I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about loan signings; given the choice, I’d rather give one of our young players a chance to show what they can do rather than bus in someone from outside. But occasionally, as with Adam Johnson on Saturday, a loanee makes such an immediate impact that even I can’t find fault with the manager’s decision.
Watford have made full use of the loan system in the past 10 years or so, with mixed results. It would be easy to list the failures – well, I say that, but actually, so many have come and gone without leaving an impression that I’m struggling to remember all their names. Darren Caskey, Trevor Benjamin, Steve Morrow, Danny Hill – there must be dozens more. Then there are those who make a brief, startling impression before returning whence they came: Michael Chopra’s bizarre four-goal burst at Burnley in 2003 springs to mind.
But I’m just going to concentrate on the successes. So here, in reverse order, are my top 5 Watford loan signings:
5) Jermaine Pennant (from Arsenal, 2002-03: 23 games, 3 goals)
Okay, so he didn’t score as often as he should have, and he spent a fair amount of time running down blind alleys. But his twinkle-toed wing play brought a touch of class to a team that was lacking it, and he did lay on a few goals when he remembered to deliver a cross.
4) Tommy Mooney (from Southend, 1994: 10 games, 2 goals)
Obviously, if we were judging Tommy on his Watford career as a whole he’d be higher up the list. But even on loan he made an impact, helping to bring about an unlikely escape from what looked like certain relegation. The battling qualities we were to come to know and love were obvious enough for Glenn Roeder to bring him back full-time at the start of the following season.
3) Marlon King (from Nottingham Forest, 2005: 21 games, 12 goals)
Possibly the shrewdest loan deal we’ve ever done: half a season, with first option to buy, and at a preset price to boot. If Forest had been able to predict how prolific Marlon would turn out to be, they surely wouldn’t have agreed to that last part.
2) Ben Foster (from Manchester United, 2005-07: 81 games, 0 goals)
While Marlon was banging them in at one end, Ben was keeping them out at the other throughout the promotion season we weren’t expecting. Even Ben couldn’t keep us in the Premiership – but think how much worse it could have been without England’s best young keeper between the posts...
1) Dennis Bailey (from Queen’s Park Rangers, 1994: 8 games, 4 goals)
Dennis makes no. 1 because no other loan player I can remember has been so directly responsible for a turnaround in the club’s fortunes. When he and Tommy arrived in March 1994, Watford looked dead and buried, but the pair of them somehow managed to score the goals we needed to win 6 of the last 10 games and finish 3 points clear of the drop zone. Dennis’s contributions usually came off the bench, and his goals seemed all the more heroic for it at the time. But it was Tommy (the younger of the pair by 6 years) who went on to be a Watford legend, while Dennis continued to be a roaming striker for hire; Soccerbase lists stints at 18 different clubs in a 20-year career that only seems to have ended last year. I wonder if he had such a dramatic impact at any of the others?