened if he had not suffered that ankle injury, something that has continued to dog the player.

Sometimes players are sent out on loan in the final stages of their contracts. Typically it is a way of helping them find future employment, when their contracts are not going to be renewed. Uwe Rosler signed Martyn Waghorn from Leicester City after a successful loan period in 2013-14. Stephen Warnock was given a permanent contract last summer after joining on loan from Derby County in March 2016.

But Wigan Athletic have signed 32 loan players over the past three seasons, with only Warnock and Wildschut becoming permanent signings. The majority of the loan signings were made in the January window. Faced with mass departures in the fire sale of January 2015, Malky Mackay made seven loan signings, none of whom were to stay on at the club at the end of the season.  Warren Joyce also made seven loan signings in January 2017.

The sheer number of loan players signed by Latics over the past three seasons has led to fans questioning the policy. Why have so many loan players been signed, when such a tiny proportion have gone on to sign permanent contracts? Moreover if the club is serious about its Academy why has it brought in so many youngsters on loan from other clubs? Put simply, has the club been helping other clubs in developing their young players at the expense of home grown talent?

The stats are damning. In the past three seasons only four graduates of the Wigan Athletic Academy/youth system have played in league matches for the club. They have made a combined total of 15 starts, with 12 substitute  appearances. The most appearances were made by Tim Chow (6 starts, 9 sub), Luke Burke (4 starts, 1 sub) and Jordan Flores (3 starts, 2 sub), with Lee Nicholls making two end of season starts against Brentford and Barnsley.

The case of Luke Burke this season is one seems to typify what has been happening. As an 18 year old Burke made a promising debut in the opening game of the season at Bristol City. He had come in seemingly full of confidence from a good pre-season and his success as captain of Wigan Athletic’s most successful ever youth team. However, as the season progressed Burke was to be marginalised, then sent on loan to Barrow. The right back position has continued to be problematic this season, with either midfield players put in there or young loan players brought in. They include Reece Burke (20), ostensibly a central defender, Callum Connolly (19) and Jamie Hanson (21).

Wigan Athletic are by no means the only EFL club to use the loan system in such a way. It has become commonplace throughout the three divisions. However, given the focus on building a strong academy, bringing in such quantities of young loan players is surely detrimental to the development of the club’s own home-grown talent.

Given the fact that Latics have been struggling against relegation since day 1 this season it is perhaps understandable why home grown talent has been so sparsely used. The irony is that last season’s youth team reached the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup for the first time, only losing in extra time to Manchester City. The club has arguably its brightest cohort of academy graduates. Will they continue to find their paths blocked by the presence of young loanees from other clubs?

Another thorny issue faced by clubs bringing in loan players involves stipulations from parent clubs regarding game-time. In certain cases clubs will only lend out their players if they have a commitment that they will be given opportunities in the first team.  Loans can involve fees and penalties based on appearances made. The omission of Matt Gilks in favour of Jakob Haugaard against Rotherham was  a surprise. Moreover Graham Barrow was reluctant to discuss it at his post-match interview. Was it because of pressure from Stoke City to play the Danish goalkeeper now he is fit again? Or is there a game-time clause in the loan agreement that involves financial penalties if not met?

With relegation beckoning many of Wigan Athletic’s squad will be looking at their futures. The last time Latics were heading for League 1 there was a huge clear-out of players over the summer, followed by Gary Caldwell signing fourteen new players, with another six coming in on loan.

The same will surely happen this summer. Most of the current squad will most likely be gone, with lots of new signings and loan players brought in. But what kinds of opportunities will be given to the club’s home grown talent?

The EFL Futures initiative has been set up to encourage clubs to develop young players through their academies. A sum of £750,000 per season will be shared out to clubs who field players under the age of 21 who are eligible to play for England (or Wales for Cardiff, Newport or Swansea).  The cash rewards will be shared out pro rata, depending on the number of qualified players and appearances made.

One wonders in what position  Wigan Athletic will appear in the list of recipients at the end of next season?

 

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High turnover but what’s changed? A perspective on Wigan’s latest window

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Management hates it, the media loves it, fans have little choice but to be glued to it in hope and trepidation. Transfer deadline day is bigger business every year that goes by. It’s one of the ways – the lack of a winter break being the other obvious one – in which the British game likes to make things that bit more complicated (and profitable) than the rest of the world.

For clubs that swapped managers during the first half of the season, the January transfer window has become an opportunity for the new regime to stamp its authority on the squad. Ship out players that don’t fit the tactical model; replace them with players that do; balance the books by shedding big earners and reinvesting in problem positions. It’s a pattern that has become all too familiar at Wigan, with last year’s success in League 1 the notable exception.

There are a couple problems with this approach. First, you have less time in January than in the summer, not only to recruit good players and find a home for high-earning misfits, but just as importantly to provide incomings the tactical and personal adaptation period they need to succeed. On top of that, you have to navigate an inflated market to negotiate fair prices for players, which can be particularly challenging if you appear desperate, as one does in a relegation fight, for example.

Another unpleasant feature of the January transfer window well known to Latics, particularly in the Premier League days, is the risk of losing your most successful players. It tends to be instigated by agents or players themselves, and to materialize in the dying hours of the window, preventing the club from finding an adequate replacement. Sometimes, these decisions become of huge financial importance to the club, and their approval is beyond the manager’s control.

