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Blackpool v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final

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Embleton: A Loan With Extra Interest

Loans are always a gamble. Embleton wasn’t the finished article when loaned out and, based on his performance in the play-off final, I’m not convinced he is now, argues Matt Smith.

Photo by Rob Newell - CameraSport via Getty Images

We all have our favourite loan stars. So impressive has Sunderland’s use of the incoming loan system been, that the debate centres more around a favourite 11 rather than a single player. With a spine, admittedly one that needs regular treatment from a chiropractor, of Given, Mensah & Evans, M’Vila & Ki, Borini and Welbeck, it’s clear that we’ve benefitted from the loan system over the years.

Sure, there’s been many a flop but even in those cases the system has helped to prevent the financial damage of a hefty transfer fee and long-term wages, thereby ensuring that the likes of Camp, Le Tallec and Benjani don’t remain on our books for long. It often doesn’t get the credit it deserves, with regular, unjustified criticism of a system by which Sunderland develop other club’s players at the expense of unfilled positional gaps in our squad whenever a successful loan comes to an end. Nonetheless, I’d consider Sunderland to be a net beneficiary of the loan system overall.

Sunderland v Birmingham City - Premier League
Loanee Danny Welbeck in action back in 2010
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Yet our operation of the loan market doesn’t always appear to have been so successful in the other direction. Admittedly we’re less likely to register successful loans of our players to other clubs. For most of us the impact is only apparent when they return from their loan and establish themselves in our regular starting 11 or, much less regularly in Sunderland’s case, perform so well that the borrowing club offers an eye-watering transfer fee for the player. Even if such players return from their loan and progress into the 1st team, little acknowledgement is generally given to the role of the loan in the player’s development.

Essentially, the loaning out option is used by clubs to develop a player they want to keep or to persuade a mug to buy a player they want rid of. The loans of Henderson and Pickford to Coventry and Preston North End, respectively, are rare examples of the former approach.

Much more common, but with mixed success, has been the latter ‘Laslandes’ approach, which is a damning indictment of the club’s transfer policy and possibly goes some way towards accounting for the limited representation of Academy graduates in our first team. A club that sees the loan system as a means of waste disposal rather than youth development gets what it deserves.

Soccer - FA Cup Sixth Round - Coventry City v Chelsea - Ricoh Arena
Jordan Henderson was successfully sent to Coventry (for a loan spell)
Photo by Nick Potts - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

So how can we use the loan system to our advantage? Well, we could do a lot worse than using the example of Eliot Embleton’s stint at Blackpool as the template. Having returned from a lengthy injury lay-off at the end of 2020, Embleton was in serious need of games. With a McGeady-phobic Parkinson in charge his opportunity of a run in the 1st team looked promising. With Johnson taking over, swiftly accompanied by McGeady’s subsequent rehabilitation, the prospects looked less certain.

While the decision to give Embleton game-time elsewhere was disappointing to those who looked forward to the return of a player who offered something different to a staid midfield, there was clearly method in this apparent madness. By all accounts, and Speakman has recently elaborated further to this effect, Blackpool was identified as a perfect fit to aid Embleton’s development. They were right. He played a lot of games and performed well.

Given Blackpool’s success and our stuttering end to the season the decision has been roundly criticised. Loans, in whatever direction, are always a gamble. If a loaned player does well, there’s inevitably speculation that maybe the loan was unnecessary and that we overlooked a finished article right under our noses.

Embleton certainly wasn’t that when loaned out and, based on his performance in the play-off final, I’m not convinced he is now. However, the intention behind the loan was fulfilled. The lad got a lot of experience and he seems to have progressed positively from the experience.

Ipswich Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Richard Calver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When we benefit from an incoming loan signing, like Blackpool undoubtedly have, many prefer to see this as a fillip to the club to which the loanee eventually returns. In that case, we’ve done well out of this astute piece of business. If Blackpool are keen to retain him, they’ll have to pay more now than he was worth before the loan. If he comes back, then we’ve got a player on an upward career trajectory and a better understanding of the contribution he could make.

Would we have done better if we kept him? Who knows? Personally, I don’t think we would have done. A club in our situation, at that time, couldn’t afford to change its shape and style to accommodate a promising, but clearly not proven, young player returning from injury.

I find it hard to fault a decision that clearly worked, particularly after the many baffling ones we’re used to that don’t, and if a similar approach, with a similar outcome, was taken with the likes of Neil, Patterson and Younger then I’d be delighted.

Having finally found a way of exploiting the loan system to develop our own players, yet acknowledging the existing quality among the current U23 squad, next season should be soundtracked by the opening song on Love’s Forever Changes album: ‘A Loan Again Or’ (sic).


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