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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.



  1. Jack Sullivan

    November 23, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Umm…Foster moved on a permanent basis for £6m in the summer.

  2. Neal

    November 23, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Yes the loan system is wrong but Foster isn’t on loan at Brum. They bought him for about £4m

  3. mark

    November 23, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Interesting article – only short on a couple of points:
    Birmingham City do in fact own Ben Foster.

    And the disallowing of loaned players to play against their parent clubs was imposed by the league in response to Chelsea’s new owner buying a lot of players and loaning them out, with the proviso that they couldn’t face Chelsea.
    Until this point it had been common practice for players to face their own clubs. I believe Lomanu LuaLua scored a late equaliser against the club the held his registration.

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  5. NorwegianDevil

    November 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Well. Just one glaring error in this article and that is that United sold Foster to Birmingham in the summer so he’s not on loan.

  6. deadball7

    November 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Ben Foster was SOLD to Birmingham for 6 million pounds before the start of the season.

  7. Craig Wilmann

    November 23, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Oh dear, you are quite right. That was a massively embarrassing error. The loan system is still wrong though.

  8. Vishnu Prasad

    November 23, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    As it is the case with Man Utd, Chelsea are bound to have s number of loan players and so are Arsenal. The discrepancies you’ve pointed out are bound to even themselves out over the course of a season. And gaining experience playing in the Premier League is quite something else from playing in a lower league. Would Danny Welbeck have stood a chance of making the United 11 if he had stayed at the club. But now thanks to his exploits at Sunderland, it is looking like both ManUtd and England have gained a terrific player. That is what confidence does to you. It is a bigger factor than you think.

  9. Craig Wilmann

    November 23, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Vishnu, Wellbeck could have gone to Italy or Spain and some of their youngsters could have come here. The ‘even themselves out’ argument definitely doesn’t work- it’s highly unlikely that all of the loan players would have an equal impact on opposition teams and it doesn’t make sense that the big side’s title chances can be affected by players who are out on loan, and aren’t in their 25 man squad.

  10. tom84

    November 23, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    putting aside the mistaken information that Foster is on loan (on which a lot of the arguments in this article is based) none of this makes a whole deal of sense

    what if Wellbeck had played poorly against Chelsea? or if Man United had kept him in the squad for this season, utilised him and won a game or two more? the loan system allows young players to develop and it also benfits clubs who dont have the same money as the top ones in the EPL

    and which do you think is fairer access to Fergie’s pool of young players or tycoons pumping crazy money into clubs. Chelsea can hardly feel theyve gotten the short end of the stick when they lose a match. the rules are there for everyone maybe they need to sign a few people on loan in jan

    and Howard was also a permanent move wasnt he? so that e.g. from a few years ago a different argument. its not as if Man U havent won the title since

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  13. AJ

    December 22, 2010 at 11:18 am

    Players must only be loaned out of their league.

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