Managing In The Modern Game: The Loan Market – Michael Flynn
In the latest instalment of Managing in the Modern Game, a series of interviews looking at specific elements of football management through the eyes of those involved, Dean Eldredge of Oporto Sports Management speaks to Newport County manager, Michael Flynn, to evaluate the significance of the loan market for a League Two club, the process of persuading a young prospect to join them and how locality and relationships with big clubs are essential…
How important is the use of the loan market to a club like Newport County and a manager like you?
For us, it’s hugely important, especially in the context of the salary cap coming in. We’ve always had to work within a budget, but you still need to add numbers in to the squad to make you competitive, with this season operating in a shorter period of time. As a manager, it’s key to show clubs you can work with younger players and help to develop them. Given the level we are playing at, we have to take a lot of first loans, as those who’ve already been out on loan are likely to then play at a higher level or in their parent club’s first team. A good example would be Rhys Williams, a player I would have liked to have signed on loan, when he was out at Kidderminster, and is now playing for Liverpool. You’ve got to get in quickly and be proactive before they get their first loan.
In what way has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the way you operate in this area?
I’m doing a course at the moment with the LMA on leadership and management. We had a couple of breakaway groups, discussing marketing yourself and your brand. We all came to the conclusion that when you’re in a job, you don’t tend to spend as much time on yourself as you should, and you only start to do that when you’re out of work, by which time it can be too late, or you are maybe having to rebuild your reputation. We had some downtime while football was suspended due to the pandemic, much more time than you’d normally have when in work. I had time to reflect on what I wanted to improve on. I met with my assistant a number of times and we discussed improving the way we played as a side, building and attacking through the thirds. We’d never followed through on this for many reasons; injuries, personnel, the pitch, but I was determined that we were going to build from the back and play attractive, possession-based football. At the moment it’s paying dividends, better than planned. The players have taken everything on board, and this has happened because we had the time to make this change. We haven’t sacrificed our core principles of working hard, togetherness and no one individual being bigger than the team. The change has affected the way we’ve recruited, looking for more technical players and that was a big move for us. We’ve come through this period together as a club and that can only bode well for our future.
When identifying a potential loan signing, what are the specific qualities you are looking for, and who else at the club works with you on this process?
I always discuss decisions with my staff. Three heads are better than one, and I work with my staff to get their perspective on a player. Most importantly, the player has to have the right attitude. They’ve got to be willing to come to Newport County and be ready for the challenge, to want to play for us and I want players who are receptive and can improve. I get great satisfaction from helping them on their career journey. The attitude and potential to improve goes hand in hand. I work alone regarding identifying players. I bounce off someone, a third party, for ideas and input and I always talk through with my assistant manager, Wayne Hatswell, and I work with our head performance analyst, Jason Windsor, to gather footage of whole games of the player, as opposed to just their best bits in edited clips. I need that context. I want to know their faults and what we’re getting from them on and off the pitch. I’ll also speak to my contacts in the game and use their advice and input to ensure we’ve done our due diligence on a player. For example, we’ve taken eight players on loan from Bristol City, with two with us now. Five of the six others got new deals and three are in their first team. It shows we are picking the right players, and helping them to develop. That’s all you can ask.
Talk us through the process of persuading a young talent, and their parent club, to allow you to take them on loan…
The first thing we can do is to show people what we’ve done in the past with loan players, underlining our reputation in this area. I watched Ben White as a centre-back and I convinced Brighton to let him come and play for us, having had him watched. Luckily, I had a good relationship with people at Brighton; John Morling, the academy manager, and one of our ex-players is there, Andrew Crofts, as a coach with their under-23s. It wasn’t straightforward with Ben as he is a talented lad, and there was huge interest in him. There was also a penalty clause if he didn’t play a certain amount of games, so I had to convince the board that he was worth it. I was that confident in his ability and that he would fit in well with us. I knew he would play, and he’s getting better and better now.
