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‘Something borrowed, something red’ – LFC in the loans business

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’. Despite this advice from Shakespeare – that’s William, not Craig - football clubs do both when need and opportunity arise. While borrowing and lending are two sides of the same coin (an apt reference to coin as we shall discover), the former is normally far smaller than the latter for Premier League clubs. Between 1892 and 2021 (not counting guests during the World Wars) some 230 Liverpool players have been sent out on loan, about 100 of them more than once, but we have received only twenty-nine, less than the equivalent of a modern full squad. No fewer than eight were goalkeepers, twelve defenders, six midfielders, and only three forwards (one of the last being Ian Rush almost on a technicality). This imbalance between loans in and out is common to all Premier League clubs, though with wide variations – in the current season, no club has borrowed more than Fulham (with 7); Chelsea and MUFC have borrowed none. No club has lent more than MCFC (42), closely followed by Chelsea (39). LFC’s figures are 1 borrowed (Ozan Kazak) and 13 lent out. (It isn’t, of course, a competition!)

Loans (or ‘temporary transfers’) are subject to the same windows limitations as normal transfers, with FIFA stopping an earlier emergency procedure between windows in 2016. Each has an individual contract, which can include mutually agreed clauses such as a fee, cancellation, who pays what proportion of the player’s wages, number of expected appearances, length of loan (now usually six months or a year), player recall, and so on. However, this article is not about the loan system as such, of which there are already plenty on the internet – only about LFC’s historical use of the facility. It is based on research which supports current calls for reform of the present system.
Instances of Liverpool’s borrowings, when arranged chronologically, show a very uneven pattern. I can find none between three in the 1890s (Barney Battles, Jim Cleland and Robert Neill from Scotland), and the 1973/74 season for which we borrowed Brian T Parker (a goalie from Crewe before they sold him to Arsenal). Next was thirteen years later - when Ian Rush, having been told by Juventus that they planned to loan him to Lazio (at that time a second-tier Italian club) for his first season with them, proposed that he should be loaned back to Liverpool instead. (He scored forty goals in all competitions that season!) Five temporary players for LFC arrived in the 1990s, nine from 2001 to 2010, and eight since. It is thus an overwhelmingly modern phenomenon with only a handful in the previous hundred years. Nine of the twenty-one known to have been recruited in the Premiership era made no appearances in the first team squad.

The relative success of this policy must be seen in the light of one of three main purposes for which loans are arranged - to give the squad a boost with greater competition for places, normally avoiding payment of a transfer fee; as cover for any significant, temporary indisposition of permanent players; or ‘try before you buy’, a policy which has been likened to a trial marriage.

Only a few players have been borrowed by LFC purely in order to improve the squad. Battles, Cleland and Neill were associated with our failed attempt to avoid relegation in 1895. Hearts would not release Batt, but he came for six weeks in 1896 to boost our successful escape from Division 2. (LFC signed him again for a few months in 1898, but he played only one game.)

In 1990, Dalglish was trying to strengthen his forward line during the last few months of the title race. Ronnie Rosenthal’s home club, Standard Liege, could not agree terms with Luton Town to which he had been originally loaned, and Rocket Ronnie’s LFC contribution was rewarded with a £1m transfer making the two-month loan (which had not included an option to buy) permanent.

Victor Moses, brought in at a cost of £1.5m from Chelsea’s ‘loan-fodder’ sub-group of players, was clearly recruited as a good quality threat to LFC regulars taking their own selection for granted. After that 2013/14 season in which he had six starts, Moses was loaned out to Stoke, West Ham, Fenerbache, Inter Milan, and most recently Spartak Moscow.
Mascherano’s worth was so well known that LFC was prepared to pay £1.6 million for a one-year loan from West Ham and eventually £17m to sign him on a four-year contract. It may be that the loan, prior to his transfer, was one of the consequences of considerable uncertainty surrounding his legal status at West Ham. There is no doubt, however, about why LFC welcomed him into their squad.

Manquillo’s loan spell from Atletico Madrid, originally intended for two years, was to solve the left-back problem faced by Brendan Rodgers who wanted a left-footed player in that position after the loan of Aly Cissokho the season before had failed. In turn, Manquillo was recalled after one season (2014/15) as his parent club had expected him to get far more game time than Rodgers was prepared to give.

Four incomers may be identified as replacements for existing, injured squad players. In the Premiership, two goalkeepers have been brought in on loan, Alec Chamberlain from Sunderland when David James’s regular backup, Michael Stensgaard, had seriously injured his shoulder while erecting an ironing board (astonishingly, an injury which almost ended his playing career); and LFC fan Paul Jones from Southampton, for only nineteen days in January 2004, when both Kirkland and Dudek were injured.

