For many associated with Blackburn Rovers, the words spoken by Taylor Harwood-Bellis early last month will have been music to the ears.
Speaking just days before his excellent half-season loan spell at Ewood Park came to an end with a 5-2 win over Birmingham on the final day of the campaign, the Manchester City defender admitted he would be open to a return to Rovers for next season.
Discussing such a prospect, the 19-year-old was quoted as saying: “I’ve played this many games now I can’t just go back and train now, that’s not what I want. I want to play games.
“My ultimate goal is to play for Man City but if I can’t play the amount of games I want then I’m open to going out and playing games, of course.
“We’ll have to see what happens really. We’ll have to see what’s happening at the end of the season and see if it’s the right move for me again, the right move for City and the right move for Blackburn.
“If all of those three are put together and then we will see what happens.”
In many ways, it would be a no brainer for Rovers to look to take advantage of that admission from Harwood-Bellis, who given his relative lack of experience, and the options available at The Etihad, may well find it hard to force his way into Pep Guardiola’s first-team next season.
With Harwood-Bellis and fellow loanee, Jarrad Branthwaite of Everton, having returned to their parent clubs, and Derrick Williams having made a permanent move to the MLS with LA Galaxy earlier in 2020, Rovers head into the summer short on centre back options, and it is an area they could want to address in the transfer market.
Indeed, the way that Harwod-Bellis flourished at Rovers during the second half of the season, improving rapidly with some excellent performances t0 form a strong central defensive partnership with Darragh Lenihan, the prospect of bringing the teenager back to Ewood Park for next season would undoubtedly be a tempting one for Rovers.
However, if they were to do that, then it is hard not to feel as though that is something that could yet open up its own can of worms going forward for Blackburn.
It is worth remembering that the arrivals of Harwood-Bellis and Branthwaite during the January transfer window, were in part only necessary due to the situation surrounding one of Rovers’ marquee signings from last summer’s transfer window.
With Rovers having also been in need of a centre back heading into the start of last season – somewhat ironically following the departure of Tosin Adarabioyo following his own loan from Manchester City – the Lancashire club seemingly pushed the boat to secure the services of Daniel Ayala.
Signed as a free agent following his departure from Middlesbrough, Ayala arrived on a three-year deal, which only came about following a saga that had seemingly seen a move to Ewood Park in favour of a move to Saudi Arabia, only for that Rovers interest, and ultimately the deal, to be rekindled when that switch to the Middle East fell through for the Spaniard.
But despite his promotion winning experience, and having been heralded as one of the best defenders in the Championship by Rovers boss Tony Mowbray following his arrival, the club have yet to really see proof of his influence on a regular basis.
Having played little football for Middlesbrough during his final few months at The Riverside, Ayala struggled to really get up to match fitness for Rovers, and had made just nine appearances for the club when he limped off with 20 minutes remaining in Blackburn’s 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield at the end of December, not to be seen on the pitch again, until the very last half-hour of the campaign.
It was that absence of Ayala, combined with the long-term injury to Scott Wharton, that forced Blackburn into the loan market for Harwood-Bellis and Branthwaite, and it could be argued that a return to Ewood Park for the former, could lead to a similar sort of issue for the club with regards to Ayala.
If Rovers are to re-sign Harwood-Bellis on loan for next season, then City would surely expect the teenager to be tested week in week out as a regular starter across an entire season in order to aid his development, and his previous form at Ewood Park does suggest he would be deserving of that opportunity if he were to return.
But given the strong link-up they had last year, and the fact that as a regular captain for Rovers, Lenihan is a more established member of the starting lineup, it is likely that it would be the Irishman lining up alongside Harwood-Bellis next season, rather than an untested partnership of the Manchester City man and Ayala, who didn’t spend a single minute on the pitch together last season.
That would therefore mean that unless Rovers are to switch to a three-at-a-back system, something they have seldom done under Mowbray, Ayala – who is seemingly one of Rovers highest earners apparently- would once again be left facing the prospect of a season spent largely on the sidelines.
Not only would that mean that Rovers would be failing to get a return on their rather significant investment in Ayala, but it could also present an obstacle to negotiate with regards to the futures of other members of the club’s playing squad.
There are a number of important first-team players at Ewood Park who are out of contract in the next 12 months, who played more regularly than Ayala last season, but may be on less in terms of wages.
That in turn could lead to understandable demands from players for wage increases to reflect their standing in the squad in relation to a player such as Ayala who may not be playing as regularly as they are, something which could be difficult for Rovers to afford, particularly in such a challenging financial climate.
Given the concerns around player contracts the club have already faced this season – being forced to take up 12 month options on several individuals to protect their value – that is a situation they will no doubt be desperate to avoid facing again next summer.
It should also be remembered that Ayala himself will be entering the final 12 months of his Rovers contract this time next year, at which point they may need to decide whether to offer him a new deal to secure his services and value, or look to sell him on while they still have a chance to receive a fee for him.
Either of those will of course be harder to do if Ayala finds himself behind the likes of Harwood-Bellis in the pecking order at Ewood Park next season should the teenager return to the club, given the limits that could impose on the Spaniard’s game time, making it harder for Ayala to put himself in the shop window for Rovers or other clubs.
Add in the questions that a return to Blackburn for Harwood-Bellis would pose over the chances given to Hayden Carter – who himself excelled out on loan at Burton from Rovers during the second-half of last season – next season, and it is clear that bringing the defender back for a second spell would leave the Lancashire club with plenty to consider with regards to own current crop of players.
So while in the short-term view of the 2021/22 campaign, a new deal for Harwood-Bellis would be an excellent piece of business for Rovers, the likelihood is that his potential and desire means the defender’s future beyond that almost certainly lies at The Etihad Stadium.
That therefore, means that the long-term implications of such an agreement, will give Blackburn plenty to think about as they mull over whether or not to pursue this signing over the summer, and they will have to be sure that the immediate benefits of this deal, outweigh the risks it could pose over a longer period of time.