Michael Walker: Loan culture at big clubs sees young talent cast adrift
Chelsea released Gael Kakuta in 2015 after six loans in five countries over four years
Chelsea’s Gael Kakuta against Wolves in 2009. Former manager Carlo Ancelotti described him as “the future of Chelsea”. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
He is 27 now, Gael Kakuta. He has earned himself a contract with Rayo Vallecano in La Liga, and has been given the No 10 jersey. He has started each of Rayo’s opening three games. Maybe Gael Kakuta is settling down.
If so it’s been a long time coming. Kakuta has been on one circuitous journey since he left his home town of Lille in northern France to sign for the youth team of neighbours Lens.
Kakuta was a young boy – eight or nine. He was around 15 when he began to attract the attention of Chelsea, and 16 when he moved to Stamford Bridge in 2007.
The signing was an event, not simply because of the obvious talent that lay within Kakuta, but because Fifa decreed that the teenager was in breach of contract with Lens. If you recall, Chelsea were punished with a transfer ban, although Fifa’s enthusiasm melted when Chelsea challenged it legally. It was dropped.
The focus returned to Kakuta’s ability, which was considerable. He had the technique and speed to wrong-foot opponents, draw gasps from them and fans.
A bad ankle injury knocked him off course, but for season 2009-10, just after his 18th birthday, Kakuta was in the Chelsea first-team squad. He was No 44. He was also included in Chelsea’s Champions League squad.
Carlo Ancelotti had become the permanent replacement for Felipe Scolari and in November 2009 Ancelotti sent Kakuta on for Nicolas Anelka against Wolves for the younger Frenchman’s Premier League debut.
Kakuta shone. It was a half-hour debut few forget.
“He’s a fantastic player, the best at the club in terms of skill,” said Jon Obi Mikel afterwards. Given the club had Anelka, Ballack and Deco at the time, it was a big call.
‘One good thing’
Just over two weeks later, against Apoel Nicosia, Kakuta made his Champions League debut. He became the youngest Chelsea player to appear in the competition. It was a sloppy team performance, bar Kakuta, of whom Ancelotti said: “He is the one good thing from tonight. We have to look at him, stay calm, but he will be the future of Chelsea.”
Imagine hearing that at 18. Imagine hearing it and then not starting another match until the following September. Then a few 10-15 minute shuffles off the bench at the end of games.
By February 2011, with his 20th birthday four months away, Kakuta was on loan at Fulham. He never played for Chelsea again.
Kakuta still belonged to Chelsea, but the club had a gear-change in their youth recruitment and from being top of its pile Kakuta disappeared into a growing stockpile.
Unable to squeeze them into the first team and unwilling to sell too soon, these young hopefuls started to be sent out on loan. It became a policy: from having 15 young players on loan in 2009-10, Chelsea had 32 out in 2012-13, and 44 by 2016-17. The totals would be higher if multiple loans were included.
Kakuta experienced this. At the beginning of 2011-12, the future of Chelsea was on loan at Bolton. Four months there were immediately followed by five months back in France with Dijon.
As Chelsea changed managers who brought in more players, Kakuta had a season at Vitesse Arnhem. He started the next season there too, before a switch to Lazio for two substitute appearances.
If he was disorientated, you could understand. Careers do not occur in isolation, they are shaped by the individual, of course, but also by everything around him – managers, teammates, injuries, agents, luck. This new version of loan culture shaped Kakuta’s.
It was August 2014 when he first saw Rayo Vallecano – still on loan. Ancelotti had not been the manager at Stamford Bridge for over three years. The future had changed.
It was 2015 when Kakuta was released by Chelsea, and after six loans in five countries over four years it may have felt like a release.
All the while Chelsea continued to accumulate young players and, when they felt like it, sell them. Miroslav Stoch (20) joined Fenerbahce for €5.5 million, Michael Mancienne (23) went to Hamburg for €3 million, Ryan Bertrand to Southampton for €12 million. Just three examples.
Bertrand was 15 when Chelsea brought him in, he was 24 when he left. Along the way he had loan spells at seven other clubs.
The vast wealth of Roman Abramovich altered Chelsea’s status at first-team level. They became the champions of Europe – Kakuta was in Arnhem at the time. But it also changed Chelsea at other levels, among them youth recruitment.
They were not alone. In England Manchester City began to assemble and loan, sometimes sell. In France, Monaco did the same, in Portugal, Sporting Lisbon, in Italy, Inter, Juventus and Udinese.
What it meant was that every weekend a European wine lake of talent was either untouched by first-team coaches or farmed out. Clearly this suits the wealthiest clubs. Not only do they acquire and retain youth, in doing so they deny others.
This distorts sporting competition, it also starves the food chain. Bertrand left Gillingham at 15, Kakuta left Lens – consider the impact they would have made at their respective clubs had they stayed, even until 21. Consider also the angst in South America about what the export of young boys has done to domestic football there.
If there were limits on the numbers of boys clubs could contract, the effect would be felt more by the early sellers than by already well-stocked buyers.
So the hint this week that Fifa is at last going to address the issue is interesting. It is said Fifa would like to limit the number of loans to perhaps six or eight per season , with age group restrictions included.
If a form of this is implemented it would rearrange youth recruitment. If administered without loopholes, the era of stockpiling young players would surely be over.
Given the culture that has been allowed to grow, this would be a radical rule change. Given the power of clubs, it is a change likely to be met with opposition. Clubs will argue that boys receive high-quality coaching as well as ample financial compensation.
Yet they cannot argue against the fact that boys who drift around get lost in stockpiles, and could be getting another education elsewhere. It would be different, maybe not so glamorous, but that might be no bad thing. Young players would have careers with other opportunities, other trajectories, that’s all.
In that scenario, at 27, Gael Kakuta, back from a spell in China where he had two more loans, might be sure about what happens next.