aAt Wembley on Sunday, the Nottingham Forest side that started in the starting line-up for the tournament final against Huddersfield will almost certainly have four players they don’t have. The loan system is all about short-term winnings, something Forrest has become an expert in, but as they progress, they need a careful plan to make sure it’s not all for free.
In a tournament, where the money to buy players is tighter than it used to be, the credit market is a great place to find undervalued talent at a higher quality than the team can consistently afford. There’s no point in signing loan players who aren’t good enough to start, which Forrest appreciates so much. Those who come for a season or half a year are looked for in the same way as for permanent commitments.
Like Forrest, Middlesbrough has signed five loan deals. They were aiming for a sixth place finish but surprisingly they didn’t fail given their budget and the strength of the roster. Three of the loanees were strikers who scored 13 goals in 72 games, and O’Neil Hernandez and James Lea Seleke made 12 appearances together on their way to seventh place.
Forest has good value for money with its loan players who have played a total of 185 games. That may explain why they are all so eager to return next season, especially if the promotion is successful.
Jed Spence is distinguished from those signed elsewhere. The 21-year-old full-back unwittingly joined Middlesbrough from Neil Warnock, but is now one of England’s most sought-after defenders thanks to his performances in the tournament. James Garner will likely return to Manchester United in pre-season so Eric ten Hag can rate the midfielder, but there is hope that he will end up with them at Forrest.
Keenan Davis, on loan from Aston Villa, was the focus of the attack. His direct game of running and stalling has become an integral part of Forrest’s comeback, and he recently lost out during a brief stint on the sidelines.
Philip Zinkernagel has played 49 games in all competitions and avoided spending the season with Watford in the Premier League relegation zone. However, his performance means his parents’ club are in dire need of hosting him next season as they try to recover. The Dane’s experience can prove invaluable to Rob Edwards’ side. Max Lowe, on loan from Sheffield United, has not played since March due to a groin problem but before that he was a perfectly fit left-back in Steve Cooper’s system.
The club is confident that at least two borrowers will return with some capacity. There is faint optimism that even if Spence signs for a bigger club, he may return on loan. The rates weren’t designed to buy into any of the borrowers, so Forrest agreed that if prices went up, they would have to pay a “Premier League premium” for any permanent deals.
Loaning five players per season is not part of Forrest’s long-term strategy. They don’t want to rely on loanees because the club prefers to sign younger players within a strict salary structure that has potential resale value. The exception to that rule this season has been defender Steve Cook, whom Cooper was keen to bring to coach the team on the pitch in the crucial final stages of his ascent.
One of the reasons for accepting borrowers was the lack of a transfer budget. The cloth was cut accordingly. Head of Recruitment, George Sirianos, has successfully implemented a data-driven transfer model at the City Ground to find the best candidates for jobs that need a promotion rather than making a name for themselves. CEO Dane Murphy arrived last summer and curbed spending that, among other things, led to Lyle Taylor and Harry Arter signing on what he felt were inflated wages. Both spent part of the season on loan despite earning over £30,000 a week. Murphy is the number one level in the room when it comes to dealing with the various stakeholders in the boardroom.
Another sign that Forrest was smart in the loan market is when you gauge his success against last season’s opponents. Among them were Luke Freeman, Cyrus Christie, Anthony Neucart and Philip Krovinovic – players who were pushed aside by their clubs and whose influence was limited at Nottingham.
Forrest, like any club in its position, has two summer transfer targets: one for the Premier League and one for the Championship. If they achieve promotion, there will be a desperate desire to remain in the Premier League. The mere vanity of the owner, Evangelos Marinakis, means that money will be spent on assembling a squad capable of competing with the elite.
Come what transfer negotiations may begin on Monday. There won’t be many credits, but they are already getting good value from these players and when they scored the £170m winner at Wembley, it was the smartest move.