So farewell Dillon Hoogewerf.
The Dutch 18-year-old winger, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first signing for Manchester United, has left Old Trafford having never played first-team football. A promising Ajax academy player, he rejected a contract from Ajax and went to Manchester three years ago and signed his first professional contract in March 2020, but has now been sold to Borussia Mönchengladbach II. Not promising enough for United, we must assume. But was he ever going to be? Wasn’t he really just bought as an asset to accrue worth in order to be sold on for a modest profit…profit which will pay David De Gea’s wages for a few days.
He’s just one of many players to leave a club this transfer window having rarely or never played first-team football, probably only known to keen students of squads. Loaned out every year to a new club, kept on the books as an economic asset, but with no real chance of a run in the first team, then finally sold. A pawn bought and sold by rich clubs to pointlessly make a small amount of money, an amount that is too small to make any difference to the club’s bottom line.
Lewis Baker joined Chelsea aged five; now 26, he finally left the club to play for Stoke with two appearances for the Blues under his belt across eight years as a professional and the second of those was in January’s cup game v Chesterfield. In that time he has been loaned to Sheffield Wednesday, Milton Keynes Dons, Vitesse, Middlesbrough, Leeds United, Reading, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Trabzonspor. He’s played for England at all age groups up to U-21. He’s half way through his career and has been pushed from pillar to post for all of it.
Should we feel sorry for such people? Very well paid they might be, but this isn’t the career Baker will have expected. It looks like he’s been royally pissed around, in fact. He’d have been better playing for a club in the lower leagues, earning a reputation and becoming an asset in his own right. Not just an amortisation figure in the parent club accounts.
All of us see names leaving our club that we’ve never seen play and didn’t even know existed. It doesn’t seem right. Clubs make claims of being down to the bare bones through injury and covid while shipping out players that they must have at one point thought were worth acquiring or signing to professional terms. That’s how ignored and rejected they are.
Were United’s fans looking forward to seeing Dillon Hoogewerf progress through the ranks? Probably not. He was just another kid in the footballer mincing machine. He looked good at 15, but not so good at 18, so get rid. It seems obvious that had he stayed at Ajax, he would now likely be a first-team player with a pathway ahead of him. As it is, the young man has to start again in Germany having effectively been promised a dream at 15 that was almost certainly never going to happen. As United fell apart administratively and managerially, kids like him are just collateral damage.
Di’Shon Bernard, a 6’ 2” defender, played one Europa League game for United in 2019 and scored an own goal. That was his only game. He’s been loaned to Hull City. We all know he’ll never play for United’s first team. The 21-year-old defender spent last season at Salford City on loan. He may be kept on United’s books and do a Lewis Baker for years and years, punted out to one club after another with a vague promise he might one day play alongside Harry Maguire. Or he’ll be sold for a modest profit.
Nathan Bishop, a goalkeeper, is another United player on loan right now at Mansfield Town. Signed in 2020 from Southend, he’ll never play a first-team game for United. He must know that, or perhaps he doesn’t, perhaps he’s been promised a future. But he won’t. His contract is up this summer. The options will be to sign on again for another couple of years out on loan, or be sold. The United dream was just a deceit.
This isn’t just a Manchester United thing; obviously you can see the same patterns at all monied clubs. They sell a dream to a teenager, sign them up, rarely or never play them, sending them out on loan season after season, then selling them, making a bit of money. It has long been part of Chelsea’s business plan. In 2020/21 they had 32 out on loan, likely only a handful will ever play for the first team, or even for the club at any level. That’s not even the point of them being there. They’re just units of potential money.
And if United or Chelsea or whoever comes to you at age 14 and says they want to sign you, it’s easy to see how you’d think you’d made it. Pressure from family to sign and become a cash cow for the extended family is, I’m sure, very high. But really, they’re just pawns in a much bigger game.
Rather than signing for a top-flight club and developing their career, the opposite seems to happen. Lewis Baker is a good player, good enough for his country up to U-21, had he played 40 games per season for the last eight years for just a couple of clubs, rather than 191 for 11, who knows what such regularity and stability would have helped him achieve? He’s started well at Stoke and could yet develop into a really good player who plays at the highest level. He may never have been good enough for Chelsea, fair enough, but surely that’s all the more reason not to keep stringing him along.
Obviously, football is a brutal financial business, not a nurturing socialist cooperative, but it seems almost entirely pointless when you see how much these players generate in sales income. Except for rare occasions, it isn’t big money. A million or three, maybe. The sort of money that is routinely wasted on too-high wages, or inflated transfer fees. In other words, this loan strategy might make the club some money, but is it really enough to justify messing kids around and treating them like they are little more than balance sheet assets? This is their lives. They’re real people. Not NFTs.
This sort of profiteering feels unfair at best and immoral at worst, not least because the clubs that indulge in it are awash with money, whether it is from TV rights or from a sovereign wealth fund. They don’t need to mess kids around like this, kids that could have a perfectly good career in football without ever being treated as a pawn in rich people’s games.