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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