Jurgen Klopp has used this stand-in tactic twice, both times in order to counter temporary problems in the defence. QPR’s Steven Caulker was LFC’s only acquisition during Klopp’s first transfer window, especially to guard against opposition long balls while both Skrtel and Lovren were nursing hamstrings. The irony of Caulker then being used as a forward was not lost on commentators. Ozan Kabak was also on a six-month loan deal, but this time with an option to buy.
And what of the trial brides? Gerard Houllier must have had enough questions about his compatriot Nicolas Anelka to offer him only a loan deal (costing £1m) rather than an outright transfer from PSG. The questions were not about his footballing skills, but about the background baggage which all players carry with them, and those questions remained at the end of his 2001/02 season with LFC. Five goals in 22 appearances hardly set Anfield alight, but it was interference from other members of Anelka’s family which persuaded Houllier not to offer him a permanent contract. PSG sold him to MCFC instead.

We had Peter Gulácsi for the 2007/08 season on loan from MTK Budapest with an option to buy, which we took. His was a successful loan spell, therefore, though with both Pepe Reina and Brad Jones available, Gulácsi was himself loaned out to Hereford United. (We met up with him again, playing well for RB Leipzig in 2021.)

Emiliano Insua came from Boca Juniors in 2007 on a six months’ loan, on the recommendation of LFC scouts in Buenos Aires. Early impressions were enough to result in his contract being made permanent, and he was able to play 64 first team games replacing the injury-prone Aurélio. His fate at LFC depended more on managing director Christian Purslow than on his footballing managers, however, and he was loaned out to Galatasaray until being sold to Sporting CP in 2011.

Nuri Sahin was given a good press build-up to his loan in 2012 (Real Madrid players being no slouches), but flattered to deceive with his three goals in four days. The speed of the Premier League is often quoted as a cause of his failure to progress, and he returned to Real Madrid after four months, only to be loaned out again to Borussia Dortmund.
Finally, England u-17 Conor Thomas put his disappointing loan from Coventry in 2011 down to his young age (17) at the time. After rising no higher than the LFC reserves (not to mention his hamstring injury) he returned to his parent club ‘by mutual consent’.
I think only three (if we exclude Ian Rush) of the twenty-nine inward loans can therefore be claimed as successes. Ronnie Rosenthal (with 97 appearances) and Javier Masherano (with 138) were certainly worth the risk, repaying LFC’s faith in them many times over during their careers with us. Emiliano Insua appeared 64 times, after joining LFC at the age of 18. Others may be excused for disappointing performances on grounds of their young age when they were loaned - Adorjan (16), Manquillo (18), Parker (18), Poloskei (17), Poor (16), and Thomas (17) some of whom never made the bench, let alone a first team appearance. In all, ten of the 29 loanees made no squad appearances; three others made (literally) only one or two.

***
Now, what of the 230 whom we lent to other clubs? Had they ever played for LFC? Why did they leave? Did they ever return? How successful were they elsewhere - did any become gems of the sport despite LFC’s suspected rejection? A myriad of questions for a myriad of players too numerous to delineate individually in this article.

Their distribution by date bears a similarity to that of the inward loans, but spread out more evenly. Nine players were borrowed by other clubs before Shankly arrived, six of them before the First World War, and none during the 1930s. Shanks upped the stakes, sending out a dozen, while his successor Bob Paisley allowed eighteen to go, including one Robbie Savage. (Whoever sang ,“there’s only one Robbie Savage” couldn’t count.)

These ones and twos out on loan at any one time, like a leaking dam, became a regular feature until more turbulent years under Evans, Houllier, Benitez, Hodgson, and Dalglish part 2, who, between them, opened a one hundred player exit floodgate.

The ages of players, on the day they were first sent out on loan by Liverpool, tell their own story. Dean Bouzanis was lent (before signing professionally) to Sydney FC when he was only 17 (later to Accrington Stanley at 19), and Harvey Elliott to Blackburn Rovers at 17 years and 6 months. However, the most common ages to be loaned out have been 18 to 21 inclusive, which account for almost two-thirds of the 230 players. (See Table)

Allowing for all those under 23 to be considering upward mobility in football, it is interesting to note the levels to which they were loaned out to English or Welsh clubs. Ten were sent to tier 1, thirty-three to tier 2 (i.e. the old Second Division, now the Championship), thirty-two to tier 3, forty to tier 4, and a couple below tier four. That distribution indicates, to me at least, that most youngsters on the club’s books had already been judged to have relatively few prospects for making the big time with Liverpool.

