Previous pledge and a changed landscape - The big Ipswich Town loans debate
- Credit: ITFC/PA
Ipswich Town now have six loan players in the squad after the deadline day additions of Troy Parrott and Luke Matheson. STUART WATSON looks at the debate surrounding a reliance on borrowed talent.
DECADE OF LOANS
Over the last 10 seasons, including this one, Ipswich have signed 70 different players on loan*.
Between them, those 70 loan players have contributed 750 starts and 203 substitute appearances.
Twenty-five of them (36%) made five starts or less during loan spells and 14 of them (20%) made 20 starts or more.
Eight of them (11%) went on to be signed permanently.
The highest number of loans in a season (16) was back in 2012/13, when Mick McCarthy took over from Paul Jewell to steer the club away from the Championship relegation zone.
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The lowest number of loans in a season (4) was last season, Town’s first season in League One following relegation.
*The number of separate loan deals is actually higher, given some players had more than one loan spell and that some loans were extended within seasons.
In the EFL, clubs can have a maximum of eight players on loan at any one time and are restricted to five in their matchday squad.
Paul Lambert made four loan additions during the January window of 2019 (James Bree, Callum Elder, Will Keane and Collin Quaner) in a failed attempt to inject some life into a relegation battling side.
The Scot then made it clear that things had to change at the club, insisting that a constant reliance on loans is ‘akin to throwing your money in the street’.
During the summer of 2019, he told the EADT and Ipswich Star: “I could decide to go down the self-preservation route and say to Marcus (Evans) 'forget the training ground, forget the stadium, forget the kids, we'll just keep going with six, seven loans and just try and win games'.
“I'm the wrong person for Ipswich if that's the case. I may as well just pack my bags and go home. That wouldn't be a problem.
"If you're not going to spend money then the football club needs a structure, the football club needs the young ones to come through, the football club needs to stop the loans.
"Ok, one or two is fine, it's not a problem, but the football club needs the good academy kids. If Marcus says we can't spend money, then we can't spend. Fine, then we need to find another way."
Lambert was true to his word in his first full campaign in charge. Four loan players (Will Norris, Luke Garbutt, Anthony Georgiou and Josh Earl) was the fewest the club had had over a single season since 2007/08.
This season, he made just two loan additions in the 'summer' window (Mark McGuinness and Keanan Bennetts), before giving more minutes than most to homegrown players in the first part of the campaign.
LANDSCAPE HAS CHANGED
So how do we find ourselves back in a position where the club has six loan players at the same time? Well, football’s landscape has changed drastically since those aforementioned Lambert quotes.
A global pandemic has stopped matchday income for all clubs. Money is scarce.
And there’s also the new salary cap rules at League One level, which limit clubs to a wage bill of £2.5m for their registered 22 ‘senior’* players. Ipswich went into January already maxed out on that limited spend.
All of the above has left lower league clubs, almost exclusively, limited to signing free agents or loan players over the last two windows.
In the month just gone, 70% of League One deals were loans.
There are currently 126 players on loan at League One clubs. That’s an average of five per club.
Doncaster and Accrington Stanley have the most (8), followed by Gillingham, Fleetwood and Swindon (7).
Peterborough (1) are the only club with less than three.
*Those aged under 21 at the start of 2020.
It's true that Ipswich were at the very maximum of their £2.5m cap.
There was one alternative to young loans though and that was deregistering a senior player(s) to make room for a senior signing(s).
One or more of the likes of Cole Skuse, Emyr Huws and Freddie Sears could have been cut from the 22 to provide more wages to play with. All are out of contract in the summer.
The name of the loan game is simple really.
It’s either a ‘try before you buy’ for a player that could soon be available for transfer - great examples of this paying off for Ipswich are David McGoldrick, Daryl Murphy and Jay Tabb.
None of the six players currently on loan are out of contract this summer though.
Or it's a case of borrowing young players from above to make the squad better for the here and now (Ryan Fraser, Tom Lawrence etc), then sending out your own young players to a lower level to develop and be ready for a first team place upon their return (Luke Woolfenden, Flynn Downes etc).
When it works, everyone’s a winner.
The debate always boils down to this though... Are the players borrowed *that* much better than the ones you’ve got?
PLAYER FOR PLAYER
With Oli Hawkins having undergone knee surgery and James Norwood continuing to have a stop-start time through injuries, there is no doubting that goal shy Ipswich needed to bring another striker in to compete with Kayden Jackson, Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears. If they hadn’t, then there would no doubt have been accusations of ‘a lack of ambition’ at a crucial juncture.
The alternative would have been to turn to inexperienced academy graduates such as Tyreece Simpson and Zak Brown. Is Troy Parrott – a player who made his international and Premier League debuts at 17 – better than both of them right now? Of course he is.
Did Ipswich need a right-back? Once they’d controversially sent Donacien out on loan, yes, I think they did.
Luke Chambers’ form has dipped and it’s a big ask for a 35-year-old, no matter how robust he’s proved himself, to churn out Saturday-Tuesday games in a position that requires a lot of running. And as good as Kane Vincent-Young looked last season, we can’t be hanging our hat on him returning with a bang given he’s now been sidelined for more than a year.
