Connor Gallagher’s bursts into the box. Dejan Kulusevski’s feints and cutbacks. Movements which have become fixtures of this season’s Premier League, putting smiles on the faces of fans up and down the country, not to mention the players themselves.
Both Gallagher and Kulusevski seem to have been liberated by being sent on loan, gaining game time that eluded them at Chelsea and Juventus. But is their experience the norm for players spending time away from their parent clubs?
Results from a recent study analysing the stress which footballers feel while on loan revealed the isolation, loss of confidence and reduced motivation that can afflict players during a temporary transfer.
As one interviewee from the 11 loanees who took part in the research explained, “I didn’t feel I could be myself [at the new club]. I’m quite a bubbly character… I didn’t want them [his new teammates] to think, ‘oh, who is this kid, who does he think he is?’… because you aren’t being yourself, subconsciously, you’re playing more reserved… so if you can’t express yourself as a person, you feel like you can’t on the pitch as well.”
The study – which examined loans lasting between two weeks and eight months – showed that the fortunes of Gallagher, Kulusevski and other youngsters sent on loan is part-dependent on their ability to respond to a wide-ranging set of psychological demands.
Within their new dressing room, players often have little time to build new bonds and sometimes face resentment as a result of displacing established members of the squad. On the pitch, competition for places and different training regimes can leave loanees either under-cooked or overworked, while off the field, hotel accommodation provides what one player described as a “Holiday Inn food” challenge.
While the latter hurdle is unlikely to be a problem for those lucky enough to secure loans to Premier League clubs, the likes of Gallagher and Kulusevski will be familiar with what the study describes as the ‘loan resources’ and ‘personal resources’ required to respond positively to these psychological tests.
The former is made up of the various sources of support available at both a loanee’s new and parent clubs, from coaches and team-mates to agents and physios. ‘Personal resources’, meanwhile, describe facets such as a player’s ability to set goals, retain authenticity in a new environment or sustain motivation after being unceremoniously loaned by a parent club.
In Gallagher’s case, goal setting seems to have played a role in his ability to deal with the psychological demands of his loan, including his recent exclusion from the FA Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Crystal Palace – a game he was prevented from playing due to the conditions of the loan agreement between the two clubs.
The midfielder appears to have set a clear objective to use his loan to secure a permanent return to Stamford Bridge, with Steve Sidwell telling the FootballJoe podcast in November, “Rio [Ferdinand] had done an interview with him not long ago, and he said to Rio afterwards for TV, ‘make sure when you speak about me that I stated that I want to go back to Chelsea, that I’m not in the shop window to get a move, I’m doing this to show everyone what I can do to go back to Chelsea’.”
If Gallagher – who has eight league goals and three assists to his name this season – provides a high-profile example of how a player can respond positively to psychological challenges by using ‘personal resources’ such as goal setting, Bristol City provide a less-trumpeted case study of how a club should approach loan agreements.
Several players, including current first-team regular Antoine Semenyo, who was loaned to Bath, Newport County and Sunderland, have found places in City’s starting XI after returning from spells away from Ashton Gate. According to Dr Sofie Kent, co-author of the ‘Coping with the loan transition in professional association football’ study, City’s approach creates a pathway for others to follow and reduces the chances of squad members seeing loans as a threat to their future.
“They’re not scared to say, ‘These players are going to start off at a lower level to gain experience of playing in front of a crowd’,” says Kent, who has worked with a number of clubs and is based at the University of Gloucestershire.
Kent believes the motives for sending a player on loan – which can range from a desire to improve an individual’s technical ability to seeing how a youngster copes with the pressure of lower league football – should be clearly set out before the move is agreed. This transparency also helps to negate the fear, exhibited by some of the players Kent interviewed, that a loan is being engineered purely to facilitate a future sale.
Her report urges clubs to provide more support for loan managers, who Kent explains, “tend to be ex-professional players that may have an understanding of the physical, technical and tactical side of the game… but their advice isn’t necessarily well-informed.” Indeed, some of the players interviewed as part of the study highlighted club physios as their ‘go to’ source of emotional support, raising questions over the availability or signposting of qualified psychological assistance which clubs are providing.
The issues highlighted in the research run right across the football pyramid and potentially impact hundreds of players. Of the 11 players interviewed, two were based at Premier League parent clubs, eight came from Championship teams, while one participant was loaned from a League One club. At the start of this season, 183 Premier League players were loaned from their parent clubs.
Regardless of whether the study’s proposals are implemented, the research should go some way to highlighting the psychological challenges – and benefits – of a loan. As Kulusevski, reflecting on his January switch to Spurs, recently said, “It’s especially the coach and the staff who are helping me a lot, letting me make mistakes and be me, letting me play without pressure. When you are good in your mind, you usually play good football.”