We also give the parent clubs regular updates on the progress of their players, through their IDP’s (Individual Development Plans) and we speak to the clubs about what they’d like to see their players working on. We allow their loan managers and player liaison officers to have access to our training ground, so they feel comfortable and we put the player’s welfare at the forefront of everything, as if they are one of our permanent players. We’re limited on who we can have visiting now because of the pandemic, but we still have contact. Above all, we give players opportunities to play regular first-team football. They can also see that we have lads like Josh Sheehan, our own player, making his debut for Wales this season. It’s all about showing the players a pathway to success.
What are the risks of using the loan market? Is there a danger of relying upon players who believe that ultimately they won’t be with you for the long-term?
I think it’s easier in the lower leagues as there aren’t too many longer contracts at this level. A one-year loan is no different really to a one-year deal. As soon as they are through the door, they are made to feel comfortable, shown respect and integrated. You don’t get every player right, there’s not a manager in the world that gets every signing right. I can say now though, some of the closer relationships I’ve had have been with loan players because of the way we make them part of the group.
As a case study, are you able to talk about a player you’ve taken on loan and the ways in which he and Newport both benefitted from the arrangement, and the reasons why it was successful?
Ben White joined us in the summer of 2017 and made a fantastic impression in the period leading up to January. He then had the opportunity to leave us and go on loan to a club in a higher division, but I convinced him to stay and he wanted to stay. He showed us loyalty because we’d given him his first chance. Soon after, we played Leeds United in the FA Cup, having already played them in the League Cup. Ben had already caught Leeds’ eye, and then had a great game against them in January. He then played against Spurs in the next round and against Harry Kane and Fernando Llorente, and he was unbelievable, and excelled in the replay at Wembley too. He chose his pathway well. Brighton is a sensible well-run club, and he has a good family around him. When the season was over he went to Peterborough in League One, and then went to Leeds in the Championship the next year, playing under Marcelo Bielsa, a hugely respected manager in world football, and helped them win promotion. Ben rang me when they had achieved promotion to thank me, surrounded by his celebrating teammates, which just goes to show that he has the right mentality to match his footballing quality. I said two things back when he played for us; one, he will play for England one day and two, he is the best loan signing our club has ever had. I stand by both of those comments today.
How much of an influence is location with regard to attracting a player to sign? Does your distance from certain areas of the UK present issues, or are you able to develop relationships with clubs in your locality?
First of all, the location can be an issue as we only have one club house, and we haven’t got fortunes to spend on hotel rooms, but we do have fantastic relationships with clubs around us, such as Cardiff City, Swansea City and Bristol City. These clubs have been very helpful to us and continue to be. The relationship benefits both clubs and offers their young players a chance to play, gain experience and then either play for them, or be sold for profit.
I’d like to think that all clubs put the best interests of a player’s development first over location of the loan club. If I wanted to take a player from Cardiff for example, and he would just be a squad player and only play if we have injuries, but another club guarantees him a first-team place, the player would go to that club regardless of location as they would develop quicker there. I never make promises; players have to earn their place in our side. We have a good reputation for the way we work with loan players, and I would like to think that helps us with clubs and players. Of course, some clubs may lean towards who pays the most, but the player’s welfare and progress is most important.
I work with our general manager and the board to a budget we agree, and I don’t go over that. If there was a loan fee stipulated, then that would have to be signed off by the board. I am always aware of the numbers, and I work well with the club to get the best players we can, working within our means.
Michael Flynn is not a man who does things by halves. Stepping in to the Newport County hot seat with the club 11 points adrift of Football League safety with 12 games remaining, he masterminded a remarkable turnaround, securing League Two football for his hometown side in the dying minutes of the final game of the 2016/17 season.
Since then, Newport and Michael have developed an enviable reputation as one of the division’s most competitive sides – a fact not lost on the likes of Leeds United, Leicester City and Middlesbrough as they were all dispatched in FA Cup giant killings, with Spurs and Manchester City taken to the wire too.
Flynn’s ability to guide the careers of fledgling talents from bigger clubs and this season’s tangible change from a necessary direct style to a more possession-based game, are just another couple of reasons of many, why this ambitious and talented young manager is winning accolades and is destined for greater success.
For more information on Dean Eldredge and Oporto Sports Management, please visit www.oportosports.com and follow them on Twitter @DeanEldredge and @OportoSports
Images: PA Images