At Wembley on Sunday Nottingham Forest’s starting XI for the Championship playoff final against Huddersfield will almost certainly include four players they do not own. Playing the loan system is about short-term gain, something Forest have become adept at, but if they go up they will require a precise plan to ensure it was not all for nothing.
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 greater quality than a team can afford on a permanent basis. There is little point in signing players on loan who are not good enough to start, something appreciated at Forest. As much research is put into those arriving for a season or six months as into permanent signings.
Middlesbrough, like Forest, made five loan signings. They aimed for a top-six finish but, considering their budget and squad depth, surprisingly fell short. Of their loanees, three were strikers who between them scored 13 goals in 72 appearances, and Onel Hernández and James Léa Siliki started a combined 12 matches on their way to finishing seventh.
Forest have got value for money out of their loanees, who have made a total of 185 appearances. It may explain why all of them are keen to return next season, especially if promotion is achieved.
Djed Spence is the standout from those under contract elsewhere. The 21-year-old full-back arrived unwanted by Neil Warnock at Middlesbrough but is now one of the most sought-after defenders in England thanks to his displays in the Championship. James Garner is likely to return to Manchester United for pre-season to allow Erik ten Hag to evaluate the midfielder but there is hope at Forest he could end up back with them.
Keinan Davis, on loan from Aston Villa, has been the focal point of attack. His direct running and hold-up play have become integral to 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 be keen to have him next season when they will look to bounce back. The Dane’s experience could be invaluable for Rob Edwards’ side. Max Lowe, borrowed from Sheffield United, has not featured since March because of a groin problem but before that he was the perfect fit at left wing-back in Steve Cooper’s system.
The club are confident at least two of the loanees will return in some capacity. There is quiet optimism that even if Spence signs for a bigger club, he could come back on loan. Prices were not set to buy any of the loanees so Forest accept that if they go up they would need to pay a “Premier League premium” on any permanent deals.
Bringing in five players on loan a season is not part of the long-term strategy at Forest. They do not want to rely on loanees because the club would prefer to sign younger players within a strict wage structure who have potential resale value. The exception to that rule this season was the centre-back Steve Cook, whom Cooper was desperate to acquire to help coach the side on the pitch in the crucial latter stages of their promotion push.
Part of the reason behind bringing in loanees was a lack of transfer budget. The cloth was cut accordingly. The head of recruitment, George Syrianos, has successfully implemented a data-driven transfer model at the City Ground to find the best fits in positions that need upgrading rather than signing on reputation. The chief executive, Dane Murphy, arrived last summer and reined in spending that had resulted in Lyle Taylor and Harry Arter, among others, signing deals on what he regarded as inflated wages. Both spent part of the season on loan, despite earning more than £30,000 a week. Murphy is seen as the level-headed one in the room when dealing with the various stakeholders in the boardroom.
A further sign that Forest have been smart in the loan market can be seen when measuring their success against last season’s loanees. Those included Luke Freeman, Cyrus Christie, Anthony Knockaert and Filip Krovinovic – players who were cast aside by their clubs and made a limited impact in 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 earn promotion, there will be a desperate urge to survive in the Premier League. The ego of the owner, Evangelos Marinakis, alone means money would be spent trying to assemble a squad capable of competing with the elite.
Come what may, transfer negotiations will start on Monday. There will not be as many loans but they have got value for money already from those players, and if one scores the £170m winner at Wembley it will have been the shrewdest of moves.