How Do Loans Work In Professional Football?

Often a young player thinks they are ready to play first-team football. However, the manager doesn’t feel they are ready yet due to their lack of ‘experience’. The player doesn’t understand how they can gain ‘that‘ experience without being given a chance by the manager. This is often the scenario that plays out for many of us trying to break through into the first-team. Fortunately, there is a way to gain that experience and that is through a loan move.

What is a loan in football?

A loan allows a player to temporarily play for a different club to the one that they are currently contracted to.

It is often the case that the player going on loan will not be involved with the first-team at their parent club* at the time they go on loan.

This could be because:

  • They are a young player and the club feel they need to go out and experience first-team football at a level more suited to their ability at that stage, before coming back into the first-team picture there.


  • The player isn’t in the manager’s plans at that moment, just back from injury or down the pecking list. The player and club want to maintain match fitness for when that player is required, whilst also reducing the payroll temporarily.

The club taking the player on loan normally pay a percentage of the player’s wages.

* The club to which the player is currently contracted.

On loan at Sutton United. Image by Paul Loughlin

What is the point of a loan in football?

Loans serve a purpose to all parties involved:

  • The player goes out to a club and either gains experience of first-team football or maintains match fitness.
  • The parent club can send the player away to get valuable football that they couldn’t guarantee, whilst only losing that player for a period of time set out in the contract. If the player is out of favour, it also reduces the club’s payroll.
  • The club the player is heading to on loan gains a player they feel can positively impact their squad, whilst potentially avoiding a transfer fee.

Without loans, young players would be unable to experience first-team football unless given a chance. Whilst the under 23 setup is highly beneficial for many reasons, experiencing a first-team setup and the pressure of playing for 3 points, is only going to benefit the career of any young player.

Most young players will head out on loan in the early stage of their careers because they need to go and learn the game and gain the experience, that first-team managers often want in their team.

On the other hand, for the players who have been out with an injury for a while and need match fitness, can use a loan move as an opportunity to regain their confidence and fitness, to force their way back into the team at their parent club. No matter how much we train and how fit we are, it’s impossible to replicate match fitness. The problem with training daily but not getting any game time is that the fitness of a player will start to deteriorate, then when selected to play they won’t be in their best condition to perform.

Playing first-team football in front of 15,000 fans was a million miles away from the under-23 games on a Monday afternoon.

My experiences of loan moves

I had 4 loan moves across 3 different levels of English football during my time at Crystal Palace.

  • Aged 19: In February 2013 I joined Eastbourne Borough in the Conference South for a month, making 6 appearances and playing every minute.

I returned to Crystal Palace and was a part of the matchday squad for the Championship Playoff Final at Wembley. I then made my full debut in the League Cup the following season at Bristol City under Ian Holloway, in what was the club’s first season back in the Premier League. In between my loan and debut, I was playing for the under 23’s and in and out of training with the first-team.

I may not have had the opportunity to make my debut or be in the matchday squad for the playoff final if I had not gone out on loan. I’m glad I had that spell at Eastbourne Borough because that month of first-team games allowed me to be better prepared for my full debut.

  • Aged 20: In January 2014 I joined Sutton United in the Conference South for a month, making 6 appearances and playing every minute again.
  • Aged 20: After my loan at Sutton United had finished, I returned to Crystal Palace and went on loan to League One side Colchester United until the end of the season.

Initially, the agreement was for me to go there and only train with the first-team because they were in the midst of a relegation battle. I would then return on loan in pre-season for a season-long loan. They didn’t believe I was quite ready yet to help the team but were keen for me to go there and get to know the club. This meant I would experience my first taste of living away from home.

However, as often is the case in football, things didn’t go according to plan. After a couple of weeks of training, I found myself coming on for my league debut at home to Tranmere Rovers. The following week I made my full league debut away to Stevenage, in what was a ‘6 pointer’ at the bottom of the table. I went on to play 6 times in that loan period and scored my first professional goal against Brentford, who were already the league winners, whilst also helping ensure safety for the club.

My first taste of league football was on loan at Colchester United. Image by Richard Blaxall

In pre-season talks between Colchester and Crystal Palace fell through and the loan move was no longer an option.

  • Aged 20: Instead, I joined League Two Portsmouth in pre-season for a season-long loan. I went on to play 15 times for the club before I returned to Crystal Palace just before the New Year- halfway through the agreed period.

