Jesse Lingard had been at Birmingham City only 48 hours when his moment arrived. Three goals in 13 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday, four by full-time. Not bad for a winger.
If loan spells can make or break many a hopeful teenager, that was arguably the afternoon that made Lingard, the afternoon when he leapt from unproven reserve team star to the player making Football League headlines. Who was this upstart who had turned up and scored four goals, on his first Football League start?
It was not his first loan spell away from Manchester United – that came a season earlier, but produced only five substitute appearances during a brief period with promotion-chasing Leicester City.
Birmingham was the launchpad. Lingard would have to wait nearly another year for his competitive debut for United, but in one afternoon against Sheffield Wednesday he had established himself as possibly the Football League's most desirable short-term loan signing. Are you a Championship club in need of inspiration in attack? Come in, Jesse Lingard.
Once his three months and 15 matches at Birmingham were up, he was off to Brighton and Hove Albion for 17 more appearances. He stayed at Old Trafford for the first half of last season, starting the opening game against Swansea before being forced off with injury. By early February he was out on loan again, at Derby County.
Only one of those four loans, to Derby, could have happened without the current Football League loan window, allowing sides outside the top flight to sign players on temporary deals outside of the normal transfer window.
Wait and stagnate
It's a loan window that is due to be outlawed by FIFA from next season, with the world governing body saying they are keen to protect the 'integrity of sporting competitions', perhaps wary of the system's misuse. Although short-term loans have long been a feature of the British transfer system, they are not allowed abroad and FIFA are eager to bring England in line with the rest.
The Football League loan window has only remained in recent years thanks to special dispensation. FIFA planned to scrap the system in 2014 and in 2015, twice granting belated extensions, but they are keen to remove it once and for all at the end of the current campaign.
But the end of the status quo will present unknown consequences. Would Lingard have ever joined Birmingham without the Football League loan window? Would he be in the England squad now without those four goals against Sheffield Wednesday?
Experience of senior football was certainly critical for a player like him, who was never going to be able to break into United's first team straight away. Once on the books of both Manchester United and Liverpool at the same time, before choosing United aged nine, Lingard has always been of slight build and was significantly smaller than many of his fellow players as a teenager. Time to bed into men's football was essential – time that he could not get without going on loan. The oft-maligned Under-21 Premier League simply does not provide the same physical intensity.
But at many Premier League clubs there has always been the temptation to hang on to young players beyond the end of the transfer window, just in case they're beset by an injury crisis and those players are suddenly needed. The Football League loan window has enabled them to wait, then allow players out on loan for shorter periods, with a handy recall clause.
Without that loan window, the best and shortest option will be to loan players out from September to January, or from February to May, with no recall option. As a result, expect fewer promising youngsters to be loaned out and more to be stuck in under-21 teams, waiting for a first-team injury that never comes.
Twelve of tonight’s England squad to face France have benefited from the short-term loan system at some point in the past.
Ross Barkley returned to Everton the better for loans at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds, soon becoming a regular at Goodison Park. Gary Cahill’s progression to England captain for the recent match against Estonia came after highly impressive loan spells at Burnley and Sheffield United right at the start of his career, which helped to establish him in the Premier League with Aston Villa, Bolton and then Chelsea.
Jack Butland got game time at Barnsley, Leeds and Derby to keep him active and ready to produce his best form when he finally got his chance to be Stoke’s No.1 this term. Joe Hart joined Tranmere, then Blackpool in an emergency loan arrangement, before making the step up to the Premier League with a season-long spell at Birmingham. Only then did he take the final leap to become Manchester City regular. The first step, arguably, was just as vital as the last.
Ryan Bertrand, Adam Lallana, Jonjo Shelvey and Tom Heaton are others to have benefited – together with Harry Kane, Ryan Mason and Kyle Walker, with Tottenham consistently making good use of the system.
Andros Townsend may not be in the current England squad, but he has used the system maybe more than most. Seven of his nine loan moves away from White Hart Lane were short-term affairs that will no longer be allowed from next season.
Likewise, Jordon Ibe’s move to Birmingham, since which he has established himself at Liverpool after a longer spell at Derby.
Arsenal’s non-English trio of Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin have prospered, too. Ramsey used the loan system to rebuild his career after his horrific broken leg at Stoke, with brief but important spells at Nottingham Forest and old club Cardiff. Bellerin gained his first proper experience of senior English league football with Watford two seasons ago, while Coquelin finally established himself as an Arsenal regular after a month-long switch to Charlton last term.
Whether those players would have made it without such loans, we will never truly know, but undoubtedly they helped.
United’s Lingard is likely to be one of the last graduates of the Football League loan window to make the England squad. How the next generation of talent will be impacted, only time will tell.
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