How Monday’s final is the perfect example of the direction the Championship has moved in
While loan players have long had a big impact on Championship seasons, this campaign has proven just how big a part to play those dropping down into the division can have. In 2018/19, with Norwich and Sheffield United already destined for the big-time, one game of the Championship season is left to determine the Premier League’s third newest recruit. That game could not have been more befitting of the reliance upon, and success of, clubs bringing in players on loan from their Premier League counterparts.
Among a number of other variables, success in the Championship relies on the relationships forged between its clubs and those of the country’s showpiece division. Of course, good coaching, significant spending and usually a long unbeaten run somewhere along the way are vital to successful promotion. Yet, more often than not, the Championship’s triumphant sides have battled and bounded their way up to the promised land with the help of Premier League loan singings.
Such is the depth of squads in Premier League ranks – particularly at the top six clubs – supremely, talented young players are often nudged by their employers into seeking out work experience elsewhere. In 2016/17, for example, goalkeeper Danny Ward joined Huddersfield Town on loan from Liverpool and made 43 appearances in an unforgettable season. It ended with Ward saving two penalties in the play-off final shootout victory over Reading, taking his loan employers to the Premier League before swiftly returning to Anfield for appraisal. Historically, and increasingly, Championship clubs have seen an advantage to be taken from developing relationships with certain clubs and their management staff to acquire talent for their own side’s benefit.
However, the loan system benefits everyone. For the top clubs sending these players to the beneficiaries, this means they can closely monitor their assets with the hope of competitive game time and improvement that would not be as readily available to them in-house. As for the recipients, not only do they get a player usually of significant ability level, but a player hungry to prove his worth to his parent club and boost his chances of furthering his career upon return.
This season’s Championship play-off finalists are two such examples. Derby County, under the stewardship of new-to-the-management-game Frank Lampard, have been a youthful, free-flowing, bundle of vibrant energy. This has in part been down to Lampard’s progressive man-management style, but more so to do with the shrewd recruitment of young talent right through Derby’s core. Alongside his assistant Jody Morris, former coach of the highly successful Chelsea youth teams, Lampard dipped into the Premier League’s young talent pool last summer, bringing in Morris’s ex-players Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount along with Harry Wilson from Liverpool.
All three had reached that tipping point at their clubs; all have had significant impacts on the Rams’s season, as centre-back Tomori won Derby’s player of the year award. Mount and Wilson have been consistently superb at the other end of the pitch – tallying 33 goals and assists between them up to this point. A combination of Lampard’s relationship with Chelsea and his playing career as an attacking midfielder meant he was able to get the best of three young stars who have arguably been the defining factor in Derby reaching Monday’s final.
Across the dugout from Lampard in Monday’s Wembley showdown will be his old team-mate John Terry. Terry, now assistant manager to Dean Smith at Villa, has benefitted from the same means as his friend, using his past with Chelsea to kickstart his present attempts at promotion with the Villains. As with Derby, some of Villa’s standout performers across the duration of the campaign have been those obtained via loan deals.
Most notably, Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham (who played in Youth Cup winning sides with Tomori and Mount) came into 2018/19 with a chip on his shoulder. Having seemingly proved his worth during loan stints away from the club on top of goal-laden years in Chelsea’s youth ranks, Abraham was again pushed towards the exit door for another season. His response? 26 goals – the second highest in the division – firing his side to the play-off semi-finals in which he scored the decisive penalty in shootout victory over local rivals West Bromwich Albion. Plain and simple, had they not been able to lure Abraham to Villa Park in August, Villa’s return to the Premier League would have had to be put on hold for another season.
Smith was also able to bring Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe to the club on loan from Bournemouth and Manchester United respectively, the latter extending his injury-curtailed loan spell from the previous season. As the season has played out, the influence of loan players has grown and remained at the heart of the success of teams such as Derby and Villa in their scrap for promotion.
Elsewhere, young stars such as Reece James at Wigan have flourished in less fortunate circumstances. James is another product of the Chelsea youth system, better for a year of first-team football and development in the highly competitive Championship environment.
This season, Derby and Villa have been the two biggest winners in the league’s loan game. While it is not all about them and their story should not outdo events on the pitch, the influence of Lampard and Terry on both their teams and the development of the Championship season as a whole cannot be overlooked. The ability for clubs to build relationships with bigger clubs, forging a big brother helps out little brother dynamic in the process, is good for all involved and has led to stubborn stints at promotion for both Derby and Villa in 2018/19.
However, only one can prevail, and come the final whistle at Wembley “success” will ultimately be defined by promotion, along with comparative “failure” for the losing side. Such has been their impact on their respective teams this season, whoever prevails and makes the step up to the Premier League will have a lot to thank its acquisition of loan players for. One thing is for certain: the likelihood is that the game will be in keeping with the rest of the season for both sides, decided by the various loan stars hell bent on completing their stories on the biggest of stages.