At Wembley on Sunday Nottingham Forest’s starting XI for the Championship playoff final against Huddersfield will almost certainly include four players they don’t possess. Playing the loan system is all about short-term gain, something Forest have become adept at, but if they go up they’ll need a clear plan to make sure it’s not all for naught.
In the Championship, where money to buy players is scarcer than it once was, the loan market is a great place to find undervalued talent of a higher quality than a team can afford permanently. There’s no point in signing players on loan who aren’t good enough to start with, which is appreciated at Forest. As much research is done on those who arrive for a season or six months as on permanent signings.
Middlesbrough, like Forest, have made five loan signings. They were aiming for a top-six finish but, given their budget and squad depth, they surprisingly fell short. Of their players on loan, three were forwards who scored 13 goals in 72 appearances, and Onel Hernández and James Léa Siliki started a combined 12 games en route to finishing seventh.
Forest get their money’s worth with their loanees, who have made a total of 185 appearances. This may explain why everyone wants to return next season, especially if the promotion is obtained.
Djed Spence is the star of those under contract elsewhere. The 21-year-old full-back arrived unwanted by Neil Warnock at Middlesbrough but is now one of England’s most sought-after defenders thanks to his league performances. James Garner is likely to return to Manchester United for pre-season to allow Erik ten Hag to assess the midfielder, but there is hope at Forest that he could end up with them.
Keinan Davis, on loan from Aston Villa, was the central point of the attack. His direct running and hold-up play has become part of Forest’s resurgence and he was missed during a recent spell on the sidelines.
Philip Zinckernagel has played 49 times in all competitions and avoided spending the season in the Premier League relegation zone with Watford. His performances, however, mean his parent club will want to have him next season when they look to bounce back. The Dane’s experience could be invaluable for Rob Edwards’ side. Max Lowe, on loan from Sheffield United, hasn’t played since March due to a groin problem, but before that he was perfectly suited at left-back in Steve Cooper’s system.
The club are confident that at least two of the players on loan will return to some extent. There is a quiet optimism that even if Spence signs for a bigger club he could return on loan. Prices have not been set to buy any of the loanees, so Forest accept that if they go up they would have to pay a ‘Premier League premium’ on any standing offers.
Loaning out five players per season is not part of Forest’s long-term strategy. They don’t want to rely on loans as the club would rather sign younger players under a strict wage structure who have potential resale value. The exception to that rule this season was centre-back Steve Cook, whom Cooper was desperate to acquire to help lead the team on the pitch in the crucial final stages of their promotion push.
Part of the reason for the lack of a transfer budget was bringing in people on loan. The fabric was cut accordingly. Recruitment manager George Syrianos has successfully implemented a data-driven transfer model at City Ground to find the best candidates for positions that need upgrading rather than signing on reputation. Chief executive Dane Murphy arrived last summer and reined in spending that had led Lyle Taylor and Harry Arter, among others, to sign deals over what he saw as inflated salaries. The two have spent part of the season on loan, despite earning over £30,000 a week. Murphy is seen as the cool head in the room when dealing with the various stakeholders in the boardroom.
Another sign that Forest have been smart in the loan market can be seen by measuring their success against last season’s loanees. These included Luke Freeman, Cyrus Christie, Anthony Knockaert and Filip Krovinovic – players who were dismissed by their clubs and had limited impact at Nottingham.
Forest, like any club in their position, have two sets of summer transfer targets: one for the Premier League and another for the Championship. If they win promotion, there will be a desperate urge to survive in the Premier League. The ego of owner Evangelos Marinakis alone means that money would be spent trying to build a team that can compete with the elite.
Whatever happens, the transfer negotiations will start on Monday. There won’t be as many loans, but they’ve already gotten their money’s worth from these players, and if the £170m winner is scored at Wembley, it will have been the shrewdest of movements.