I returned to Crystal Palace because I was no longer playing every week, therefore defeating the purpose of the loan. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Fratton Park, although I feel they didn’t get to see the best of me. I was playing in a wing-back position, a position I had never played in my career and I struggled.

However, playing in front of one of the best atmospheres in English football week in week out was an incredible experience. Playing first-team football in front of 15,000 fans was a million miles away from the under 23 games on a Monday afternoon that I was used to. It was a big learning curve for me and an experience that enabled me to grow as a player and as a person.

I had always been in a comfort zone at Crystal Palace, with everything on and off the pitch settled and going smoothly. There wasn’t the pressure that comes with first-team football. I then went to clubs where I performed well and things were also positive.

At Colchester, things were going well for me on the pitch and this made my experience of living away from home a positive one. However, at Portsmouth, I struggled on the pitch and in the accommodation I had been placed in. The house I was staying in was incredible and the players staying with me were equally as incredible, but I was 20/21 years old and I didn’t know how to handle the struggles of underperforming on the pitch, whilst living away from the comfort of home.

I was at a club that had not so long before experienced Premier League and European football. So fans expectations were rightly high and I wasn’t prepared for that.

Although at the time it seemed like a massive failure when I returned to Crystal Palace early, I went on to realise that this experience was exactly what I needed!

Loan moves can be an eye opener for players

One of the biggest things I learnt from my loans was that I only wanted to play first-team football from that point onwards. I was still eligible to play for the under 23’s for another couple of seasons, but I had to get out into the “real world” of football and experience it week in, week out.

I loved playing in front of supporters who had paid their hard-earned money to come and watch, knowing that we had made their weekend when we won.

I loved the feeling in the changing room after a hard-earned 3 points and how the buzz would stick with you for days.

I loved the realness of it all and the competitive edge it always had.

I just loved being a part of the first-team environment every day.

At this point, I was in and out of the first-team picture at Crystal Palace, training for a few days and being in matchday squads occasionally, then back with the 23’s for a few days and playing my games there. This is normal for every young player trying to break through, but deep down I didn’t feel like I was going to cement my place in the first-team environment, especially now that the club was in the Premier League.

So after my loan with Portsmouth, I sat down with my family, my agent and the club and we all agreed that guaranteed first-team football was what was needed for me at that stage of my career. I went on to sign for Colchester United permanently at the beginning of 2015 aged 21, with this move being possible because of my success there the previous season on loan.

My loan at Portsmouth was a big learning curve and where I learnt the most about myself both on the pitch and off of it. Image by Portsmouth FC

Loans have played an instrumental part in my development as a player. I was lucky enough to have people around me, both at Crystal Palace and within my support network, that wanted the best for me and understood what was required for my career.

I am so glad I went on loan within non-league because it opened my eyes to a side of the game I was oblivious to after coming through the ranks at a Championship club. As a young player trying to make my way in the game, the loans at Eastbourne Borough and Sutton United provided me with not only invaluable experience, but made me appreciate how good I had it at Crystal Palace.

My loans within the football league then enhanced my experiences of first-team football even further.

If I had stayed in my comfort zone at Crystal Palace, I wouldn’t have gone on to experience these things at a young age:

  • Scoring my first professional goal
  • Playing on live TV
  • The different levels of the leagues
  • The highs and lows of first-team football
  • Most importantly, I wouldn’t have grown as a player and a person so early on in my career.

Eventually, my time at Crystal Palace would have come to an end, but without my loans I would have left a shell of the player I eventually ended up leaving as. I left with different experiences of first-team football, across 3 different leagues. I had learnt so much from all 4 loan spells, which I wouldn’t have learnt in the comfort zone of the club I had been at since the age of 9, the place I still consider home.

So whilst some young players may see going on loan as being disregarded, I see my loan spells as the MOST IMPORTANT stage of my career. Although I endured mixed fortunes with them, I wouldn’t change a thing that I experienced.

After scoring my first professional goal whilst on loan at Colchester. A moment I will never forget! Image by Richard Blaxall

I am the player I am today because I utilised the loan system and I believe this set me up for my career in first-team football. The loans allowed me to add to my experience of first-team football across the different levels of English football.

My advice to any young player is to go out into the world of first-team football and find yourself. For me, this is the purpose of the loan system as a young player breaking through. You are put into situations you may have never experienced before and ones that can be uncomfortable, but this is where you GROW! Whether you go back and play in the first-team at your parent club or not, the experience gained from a loan move will be invaluable as you continue on your journey in first-team football!

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