Add to this Wigan’s very limited spending power compared to its Championship competitors – and you realize what a big ask we as fans are making of the manager. It’s worth pausing to put oneself in Warren Joyce’s shoes. There are plenty of arguments claiming the manager should only be judged after a window. I’d take them a step further to suggest that’s still nowhere near enough time. The new players haven’t had a pre-season with him; many will need to adjust to playing at a higher level; all will have to adapt to new surroundings and teammates; and Joyce himself will need to adapt his tactics, having lost his most valuable player.

The counter argument, of course, is that Joyce brought some of these challenges upon himself. Too much turnover is bad for any organization, specially in a short period of time, and the high number of ins and outs will breed instability. Was it really necessary to bring in so many people, so many loanees in particular? Right when the team was gaining some consistency and producing results on the pitch? Plenty to debate. In the meantime, here are some ups and down on another busy window:

Good News: The whopping fee received for Yanic Wildschut (£7.5 million according to Sky,£7 million elsewhere.) It’s hard to take, given his status as Latics’ best attacking threat, with pace and strength to burn, and room to improve. But his finishing was often frustrating, he was inconsistent, and very much rough around the edges. If he had to go, credit is due the club for gaining such a huge profit on their investment.

Bad News: Yanic again. Being gone so late in the window. It’s hard to ignore that Wigan have scored three goals fewer than Rotherham, and yet just sold their most effective attacker.

Good News: In Gabriel Obertan, the club have found as close to a direct replacement as could be expected. We’ll be left to imagine what Joyce’s team might have looked like with two pacey wingers on the pitch. But at least Obertan’s defining attributes are similar to Wildschut’s: pace and strength, some trickery, abundant potential yet inconsistent finishing. He should be entering his peak years, has something to prove, and lots of experience at a higher level. Joyce knows him, he’s apparently a good professional, and they have said encouraging things about each other. The term of contract is short, therefore financial risk is too. All in all, a gamble worth taking.

Bad news: The squad feels unbalanced and bloated. There are a lot of midfielders, but few wingers or attacking playmakers given Nick Powell’s absence. With Obertan almost certain to start, it’s likely Michael Jacobs (in desperate need of a goal) on the other wing, with Colclough, Weir and Browne all unproven backups. Meanwhile, in the centre of midfield, Joyce has Power, Morsy, Perkins, MacDonald, Gilbey, Tunnicliffe, Hanson, Byrne, and Laurent to keep happy. Perhaps some of these players will be used in different positions (Hanson as defensive cover, etc.), but it’s a bloated, uneven squad that Joyce may have a hard time keeping happy.

Good News: Welcome Omar Bogle! He may need time to adapt. But the club beat out competitors to get him, and on paper, he has everything he needs to succeed at Championship level. A lot of hope is resting on his inexperienced shoulders, but if his teammates can provide him service, there is reason to believe. The option of a little-and-large Grigg and Bogle parternship is also intriguing. He’s left-footed, too.

Bad News: Banking on lower division signings is playing with fire. If Grigg is to become injured, Latics are left with Bogle, and Mikael Mandron to lead the line. Both have potential, but their success has come in League 2 and the Conference, respectively. They are completely unproven at this level, and playing with new teammates.

Good News: Alex Bruce appears an astute short-term signing, with potential for a longer stay. Dan Burn and Jake Buxton have developed a useful partnership in recent games, but Bruce is a dependable and experienced head to provide backup, who should also be good to have around the place.

Bad News: He hasn’t played all season due to an Achilles injury.

Good News: Keeping Sam Morsy and Max Power. Much of the attention has been on keeping Morsy, who has performed very well since his return. Power may not have started strongly, but has been steadily improving and remains a player of undoubted potential. Had rumours of his departure materialised, Latics would have lost an opportunity to reap the rewards of blooding him at this level. Good things should come of establishing Power and Morsy as a partnership.

Bad News: Too many loanees. In order to secure loan signings, managers often have to pledge a certain number of game time to the players’ parent clubs. Given the maximum of five loan signings per match-day squad, it looks an impossibility Latics’ recent loan signings will all get their wish to show what they can do. Jakob Haugaard may find himself sacrificed given the arrival of Matt Gilks. Callum Connolly is certain to play. That leaves Jamie Hanson, Marcus Browne, James Weir, Ryan Tunnicliffe, Bruce and Haugaard to vie for the other berths. Presumably, borrowing players and not giving them a game reduces the chances of players being borrowed from the same clubs in the future. Given many of these players are expected to be fringe players anyway, might Latics have been better off without a few of them?

Good News: Joyce appears to have both a short-term, and long-term plan. Signings like Gilks, Bruce and Obertan point to survival needs, while the signings of Jack Byrne, Mandron, and Josh Laurent show a continued desire to invest in youth and capitalize on Joyce’s wealth of experience in the area of player development. Byrne, in particular, was highly rated at City and appears a good long-term signing.

Verdict

Despite the high turnover, it doesn’t appear likely there will be immediate, dramatic changes to the starting lineup – Obertan in for Wildschut, perhaps the goalkeeper, and a new striking option in Bogle off the bench. This should prove a blessing, given the progress made in recent weeks. But it also calls into question the need for such a high number of incomings and outgoings. Joyce would do well to resist the urge of upsetting the players who have recently given him good commitment and results.

As supporters, patience is going to be important. Demanding instant impact from players adapting to a higher level is unfair, as is demanding instant adjustment from a team that became dependent on Wildschut to create for it. But if the new signings can add to the promising form shown of late and provide cover for injuries, we can be cautiously optimistic that, with a new crew of Joyce-loyal players and relative stability in the starting XI, we’re better off than before the window.

Full squad can be seen here