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The Premier League’s Not-So-Secret Agents

Written by Craig Wilmann

DISCLAIMER: As everyone has pointed out, Ben Foster was sold to Birmingham and is not actually on loan. This article was written under the wrongly informed assumption that he was on loan and I apologise for that. However, the fact remains that the loan system is inherently wrong so please read the article and consider that. This isn’t a criticism of Man United, it is a criticism of the loan rules so for Ben Foster, just read Nedum Onuoha, Danny Wellbeck, Michael Mancienne etc.

If Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat away to Birmingham on Saturday was one of the biggest surprises of the season so far, the announcement that rang around St. Andrews on the 86th minute was anything but. “The sponsors’ man of the match”, the announcer’s voice boomed: “number 26, Ben Foster.”

And, while the Birmingham fans’ subsequent chants of “England’s number one” may be slightly premature, there is no denying that Foster’s performance was one of the best individual displays of the season so far. Unfazed by Chelsea’s bombardment of the Birmingham penalty box, which Foster commanded with such confidence, the England goalkeeper produced save after save to keep the Champions at bay.

In fact, it was probably the best solo performance Chelsea have had to deal with since, well, six days previously when Danny Wellbeck ran riot at Stamford Bridge. In the best match of his short career, Wellbeck used his pace and skill to completely embarrass Branislav Ivanovic and Paulo Ferreira in the Chelsea defence and guide Sunderland to an incredible 3-0 victory. Like Foster, Wellbeck was deservedly named man of the match.

One crumb of consolation for Chelsea to take from these two defeats, then, is surely that their title rivals will also have to play against these exceptional performers. The Champions can take relief from the thought that, on the 26th and 28th of December respectively, Man United have to deal with the attacking threat of Wellbeck, followed by the goalkeeping excellence of Foster.

Except, of course, there’s a slight problem there. In these two tricky fixtures, neither Wellbeck nor Foster will be eligible to play, as they are both on loan from, that’s right, Man United (see disclaimer at top of article). The same Man United who are currently challenging Chelsea for the Premier League title and who benefitted greatly from the performances of Wellbeck and Foster over the last two football weekends.

In a season where new Premier League rules state that each team can have a maximum squad size of 25, how is it that Man United have players outside of that squad who can have a direct impact on their season? This year’s title race is shaping up to be one of the closest in years and three points, or even one, at St Andrews on Saturday could have been the difference between Chelsea winning the league or finishing second. Should Man United knock a soft winner past Foster’s decent, but uninspiring, understudy Maik Taylor on the 28th December, then the points won and lost at St Andrews will almost definitely have a serious say in the title race. (I know Foster is a Birmingham player permanently)

It is not the first time this has happened either. On April 29th 2007, Man United faced a crucial fixture away to Everton. The Toffees were having a good season that centred on a solid defence and an extremely reliable goalkeeper, Tim Howard. However, a bizarre and un-gentleman-like gentlemen’s agreement, following his transfer from Man United to Everton, meant Howard did not play, leaving rookie Iain Turner to guard the home side’s goal. After 50 minutes, Man United were in a bad way. Manuel Fernandez had just made it 2-0 to Everton and there looked to be no way back. Step forward Iain Turner. Just after the hour mark, the young keeper caught a harmless corner and then inexplicably dropped the ball at the feet of John O’Shea, who poked home. Turner’s confidence never recovered and Man United went on to win the game 4-2 and claim their first Premier League title in four years. Had Howard been playing, the whole complexion of the match, and the season, may have changed.

Yet, allowing on-loan players to play against their parent teams would create as many problems as it would solve. Imagine if, instead of playing three days after Christmas, Man United faced Birmingham at St Andrews on the last day of the season. Then imagine if, after a fantastic season, Ben Foster had helped Birmingham to a predictable, safe, mid-table finish and the club had nothing riding on the game except pride, whereas Man United needed to win to clinch the title. Foster would be looking at his opposite number, Edwin Van der Sar, who by then would be approaching his 41st birthday, and thinking that he could take his spot at United next season. In that situation, it would hardly be in Foster’s best interests to put in a man of the match display and deny his parent club the title.

The solution; therefore, must simply be to outlaw the ludicrous rule that allows loans to take place in the same division. If big clubs want to nurture their young talent, they can give them more game time for their own team or loan them out to a side in the Championship or a European division. If Birmingham, who relied desperately on Man City’s Joe Hart last season want a good goalkeeper, they could take the outlandish step of actually purchasing one (As i know they have done with Foster).

The loan system, generally, rewards nepotism, meaning whichever manager sends Alex Ferguson the biggest Christmas hamper can have first pick of Man United’s huge pool of young talent, which is slightly unfair. When loans are allowed between teams in the same league, however, it means clubs can effectively send out ‘agents’ to take points of their rivals, which is grossly unfair.

Ten days before Fifa, in all probability, choose to inexplicably overlook England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup, the loan system is just another example of the shoddy and nonsensical rules that govern the supposedly beautiful game.

What do you think about the loan system? Should loans between clubs in the same league be outlawed? Have your say below.

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