From League One debut to a Premier League appearance inside a single season: for 21-year-old Tottenham winger Alex Pritchard it couldn’t be more perfect. It also seems to be the perfect repost to Greg Dyke’s claims about the impediments blocking the ‘player pathway’ for English talent.
However, using exactly the same evident, his journey from Swindon’s first team to Spurs’ could equally be used as evidence in favour of the FA Commission’s Strategic Loan Partnership (SLP) – the Trojan horse for virtual feeder clubs.
Firstly Pritchard’s example isn’t quite the Boys’ Own stuff it might first appear. Prior to this season the Spurs midfielder had three England U20 caps and played six games on loan at Peterborough. So he again went on loan again, this time to Swindon, playing 43 games, scoring 8 goals and being nominated for the Football League Young Player of the Year and Sky Bet League One Player of the Year. When his youth loan expired on turned 21, he returned to White Hart Lane, joined first-team training and earned himself seven minutes against Aston Villa.
And as everyone knows, Pritchard’s loan to Swindon was just one of three season-long ones between Spurs and Swindon in 2013/14; one part in an on-going relationship between clubs. Every match was overseen by Tottenham staff, undertaken with two older players others from the same development team, and followed a path trod by two ex-Spurs who transferred to Wiltshire after a loan spell the season before.
But there was more comfort to be found than just in those familiar faces around Pritchard, “There are so many players from Spurs here that it does feel like home”. Swindon’s playing style had been chosen to appeal to Premier League technical directors, and in particular Tim Sherwood – for Town’s chairman is Lee Power, former player, agent and former house-mate of Sherwood. Power told local radio that his friend expressed his concern about his charges slow development while on loan, “He [Sherwood] said would you babysit my lads for me, more or less”.
So is the relationship akin to Greg Dyke and Danny Mills’ proposed SLP? Could it be called a Partnership? Possibly. Could it be called Strategic? Perhaps for Spurs, but for Swindon it seems to have been born of the necessity of a changed boardroom and a halved playing budget. Power himself set out the limits of the arrangement in the same interview saying, “I don’t think we can ever lose the club’s identity. Don’t get me wrong if we can beg, steal or borrow to try to get there and that is all we are going to try to do and nothing else.”
There are further key differences between the SLP as outlined by the FA Commission and these informal loan – not least that Football League regulations 85.2.3 prohibit any club “to be involved in any capacity or administration or that club” or: (85.2.4) to have any power to influence the financial, commercial or business affairs or the management or administration of that club”.
Strategic Loan Partnerships would very much go against those regulations. Under the SLP, coaches, facilities and sports science support would be provided to the partner club from the senior one. In Swindon’s case, Tottenham simply observed their players at the County Ground and treated them in Enfield when injured, they didn’t pick the side, coach the team or choose the formation. Swindon’s style wasn’t set by White Hart Lane, it came from a desire to be attractive and to make the best of the smaller, technical nature of so many of the players. Although Swindon’s manager Mark Cooper has admitted one element of de facto influence – that to ensure good relations remained with Spurs, it was wise to include their player at every opportunity.
Significantly, though accidentally, all three of the Spurs’ loanees rarely appeared together: Injuries limited Ryan Mason to just 13 starts and Grant Hall to 26. Instead Swindon also blooded a number of teenagers or used short-term loans of single players from Wolves, Peterborough, Norwich, Southampton. This meant that seeing even three loanees on the pitch – two less than is permitted – was an exception rather than the rule. This in turn meant that there was still space in the Swindon team for their own youth team players to progress, allowing both Miles Storey and Nathan Thompson, among others, to progress their own careers.
Contrast that with an SLP club who would be also be permitted five borrowed bodies in the squad but would be able to have borrowed eight, making multiple appearances of loanees a regular occurrence. And such pressure would be felt more strongly under SLP, especially as the proposals include the possibility for the senior club to own up to 25% of the equity in the junior one, rather than the 10% current permitted.
In the difficult task of judging Swindon fans’ attitudes to the relationship with Spurs, reliable measures are obviously hard to come by – especially when fans are second only in their pragmatism to football managers and chairmen. Anecdotally support for the relations seems to have waned as the season wore on: Initial results and the quality of the football on offer persuaded many at first only for a cynicism to return as Town’s form slumped around Christmas. Notably the side’s late season rally was attributed not to the Spurs connection but largely to a Town’s own players and the signing of another loanee – Jack Stephens of Southampton – only a short-term deal. Similarly Pritchard, despite his performances that so impressed many outside the club, lagged behind the local lads in the various player-of-the-year polls. In fact, not one placed him in the top three, and with one fan-site he only achieved 4% of the vote.
Perhaps most importantly, the number and length of the loans were always seen as an austerity necessity, not a permanent change to the club’s nature. “Never” was Power’s comment as to if Swindon would becoming a feeder club, adding in a separate interview, “If I supported Swindon I wouldn’t want to be a B-team for anyone else, and I don’t think there is any need to be. I want to compete, but I appreciate that we might not be Manchester United.”
The next steps in the journey are likely to be worth observing – for both Pritchard and Swindon. With Tim Sherwood no longer at White Hart Lane there is a chance that both Pritchard’s career and Power’s connection with both wither in the seasons to come.
However, Pritchard has made a major breakthrough and Town’s chairman has spoken of two other Premier League teams discussing similar loan arrangements as well as talk circulating within football of a number of League One clubs looking to mirror Swindon’s model. It is certainly going to be an interesting path to tread for any parent and junior clubs and their players.
Written by Alex Cooke, We Are Going Up’s Swindon Town blogger
Alex tweets at @STFConly