Ronnie Branson, the Academy chief at Barnsley, tells the story of a frail youngster with fair hair who lacked a little South Yorkshire steel.
Despite flourishing for the club’s youth side, John Stones would often call for the physio at the faintest hint of physical contact. Hammering a grin-and-bear-it mentality into their youngster paid off; he graduated from Barnsley’s Academy with flying colours, emerged as a Premier League star at Everton and became a full England international, who almost cost Chelsea £30million this summer.
International teammate Joe Hart, too, benefitted from work experience at the school of hard knocks; he was a 15-year-old, busy in class at Meole Brace School Science College, when Shrewsbury came calling. He’d been training there in the school holidays and, when one of their two goalkeepers went down injured, called up Hart to travel with the squad to Exeter away.
“Suddenly, I was in a dressing room full of men rather than other kids. So I had to learn fast,” Hart remembers.
Their stories aren’t unique; in fact, they’re the rule rather than the exception. Nine of England’s starting eleven for their last international, an emotional friendly with France at Wembley, have Football League experience on their CV. Of the 21 players in the squad, 18 have been at clubs outside the Premier League and one, Burnley’s Tom Heaton, still is.
Nathaniel Clyne was a Championship regular before Southampton picked him up and then sold him to Liverpool for £12million. Ross Barkley added graft to his guile on loan at Sheffield Wednesday; Harry Kane put in the hard yards at Leyton Orient, Millwall and Norwich before something finally clicked at Tottenham.
Dele Alli still owed a £10 fine for letting his phone go off on the team bus when Spurs signed him from League One MK Dons. And then, of course, there’s Jamie Vardy, a Premier League history maker forged on the bleak moors of Stocksbridge. Argue all you like about the merits of the loan system but that statistic shows it is, at least, far from fundamentally flawed.
True, Chelsea’s website does have its own section for ‘On Loan Players’, currently profiling 33 exiled stars.
But where would Barkley be without his short time at Hillsborough? It saw 13 games, brought four goals and set tongues wagging. This kid will be special, they said. He returned to Goodison, went to Leeds and ended the season in Everton’s first team. His England debut came later that year.
Even a a cursory glance at the last England squad list further emphasises the benefits of loans for experience; Spurs headhunted Kyle Walker in a joint deal with Kyle Naughton, and sent him back to Sheffield United simply to play football. Alli returned to Milton Keynes until he was deemed ready for the Premier League; Ryan Mason did the rounds at Yeovil, Millwall, Swindon and our own Doncaster Rovers.
The Championship remains one of Europe’s most competitive leagues, and the standard rises every year. What better arena for England’s stars of the future to learn their trade, flourish and return to their parent clubs richer for the experience?
It may have its detractors, and is prone to exploitation. But while it’s benefitting the England team, leave the loan system alone.
Football, no matter what Sky have you believe, didn’t begin with the Premier League in 1992. So Vardy’s remarkable scoring feat saw him draw level with Ruud van Nistelrooy, but he’s still short of another Sheffielder, Jimmy Dunne.
Dunne’s run, for United, ended when he didn’t score at Portsmouth on January 2, 1932 - having scored against Blackburn the previous day! Beat that, Jamie.
Dunne then netted in the next two games - so scored in 14 of his 15 consecutive games.
The stat comes courtesy of Les Payne, retired Millers writer for The Star and still a very active statto. He reckons Derek Dooley enjoyed a similar purple patch for Wednesday in the early 1950s, leading up to Christmas - scoring in 11 games out of 12. Very much in the pre-Sky Sports days... Dooley missed out in a game against Forest on Christmas Day!
Dunne’s goalscoring prowess caught the attention of Arsenal, who offered United Jack Lambert, of Greasbrough, in exchange. Les, in true Les fashion, used to go round Jack’s stster’s house for dinner now and again when he worked in Rotherham. Her husband was secretary of Rawmarsh Welfare.
It’s a small world, is football. Even smaller if you happen to be Les Payne!