It was in November 2015 when Patrick Bamford confirmed the news that left the footballing world captivated.
“We’ve actually got a Chelsea loan WhatsApp group,” he said, before adding that the constant updates would often leave his phone battery drained. New faces would come, old ones would go, the wheel would keep on turning.
The volume of messages sent between Chelsea’s eclectic selection of loanees will never have been higher than over the past month. Three more players joined the 37 that were loaned out in the summer; of that 37, seven have been recalled since December, three of whom have already been repackaged and sent off to new temporary homes.
The remaining four will enjoy and endure differing fates. Antonio Conte spoke of how Nathan Ake had “shown he deserves” a chance at his parent club following his return from Bournemouth, while Charly Musonda may receive similar opportunities after impressing at Real Betis. Kenedy’s loan spell with Watford was curtailed due to injury, with the Brazilian continuing his recovery at Stamford Bridge.
As for Bamford, it is unlikely he forced any of Michael Hector, Victorien Angban or Danilo Pantic to mute the conversation by spending his weekend bragging about his future to his fellow loanees. Five years, six separate loan spells, 386 Premier League minutes and zero Premier League goals after joining Chelsea, the 23-year-old has finally outstayed his welcome.
It took until Monday afternoon for either Burnley or Chelsea to pass official comment on his return to Stamford Bridge, such has been the striker’s fall from grace from Bright Young Thing to any old thing.
“They have decided to take him back and, it looks like, to go elsewhere,” said Sean Dyche, bidding farewell to a player on the verge of a move to Middlesbrough, a player whose 33 Premier League minutes for Burnley follow 99 at Palace and 236 at Norwich. Each move was scoreless, each almost pointless.
“It’s not necessarily because of him,” added the Clarets manager, but for Bamford, this is a familiar story of disappointment. “He has had every chance here,” was Alan Pardew’s defence, while Alex Neil explained that “you can take the horse to water but they have to show the determination and will to prove themselves”. Each manager could not find a place for Bamford in their side; Bamford failed to convince them otherwise on every occasion.
It is in direct juxtaposition with the case of Ake. The Dutchman did not start any of Watford’s first eight Premier League games last season, and his first start at Bournemouth came in the club’s 12th game of the season. Yet his excellent performances when given an opportunity mean he is welcomed home with open arms, while Bamford is shuffled through the back door once more.
Nathan Ake's recall is a huge encouragement for young players out on loan. Keep your head down, work tirelessly and you'll get your chance.
— Dami (@TheChelseaWay) January 8, 2017
The winner, as ever, is Chelsea. The Blues signed Bamford for £1.5m from Nottingham Forest in 2012, a move which many felt was too early in his career. Five years later, he may depart for more than six times his original fee, and he will leave the club without even making a first-team appearance. A profit of up to £8.5m, and they have done little of the truly hard work.
Chelsea’s propensity for a loan deal is well-documented, but they do appear to have cracked the market. Any player who impresses will be rewarded with a club one rung further up the ladder – Bamford went from League One MK Dons to Derby and Middlesbrough in the Championship before floundering in the top flight. Any player who cannot make the grade is either subjected to loan purgatory – the Marko Marin effect, currently being experienced by Lucas Piazon or Christian Atsu, both currently on their fifth loan deals – or they are sold on for profit. It is a controversial and oft-criticised business model, the antithesis to what both Liverpool and Tottenham preach. The claim is that it can stall careers, if not completely derail them. But if players accept and embrace the system, the rewards are fair.
Those who do succeed are no longer blocked from reaching the holy grail of the first team as they were under Jose Mourinho: Victor Moses, he of three modest Premier League spells, is a key fixture under Conte; Nathaniel Chalobah, with six loans to his name, is now a valued member of the squad; Ake and Musonda bring depth and options; Lewis Baker and Tammy Abraham have earned opportunities to prove themselves at a higher level. And if Bamford is a footballer with an eight-figure value, then what of Juan Cuadrado or Bertrand Traore?
Next off the conveyor belt will surely be Andreas Christensen. The Dane is in the midst of his second season-long loan spell at Borussia Monchengladbach, where he is a guaranteed starter. Most clubs would have to pay a premium for a 20-year-old international centre-half with Bundesliga and Champions League experience; Chelsea will find one ready-made and gift-wrapped on their doorstep in the summer.
As for Bamford, this is not so much a hard career reset as a necessary dose of reality: he is as much a victim of his own shortcomings as anything else. Chelsea’s loan system will be blamed, but his case is proof that it works, just as with Ake. In either instance, the Blues turn a profit or gain a valued player. The difference between the two fates is the balance between talent and commitment, one which Ake struck but Bamford never did. Don’t hate the game just because the player cannot play it.