Time to Hit the Road? The Loan Debate

  • Rangers boss Warburton criticises Scottish loan system
  • Wants to see more young Scots go on loan to England
  • Under 20 football and local loan deals not competitive enough

Mark Warburton chats to Gedion Zelalem during the Arsenal youngster's Rangers loan

Rangers manager Mark Warburton triggered a debate last month when he claimed that Scottish football's loan system was "not working".

Warburton urged more young players to challenge themselves with short-term spells in England, rather than sticking to local loan deals and playing in the under 20s league.

As far as Warburton is concerned, too many youngsters are taking soft options rather than testing themselves in winner-takes-all environments in the English lower leagues.

Englishman Warburton feels that a change in mentality is necessary for Scotland to produce more players who are up to the required international standard.
His logic is easy to follow.

The English Championship and League One are notoriously unforgiving leagues where players are tested to the limit in front of passionate crowds and alongside team mates who are scrapping for every point.

As well as the competitive nature of the football, young loanees are exposed to the culture shock of a new environment outside of their comfort zone.

Any young player who can prove himself in those circumstances can consider themselves ready to challenge for a first-team spot on their return.
Warburton points to Arsenal youngster Gedion Zelalem as a shining example for young Scottish stars to follow.

Zelalem joined Rangers on loan at the start of last year aged just 18- showing no qualms about testing himself in a new environment and location. Tottenham defender Dominic Ball, just a year older than Zelalem, also acquitted himself well at Ibrox.

On the other side of Glasgow, Manchester City's 19 year-old attacker Patrick Roberts is making a huge impression at Celtic.

If talented young players from England's top clubs are willing to come to Scotland to make a name for themselves then surely more of their Scottish counterparts should show the same hunger to prove themselves down south?

Perhaps Warburton's comments shouldn't really come as a surprise. Many of the young Scottish stars from his promotion-winning Rangers squad have had a 'toughening up' experience in the English lower leagues.

Key midfielder Andy Halliday moved south to Middlesbrough aged just 18 and appeared for four different English clubs in the Championship and League One before arriving at Ibrox last year.

Danny Wilson was a year younger than Halliday when he joined Liverpool in 2010. Wilson's spell at Anfield included two loan spells in the Championship before he returned to Scottish football in 2013 with Hearts.

There he was considered mature enough to be handed the club captaincy at the age of 21.

Wilson's former Tynecastle team-mate Jason Holt spent time in League One with Sheffield United, while January signing Michael O'Halloran actually started his professional career in England with Bolton.

They loaned him out to three different League One sides before he returned to Scotland with St Johnstone and impressed sufficiently to win his move to Ibrox.

All four of these players can draw on character-building experiences of the English Football League to help them deal with the unique pressures of playing for one of Scotland's big two clubs. As can Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor.

McGregor had a highly productive season in League One with Notts County in 2013-14. McGregor was County's top goalscorer and star player as they avoided relegation on the final day of the season.

By the beginning of the next season McGregor was a first team player at Celtic Park and included in Gordon Strachan's senior Scotland squad.

Strachan pinpointed McGregor's spell at County as the catalyst for his elevation into the senior set-up.

He praised the youngster for having the necessary character to swap a comfortable environment on the fringes of the Celtic team for a spell at County with "guys who had to win to receive a bonus and a crowd of front of 5,000 to 6,000 people who boo and scream if he hits a bad pass".

Strachan's comments on McGregor from 2014 bear a striking resemblance to Warburton's recent remarks. The national team boss accused under 20s football of "closeting kids" in a pressure-free environment where "whether they get beat or not, nobody says 'Boo' to them."

Fast forward two years and Warburton was striking a similar theme.

The former Brentford manager claimed that there is "nothing to be gained" from playing youngsters in the under 20s league, and would rather see his budding stars "go out and play competitive football where the guy alongside you needs to pay his mortgage."

It is easy to see where both Warburton and Strachan are coming from.

Young players at Rangers and Celtic enjoy many of the same luxuries as their first team colleagues.

They train at excellent modern facilities, are well looked after by their clubs and enjoy an enhanced social status, even as development squad players, in a football-loving city.

Any would-be Old Firm star who willingly trades these home comforts to prove themselves in less glamorous, but more competitive, surroundings demonstrates that their priorities are in the correct order.

Ask any manager would he or she be more confident in picking a young player who has experienced the rigours of first-team football in the lower leagues down south (or overseas) over an under 20s player and the answer is a no-brainer.

It is worth noting, however, that is not always plain sailing for every loanee when they return to Scotland.

Celtic loaned Tony Watt to Lierse in 2013, less than a year after the young striker wrote his name in the club's history books with a famous winning goal against Barcelona.

The logic behind the move as clear to see. Watt's career was beginning to stagnate on the fringes of the Celtic squad, so a spell playing competitive football in Belgium's top league looked like the perfect opportunity for him to mature and develop into a first-choice Celtic striker.

However after a mixed season with Lierse, where he scored goals but repeatedly clashed with his manager, Watt's return to Celtic was short-lived.

He failed to impress in pre-season training and was quickly sold to Standard Liege, with then Celtic manager Ronny Deila publicly questioning Watt's commitment and desire to succeed.

Since departing permanently, Watt has endured a nomadic career. He joined Charlton in January 2015 and spent time on loan in the Championship with both Blackburn and Cardiff last season.

The Airdrie-born attacker, still just 22, has returned to Scotland (again on loan) with Hearts ahead of the new season.

Scottish fans have plenty of reasons to hope that Watt, who has one full cap to his name, can start realising his potential at Tynecastle.

Only time will tell whether Watt's dose of harsh reality will prove to be the making or breaking of the ex-Celtic man. But for the current crop of Rangers youngsters, the message is crystal clear.

If you want to impress the boss, be prepared to hit the road south.

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