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Which is the best Championship club to send young players on loan to?

Championship
(Image credit: Getty)

It has become a new career path. Start off in the academy of a London giant, appear for England’s age group teams, then get borrowed by a club behind the old Iron Curtain where Ralf Rangnick is in overall charge and then come back to England for a loan at Huddersfield. 

For Emile Smith Rowe in 2020, read Tino Anjorin in 2022. If the Chelsea prodigy can hope his next two years go the way the Arsenal midfielder’s have, his latest destination is instructive. If his move is seen as Huddersfield loaning Anjorin, perhaps a more accurate description would be of Chelsea choosing Huddersfield. Certainly they have reasons to: Trevoh Chalobah was a team-mate of Smith Rowe’s at the John Smith’s Stadium two seasons back before his surprise emergence as a valuable squad player for Thomas Tuchel. Levi Colwill has flourished at the heart of Huddersfield’s defence this season, with Chelsea rebuffing offers from Premier League clubs to borrow him for the second half of the season. They clearly think he is better off at Huddersfield for now and if part of the reason may be Carlos Corberan, the manager who was one of Marcelo Bielsa’s assistants at Leeds, Smith Rowe and Chalobah were entrusted to Town under a different regime.

Huddersfield can testify to the importance of having friends and admirers in high places. Their surprise promotion to the Premier League in 2017 was anchored by Danny Ward’s defiance: then manager David Wagner had borrowed the goalkeeper from his best friend, Jurgen Klopp.

Getting a reputation as a fine finishing school can be invaluable. Before Blackburn’s win over Middlesbrough last week, Harvey Elliott was on the Ewood Park pitch, accepting the applause of the fans who didn’t see him in the flesh during a loan when he prospered behind closed doors. Elliott was terrific for Rovers last season, even as the team underachieved. Now an unexpected surge towards the top of the table is being aided by defender Jan Paul van Hecke and attacking midfielder Reda Khadra, both borrowed from Brighton. It is easy to see why Graham Potter would want a technical talent like Khadra to go to a manager like Tony Mowbray, who has a footballing ethos and a track record of improving up-and-coming players.

If loaning the next generation can be a productive policy for clubs denied parachute payments, getting an injection of the kind of quality they cannot afford to buy, the first step might be to get the right reputation. It can come from a personal connection, and Derby benefited from Frank Lampard’s past when Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori helped take them to the play-offs in 2019. Mowbray has no such history to call upon but Liverpool could have sent Elliott virtually anywhere and they chose Blackburn, just as Manchester City often do. 

Chris Wilder’s arrival at Middlesbrough saw them get another Potter player, in Aaron Connolly, and an Arsenal youngster, in Folarin Balogun. When Nottingham Forest appointed Steve Cooper, they were presumably enticed in part by the former England Under-17 manager’s contacts book: it helped him take Conor Gallagher, Marc Guehi and Morgan Gibbs-White to Swansea. Under Michael O’Neill, Stoke are joining the band of destination clubs for Premier League outfits looking for somewhere where their kids could kick on.

Perhaps Norwich had the best of both worlds last season, with parachute payments and a hugely influential young loanee, in Tottenham’s Oliver Skipp. Promotion for Bielsa’s Leeds was aided by borrowing Ben White, offering further evidence of the merits of getting in Potter’s good books, and City’s Jack Harrison. Given Bielsa’s ambitious style of play and record of fast-tracking emerging players, he may have seemed the perfect man to accelerate their development; except that White was one of a minority as many of his youthful loanees – Eddie Nketiah, Izzy Brown, Lewis Baker, Jack Clarke – spent much of their time on the bench.

Anjorin played little football for Lokomotiv Moscow just as, impeded by injury, Smith Rowe did for RB Leipzig. Sending them to Huddersfield presumably comes with the confidence he will play. Smith Rowe did, helping them to win a relegation battle, though the ultimate beneficiaries of his loan were Arsenal. Until injury interrupted his season, Elliott seemed on a similar trajectory. For all the focus on Premier League clubs’ transfer policy, an overlooked part is picking the right Championship team for a prodigy who may pivotal in a year or two.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.