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Brief Encounters: English Soccer’s Greatest Ever Short-Term Loans

Here, we look back at all the brief and fleeting loan moves that went better than anyone could have imagined.

by Will Magee
Apr 13 2017, 4:20pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

For many footballers who end up on loan, the move represents a change of direction. There are those up-and-coming talents for whom a developmental loan is the start of their inexorable rise, and there are strugglers for whom a temporary stint at some far-off club marks the beginning of the end. So, in recent history, the likes of David Beckham, Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge stand out as players who – in their younger years – kickstarted their careers during brief but fruitful spells with Preston, Bournemouth and Bolton respectively. Meanwhile, when we recall Jermaine Pennant being shipped off on loan to Portsmouth, David Bentley being dumped on FC Rostov for a season or Federico Macheda's two loans at Doncaster Rovers, we remember players who were being eased into the reality of a career on the way down.

In terms of the most successful loans for players going in the right direction, Becks' time at Preston is certainly up there. Despite having made his senior debut in 1992, Beckham had not kicked on at the same rate of some of his teammates and was still considered too callow to feature in the Premier League. Wanting to steel his shy young prospect in the blood-and-thunder surroundings of the old Third Division, Alex Ferguson sent Beckham – then still in his scampish middle-parting era – to play at a cold and windswept Deepdale in the middle of the 1994/95 campaign. Two months, five appearances and two goals later, Becks was deemed to have toughened up enough to make his senior bow in the top tier. Preston went on to finish fifth and narrowly miss out on promotion, with fans in Lancashire nonetheless impressed with their loanee's flair, vision and cracking free kicks.

If Beckham's loan worked out for all parties involved, the 19 goals which Defoe scored for Second Division Bournemouth certainly didn't go amiss. Though the Cherries finished a couple of points outside the play offs come the end of the season, Defoe was a huge part of what was then one of their best seasons in years. "Jermain inspired the easiest half-time team talk I've ever given," then manager Sean O'Driscoll said in a 2015 interview with FourFourTwo. "I walked into the dressing room and just said: 'Give him the ball.'" Having gone on a scoring run of 10 consecutive matches at one point, West Ham hardly needed to be convinced to recall Defoe to their starting line up. Though his transition to the first team wasn't quite so smooth, comparisons could be drawn between Defoe's jaunt on the south coast and Daniel Sturridge's loan spell at Bolton. The man with the most annoying celebration in football forced his way into contention at Chelsea after scoring four in his first four games at the Reebok, ending his six month loan there with eight goals overall.

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While most loan moves either send a player on an upwards or downwards trajectory, there are also a select few loans which stand alone as moments in time. Though it might seem like a strange example, the loaning of Nathan Dyer from Swansea to Leicester last season fits the bill in this sense. In what was surely the greatest ever loan from the perspective of the player involved, a man who was seemingly surplus to requirements in South Wales went on to pick up a Premier League winners' medal in the East Midlands. Though he only made 12 league appearances for the Foxes and was of mixed effectiveness at best, Dyer did score a crucial last-minute winner against Aston Villa in September, which in a season that so often teetered on a knife edge could well have been the difference between mediocrity and historic success.

That wasn't enough to earn Dyer a permanent move to Leicester, of course, and as such his dalliance with the club goes down as a glorious, fleeting career highlight. As for the greatest ever short-term loan from the perspective of the club doing the borrowing, that is perhaps a little harder to pin down. There's a strong case to be made for the loaning of Henrik Larsson from Helsingborg to Manchester United, a move which despite lasting only two months made a distinct impression on supporters at Old Trafford. Indeed, it made a similar impression on the manager, with Alex Ferguson stating just before Larsson's return to Sweden: "He's been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude. Everything he's done has been excellent."

Having left the Nou Camp for Helsingborg in 2006 – this after a star turn in his final game for Barcelona, namely their triumphant Champions League final against Arsenal – Larsson arrived in Manchester in January 2007 during the Allsvenskan's winter off-season. Much as he had provided two assists in that grand finale at the Stade de France, so he set about subtly influencing and improving his new team. Though he only scored three times in 13 games during his time with United, his impact behind the scenes was such that Ferguson was desperate to sign him permanently, and it was no coincidence that the champions elect lost only a single game during the term of his loan. Though he fulfilled his promise to return to Helsingborg that March, the hierarchy at United made sure that – despite not having made the necessary ten appearances in the league – Larsson was given special dispensation to receive a Premier League winners' medal, while the fans gave him a standing ovation when he returned for a friendly at the end of the campaign.

Thierry Henry celebrates scoring against Leeds // PA Images

Larsson was 35 years of age when he joined Manchester United, proving that loaning in an old hand can be just as useful as testing out a promising youngster. The same could be said of the loan deal with the New York Red Bulls which brought Thierry Henry back to Arsenal in 2012, a move which saw the club's record goalscorer add another two goals to his previous total of 226. For the fans, it was just what was needed during a difficult and tumultuous season, with Thierry's arrival lifting the atmosphere and coinciding with an upturn in form. There was the complete euphoria of his goal against Leeds on his first game back in the FA Cup, while his haul of two goals should really have been three had his finish against Blackburn Rovers not been contentiously attributed to Scott Dann.

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Travelling across North London and back in time to the late nineties, and we find another ageing returnee making the most of a short-term loan. Jurgen Klinsmann had been so prolific in the 1994/95 season with Spurs that he earned himself a move to Bayern Munich, but after two successful seasons with the Bundesliga giants he had moved to Sampdoria and struggled, scoring only two goals in eight appearances in Serie A. With many declaring his career over, it was a gamble by Tottenham to loan him back in 1997/98, but one which ended up paying off handsomely. In a poor season in which the team otherwise floundered, finishing 14th and only four points away from relegation, Klinsmann finished as top scorer before deciding to retire on a personal high.

Klinsmann playing against Coventry in 1998 // PA Images

Still, for perhaps the greatest short-term loan ever, we have to look beyond such lofty talents. In terms of drama, memorability and sheer significance, the loan move which mattered most was Carlisle United's temporary signing of Jimmy Glass in 1999. Glass was a fairly undistinguished goalkeeper who had previously turned out for Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Dulwich Hamlet, and was then on the books at First Division Swindon. Carlisle manager Nigel Pearson desperately needed a goalkeeper, this after losing his first and second choice stoppers at a time when the team were fighting relegation from the Football League.

In a contribution which has now become legendary far beyond the boundaries of Cumbria, Glass saved Carlisle on the final day when they needed to beat Plymouth to avoid the drop. Relegation rivals Scarborough could only draw with Peterborough, meaning that a win for Carlisle would see them survive by a single point. In the final minute of the match at Brunton Park, with the scores level at one apiece, Glass went up to contest a corner. Then, in a second which is still preserved in perfect clarity for Carlisle fans, he clumsily thundered home the winning goal in his third and final appearance for the club. Now, for football managers everywhere, Glass serves as living proof that a loan need not last long to echo through the metaphorical halls of eternity. Sometimes, it's the brief encounters which are remembered for the longest time.

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