Liam Agnew fears that new FIFA rules could cost Sunderland’s current crop of young hopefuls an invaluable footballing education.
The Boston United captain’s first spell at the Jakemans Stadium was as a loanee from the Black Cats’ under 21s set-up.
It was his first taste of first-team football, a step-up into a more physical game and a move which he cites as a major factor in him earning a pro contract at the Stadium of Light.
Joel Dixon, Max Stryjek, David Ferguson, Liam Marrs, Tom McNamee and Dylan McEvoy also made the move south to compete in the National League North as the working relationship between Pilgrims boss Dennis Greene and Kevin Ball, Sunderland’s senior professional development coach, continued to prove mutually beneficial.
But those days of Ball’s Black Kittens learning the men’s game first hand and Boston plugging gaps in their squad could be a thing of the past.
Previously, the emergency loan rule would allow teams in the National League and Football League to sign Premier League players for periods between 28 and 93 days outside of the transfer windows.
But world football’s governing body scrapped this system at the start of the season to, as they put it, protect the ‘sporting integrity of competitions’.
While many smaller clubs fear financial implications from the move, Agnew believes some talented kids could be missing out on some important first-hand lessons as Premier League clubs become more reluctant to lose their youngsters for half or full seasons at a time.
“I hope it doesn’t cost any young lads a chance, it was a great learning curve for me,” said Agnew, who made one first-team appearance for Sunderland, in a 3-1 FA Cup victory over Fulham, before leaving to join Boston this season.
“I’ve had a few years in the 21s. For me it’s great at what it gives you, but I don’t think it’ll prepare you for men’s football as much as going out on loan to lower leagues would.
“The last time I was here I had a great time and it got us into the first team at Sunderland.
“I don’t feel like the under 23s does that really.”
Agnew has returned to the Jakemans Stadium a diferent player, a confident swagger to his game which was not so evident in the 2013-14 season when he was an 18-year-old slowly honing those skills.
It was during that loan spell at Boston where Agnew scored his first senior goal, as United beat Hednesford Town on March 1, 2014.
But there was no time to celebrate as the midfielder hit the A1 to join his family at Wembley to cheer on Sunderland in their Capital One Cup final against Manchester City the following day.
“When I first come to Boston I didn’t know what it was going to be like, I didn’t know what to expect,” Agnew, 21, said.
“It was my first loan. I actually feel it took three or four games to get into a good standard week-in and out.
“I remember my debut last time and didn’t know what it was all about and whether I had a good game or not. Now I can tell, playing football on loan here helped me learn a lot of things.”
Home games may be a 360-mile round trip for Agnew, but he believes that youngsters in the North East will have to go the distance to put themselves in the shop window.
Not every young hopeful will progress to the first team and, with a lack of viable loan options in the surrounding areas and a reluctance from scouts to travel, some talents may slip under the radar.
“I actually think Sunderland’s a bit isolated up there,” he continued.
“There’s not many clubs there to maybe go on loan to. That’s why, for me, if you look at our results in the under 23s, we finished second and fourth which is great, but for me there’s not many scouts coming to watch our games like they do in the Midlands or down South.
“I think we’re a bit isolated, and if I was a scout I’d definitely look at the boys up there.”