Michael Farrow's sports blog

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…on John Bostock and the flawed cult of the loan spell

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John Bostock and Harry Redknapp

John Bostock can't catch a break. Every loan spell is treated as some great disaster and proof of a supposed attitude problem.

It’s the final transfer deadline of the season. The Football League’s crafty emergency loan loophole will be closed in a year or two but until then you have to treasure the last bit of transfer action. The last throw of the dice, the last opportunity to dump some wages, the last chance to bring in that one player that could get you those extra points to avoid relegation or sneak into the playoffs.

For some more experienced players, it’s an opportunity to impress before getting a permanent transfer. You could bet that Freddy Eastwood has one eye on next season as he joins his former club Southend, after being frozen out at Coventry and with only three months left on his deal. He’ll be exercising his horse on the A127 in no time, good luck to him.

However, for the youngsters, it’s a mixed bag and the pressure comes from all sides.  Clubs may be bringing you in to cover in case of injury.  A lonely time in an unfamiliar place will be your lot for the rest of the season, desperately trying to impress in the 10 minutes at the end of the game.

Alternatively, they may be looking for you to hit the ground running.  For a young man to be moving across the country is one thing, to settle immediately when those around you could be hostile to your arrival is quite unrealistic.  There’s pressure from your manager and your own set of fans to show something out on loan and pressure from the loaning club’s manager and fans show you’re an improvement on what they have.

If there is one young player in the country for whom the end of a loan spell is another calamity and whose failures are marked down as the actions of somebody who has had too much too young, it’s Spurs midfielder John Bostock.

Bostock’s loan to Sheffield Wednesday was cut short earlier this week, provoking cat calls and recrimination.  Now it’s pretty clear that Spurs exercised a recall clause to get him out on loan to League 2 leaders Swindon, which would seem a better fit.  There’s some issue that keeps seeing these loan spells fail, the problem is that nobody wants to scratch beyond the surface, the generally accepted wisdom has become truth by consensus and the narrative is too delicious.

Bostock, already in the first team at Palace, was spirited away before he signed a pro contract to Spurs, the club who were out there hoovering up the very best English youngsters outside the Premier League. Simon Jordan cried foul at the fee agreed by the transfer tribunal, compared the sum to a “packet of crisps” and the young midfielder has spent the four years since plying his trade at different clubs on loan and in the Spurs reserves. Schadenfreude is the dish of the day.  “He abandoned little old Crystal Palace, he deserves what he gets.”  “He’s lazy, he’s slow, he has a bad attitude.”  “Should have stayed at the club that brought him up and not chased the money. ” Is any of this true?  It doesn’t matter – perception is everything and we all love a simple story.

Now, we can make excuses. Brentford played the kid on the left wing when he plays down the middle.  He didn’t settle at Hull. He wasn’t getting on the ball at Sheffield Wednesday, who were playing a largely long ball system.  I think we just have to accept that the game has moved on, the cult of the seasoning loan spell is largely false and loans are not necessarily all they are cracked up to be.

Part of the problem is that Spurs manager Harry Redknapp still buys into them. Two years ago, after Bostock’s loan to Brentford was not renewed, he spoke of how players like Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick drew great praise whilst on loan early in their careers but that was 15 years ago. The Premier League has changed, youth development has changed and the lower divisions have certainly changed. Developing your players through the loan system was never a surefire way to success and it’s arguably less so now.

There are solutions but part of the problem is that when solutions are proposed, such as B teams playing in the lower divisions, these are shouted down by a jingoistic national press as ridiculous  foreign managers making ridiculous suggestions.  Unfortunately, reserve team football is virtually dead.  Clubs that field reserve teams in their local reserve combinations see them in non-competitive strolls between played out by first-year academy graduates and first teamers gaining some fitness.  Many clubs don’t see the point and prefer ad hoc “developmental” friendlies.

Is this some great defence of John Bostock? Not really, no. It could simply be the kid isn’t good enough, he doesn’t suit the lower divisions or he doesn’t have his game together yet. However, I wholeheartedly reject the idea that the loan system, a crazy casino on par with the financial markets, is any indicator of the potential future success of a player. Whilst on loan with Watford, Gabriel Agbonlahor was pilloried for not being a good enough finisher, before he returned to Villa Park and nailed down  a first team place. Elliott Ward won the Championship playoff final less than with West Ham six months after warming the bench for then-League Two Peterborough.And this is part of the problem – there are no hard and fast rules.

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Written by Michael Farrow

March 22, 2012 at 10:33 pm

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