At the other end of the scale were men unhappy about Father Time trying to rob them of the sport they loved, and could not let go, including eight who had had played over 200 times for Liverpool - Alex Lindsay (248 appearances) went to Stoke City, who later bought him; Jan Molby (292) to Barnsley and Norwich City; Pepe Reina (394) to Napoli; Peter Thompson (416) to Bolton Wanderers; Phil Thompson (477) to Sheffield United; and Ray Clemence (665) to St George, Sydney. At the geriatric end, Bruce Grobbelaar (628) was 35 and Ian Callaghan (857) 36 when they were loaned to Stoke City and the short-lived Fort Lauderdale Strikers respectively.
93 of the 230 loaned out never appeared in LFC first team squads, and a further 68 had fewer than 10 games. Like many other successful Premier League clubs, Liverpool has clearly stockpiled young players far beyond the club’s actual, immediate needs. Through their youth teams, Academy, local networking, and scouts, there is a conveyor belt of bright prospects, rawly mined, hoping that some will turn out to be gold nuggets. They are sent out to be tested for skill and character, to give them a showcase, to keep them playing regularly, out of the media spotlight, and sometimes just to maintain or even increase their market value. Spare a thought for their position though - while they are away, they can look back and watch Liverpool recruit older players more accomplished than themselves who might then dent their own prospects at the club.

Has this policy borne fruit historically in skill rather than cash? (If judged in financial terms, the conclusions of this article might be quite different.) How many youngsters have returned to LFC and made a name for themselves, as Henderson did at Sunderland? It has proved much more difficult to answer the question rather than to ask it, but the great majority did not – they went out on loan and either never came back, or returned to a level always below first team. However, a few (I’ve found seventeen) did return from loan and make first team appearances.

Of them, Nicky Tanner (at 25), Kevin MacDonald (at 27) and Mark Walters (29) were not the spring chickens to fit into the above pattern anyway. Others made some post-loan appearances, only to be loaned out again. For a few, the first loan was far too short to be of much developmental use – Steve Staunton was loaned to Bradford City for a mere eight games as cover for an injured defender. Dominic Matteo’s loan to Sunderland was terminated after one week and one game, following SAFC incurring an FA fine for registering him incorrectly. Steve Harkness had a month at Huddersfield, and David Thompson’s loan at Swindon lasted 75 days.

Divock Origi’s loan was essentially a condition of his LFC contract, staying with his own club (Lille) for another season, and could hardly be classed as a normal loan out.
Neil Mellor’s spell at West Ham was something of a disaster as he was given only sixteen chances to play, the sympathetic manager Glen Roeder (who had scouted for Houllier) having been sacked within days of his arrival. (In more modern times, a number of expected appearances has been written into loan contract clauses.)

The omens looked better for Stephen Warnock, but when he returned from loans to Bradford and Coventry he felt he was not getting enough appearances and was eventually glad to be sold to Blackburn Rovers. Playing for ten clubs led him eventually to a career in media punditry.

Others also had a promising spark, but did not set Anfield alight when they returned – Sheyi Ojo has had six loans since his spell at Wigan when he was 17, but only eight appearances for LFC; Djimi Traore had a year at Lens in France, but by 2006 Benitez was convinced that he did not match the club’s requirements, and sold him to Charlton. Steve Wright had two loans to Crewe and recommenced a promising-looking career with the reds – but he too faded, and was sold to Sunderland. Ben Woodburn returned briefly from a loan to Sheffield United, only to be sent back out on loan to Oxford and Blackpool.

Surely, there must be SOME good stories in the search for those elusive gold nuggets? Well, yes. There was Craig Johnston, who had 271 appearances in six more years at Anfield; Danny Murphy with 249; and now Nat Phillips in our hour of need. But only three out of 230?
I have scoured the list to see if there are any young players we have lent out and sold, only to find that we might have made a mistake as their later careers include appearances at full international level. The list is commendably short: Conor Coady, currently with Wolves and England, Coates for Uruguay, Gulacsi for Hungary, Paletta for Italy, Smith for Australia, and Suso for Spain. I suspect we would have kept only one or two of them even if we had known their future.

We are now used to having reports via the internet on how our young players are faring out on loan, with exciting prospects like Harvey Elliott and Welsh international Harry Wilson, but, given this research, we must have doubts about their futures with LFC. Rhys Williams benefited from his non-league experience to feature in Liverpool's injury depleted team. Anyone questioning the system which tries to develop young players through loaning out can easily point to Trent Alexander-Arnold or Curtis Jones who have been protected and nurtured by NOT sending them on loan, where there is a danger of getting a poor or inappropriate experience from playing in a lower league, being coached below the level they would have received by staying at Anfield, or poached by a richer predator. Conclusion – ‘a nugget in the hand is worth seventy-seven in the bush’ (that’s ‘Stat-man Dave’ Shakespeare, not William).

Addendum:

Ages (known) of players when sent out on first loan and how many in total

17 - 5
18 - 25
19 - 49
20 - 30
21 - 42
22 - 8
23 - 10
24 - 7
25 - 4
26 - 11
27 - 5
28 - 7
29 - 9
30 - 5
31 - 3
32 - 1
35 - 1
36 - 1
Written by Colin Rogers for LFChistory.net

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