Is 18-year-old Luke Matheson, who has 18 League One appearances to his name, a better bet than forgotten man Barry Cotter or 19-year-old Dylan Crowe? For me, absolutely. The counter argument would be that Crowe, a player scouted by several Premier League clubs not so long ago, could become a financial asset if given half a season in the side (like Matheson was at Rochdale). He’s not exactly been ripping it up for the U23s though.
Is Luke Thomas, 21, better than Jack Lankester, 21, and Armando Dobra, 19, for the right wing role? There’s a bigger debate here. Time will tell on Thomas, who has looked lively so far, but Lankester and Dobra have shown they are more than capable and now look set to be kicking their heels in the U23s for several months. That feels a waste.
No deadline day loan bid for Lankester came though, while Dobra has made it clear he'd rather stay and fight for his place rather than dropping down to League Two.
Was Josh Harrop needed, given Town already have Alan Judge, Teddy Bishop, Lankester and Dobra for the No.8/10 position? The wisest use of the one ‘senior’ addition this window would arguably have been up front. Town could have gone for a more tried and trusted striker like Armand Gnanduillet, Jayden Stockley, David Nugent, Omar Bogle or Will Grigg.
Then again, Judge hasn’t exactly been on fire and Bishop sadly has to be seen as an injury waiting to happen. And it’s not as if Town have been creating loads of chances that strikers have not been taking. Harrop’s a proven Championship standard player who can deliver a good set-piece. Again, time will tell whether he significantly raises the quality.
Is Keanan Bennetts, 21, another one who could be holding back Lankester and Dobra? There’s not been enough evidence thus far to suggest that he is and shoulders above those two in terms of ability. He is more of a natural left-winger though and he was starting to look good before injury struck in December.
Is Mark McGuinness, 20, that much better than Corrie Ndaba? That one’s hard to tell. McGuinness is definitely learning on the job, while Ndaba, 21, has qualities – a good left foot and ball playing style – that might have suited this team. He was looking very assured in pre-season, but maybe wouldn’t have been as physically ready for League One as McGuinness. His loan spell at Ayr United will hopefully be productive.
However, if McGuinness ends up playing ahead of Luke Woolfenden over a prolonged period (Matheson’s arrival could see Chambers move inside), there would be serious questions to be asked there about increasing the value of another club’s asset over your own.
The fact that Town found themselves desperately wanting to strengthen a big squad halfway through another fast-fading campaign is pretty damning. It's a sign that either the previous recruitment has been muddled/poor or that the manager simply hasn't been getting the best out of what he's got (probably a mixture of both).
Lambert's had five transfer windows now, but there's little sense that key pieces of the jigsaw are slowly being added.
But that's where Ipswich find themselves and their options were limited. The stakes are too high and they had to act. Without a short-term plan it would be harder to execute the long-term vision.
Time will tell if these latest young loanees significantly raise the quality of the squad or not, but ultimately they are all pretty low risk gambles.
The best case scenario is they make a real mark in the team. The middle scenario is that they push others in the squad to be better and provide extra depth for the hectic schedule ahead. The worst case scenario is that they're mainly flops, Town fail to get promoted, and four big developmental months of Lankester and Dobra's careers have been wasted.
Let's be honest, those are the only two players here that we're talking about when it comes to 'pathways being blocked' right now.
Under the constraints, Marcus Evans and Lee O'Neill have 'gone for it' as much as they can. Now let's see if the manager and players can deliver.
TOWN'S LOANS OF LAST 10 YEARS
(Starts + sub appearances)
20/21: McGuinness, Bennetts, Thomas, Harrop, Parrott, Matheson
19/20: Garbutt (29+1), Norris (20), Earl (5+2), Georgiou (3+10)
18/19: Chalobah (36+8), Pennington (31), Quaner (13+3), Bree (13+1), Elder (4+1), Graham (3+1), Walters (2+1)
17/18: Connolly (30+5), Celina (26+12), Iorfa (22+3), Gleeson (5+5), Carayol (5+3)
16/17: Lawrence (34+2), Diagouraga (10+2), Grant (4+3), Samuel (2+4), Williams (1+7)
15/16: Maitland-Niles (23+9), Fraser (15+6), Pringle (9+1), Feeney (7+2), Varney (4+16), Digby (3+3)
14/15: Sammon (8+12), Varney (7+5), Williams (4+3), Wood (3+5), Chaplow (3+3), Fryers (2+1), N.Hunt (0+4)
13/14: Tunnicliffe (24+5), Williams (11+2), Green (6+8), Richardson (3+4), Veseli (1), Graham (0+2), Henshall (0)
12/13: Murphy (33+7), N'Daw (32+2), Henderson (24), DJ Campbell (17), Stearman (15), McGoldrick (13+1), Orr (13), Higginbotham (11+1), Luongo (8+3), Tabb (7+2), Wellens (7), McLean (4+4), (Kisnorbo (2+2), Barnett (2+1), Mohsni (0+5), Brown (0+1)
11/12: Murphy (32+2), Andrews (19+1), Stockdale (18), Collins (16), McCarthy (10), Wabara (1+5)