Last week, I watched Liverpool under 19s beat Inter Milan to secure their place in the last 16 of the Next Gen Series. The Next Gen Series for anyone who doesn’t know is a competition which mirrors the Champions League, but for youth players (and isn’t ran or affiliated with UEFA). Liverpool not only beat the current champions of the competition, but hammered them. We gave them a lesson in attacking, possession based football. The formation, tactics, all in sync with the senior team. Synergy.
Last night’s result wasn’t just about qualifying for the next round, it signified the hard work of many to revolutionise Liverpool’s academy. As even neutrals will know Liverpool once stood proud among the world’s best academies, rivaling the likes of Ajax in the 70’s and 80’s. We recruited the best local talent yet were never afraid to look more left-field to find some real gems playing elsewhere. Local talents such as Liverpool and England captain Phil Thompson won European Cups. There was Tommy Smith, Terry Mc’Dermott, Ian Callaghan, Jimmy Case – the list goes on.
Let’s begin with the past: In 1989 former player Steve Heighway was brought back to run the academy, and too much success. Despite Liverpool’s steady decline from 1991 onwards, Heighway helped produce some of the clubs best ever talents. There were decent players like Domnic Matteo and David Thompson, then the cream of the crop in Steve Mc’Mannaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard. Heighway’s time helped produce arguably two of the clubs most natural ever finishers, only blighted by injury, and arguably the club’s greatest ever player in Gerrard. But to say Heighway’s time was without fault would sadly be a lie.
And onto the negatives: Following Gerrard’s breakthrough in 1998 no other player progressed from Kirkby into the senior squad in any consistent sense. There are a plethora of names who were built up to have glittering careers but faded badly. Whether the lack of academy products that were promoted to regular first team football is down a correlation with the general decline of the club (and subsequent youth coaching standards?), or a lack of faith in youth from managers from Evans – Rafa (Roy doesn’t really count as he was a plonker) remains unclear, but if I were to guess I’d say it was a mix of both.
There were so many talents who seemed destined for great careers at the club but nevertheless faded into obscurity. Some examples of relative failures of that era (2000 – 07) would be Richie Partridge – now retired at 32 and working as a Physio at the club; Neil Mellor – despite playing a part in the run up to the Champions League win in 2005, including 6 senior goals at Liverpool he still is deemed a major let down (Neil retired last season due to a knee injury aged 30); Paul Anderson – now playing Championship football at Bristol; Adam Pepper – Adam epitomised someone who couldn’t handle the pressure of potential, he now plays in the Conference for StalyBridge Celtic. There are more examples, who remembers Jon Otsemobor, who currently plays for the MK Dons, or Jack Hobbs currently at Hull? Even Darren Potter now also at the MK Dons, Zak Whitbread – now at Leicester, Adam Hammill – plying his trade at Huddersfield or Laure Dalle Valle now on loan at Crewe Alexandra from Fulham.
It must be said that not all clubs see their academy prospects progress into the first team, so to name all the above players and to have expected them all to make it would be disrespectful to Steve Heighway and co who worked tirelessly at the academy for so many years. Also, in modern times the internet and airing of youth football on television has introduced a new dynamic to youth football. ‘Back in the day’, youth players were unknowns, who would spend their free time cleaning the senior players boots, and not tweeting nor driving in expensive cars. Of course that seems a cynical view, and it is, but the world has changed for youth players. How many knew of Raheem Sterling within the first 2 months he has signed for Liverpool? Thousands upon thousands I reckon. Before he had a sniff of senior football many had him down to as a superstar.
To play devil’s advocate, has this new dynamic of famous youth players, forced upon managers to play them before they’re ready? I’ll take Suso as an example here, again playing devil’s advocate. The fans, including myself, fell in love with Suso ever since he was signed in 2010. The ‘cultured left foot’ (cringe), the nickname, yet devilishly long and obviously Spanish sounding full name – everything about the lad on the face of it made him a very attractive prospect. Not to mention the relative failure of Dani Pacheco made fans yearn for Suso to make it that bit more. To date, Suso has made 12 appearances for Liverpool, friendlies notwithstanding. He has looked exciting no doubt, but it’s questionable whether he’s done enough to play as much as he has in the league, looking lightweight and frankly ineffective when deployed on the right.
To me it begs the question whether Suso would have been played so much so soon, had he not been so known to the public, due to social media, airing of youth games on television etc. The changing dynamic of youth football must be looked at when examining our academy. Has the rate of output from academy to the first team improved because of the changed infrastructure, or is there a correlation with the fame now attached to youth players forcing their way into the team, playing faux politics with the manager to force time onto the pitch? It may seem far-fetched but I certainly believe it may play some part in it.
And now onto some positivity: Not long ago Pep Guardiola dubbed Liverpool’s academy as one of the world’s best, only behind Barcelona’s famed La Masia. High praise indeed. In 2007 Rafa Benitez brought Pep Segura and Rodolo Borrell into the club to revolutionise the academy. Rafa scorned at the lack of academy products making the first team as discussed earlier. Both coaches arrived with a searing pedigree, previously working at Barca’s La Masia where they helped develop a home-grown core of Pique, Messi (arrived in Spain at 14) and Iniesta (to name a few) which has become arguably the best club side of all time.
Borrell was appointed under 18’s coach while Pep Segura was given the job as the academy’s technical director, overseeing the revolution. They were expected to implement a new scouting system, where over 300 players would be signed up with the academy at one time, while a style of play, of pressing and possession based football (4-2-3-1 under Rafa) to be integrated at all levels. Borrell’s under 18 side flourished. There was a rapid improvement in the team’s performances in the Premier Academy League and FA Youth Cup. In his first season in charge, the team finished 4th as part of a congested mid-table in Premier Academy League Group C, and finished only in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup, being knocked out by Watford. However, during his second season in charge, he led the team to an impressive 2nd placed finish in the Premier Academy League, losing out to Everton by only a point. While results were impressive the real signs of change where in the style of play, and an ever improving recruitment policy.
Since FSG took over there has been a growing emphasis on buying quality youth players. Both for the senior team and at all academy levels. Liverpool recently scouted Germany and bought Yesil and Sama, scouted America and bought Pelosi, Portugal and bought Teixera. Clearly there’s an increased effort in international scouting at youth levels. While the senior team may look stagnant at times, the academy keeps moving swiftly. Revolution now a constant evolution.
When Segura left and Borrell took over his role Liverpool hired highly rated youth coach Alex Inglethorp – previously as Spurs. Three months into the job Alex has a 100% win record with the under 21s while he has steered the under 19s to the last 16 of the Next Gen Series. Inglethorp has looked to slightly change tactics, changing from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 to adapt to the playing style under new manager Brendan Rodgers. Creating the best chance for more youth players to make the step up to the senior team. An ever adapting symbiotic relationship with one goal – ultimately improving the fortunes of the senior team.
The academy is not perfect at Liverpool. Certain players seem to linger too long at Under 21 level, when they should be either loaned out or sold for ultimately their own benefit. Take for example Jack Robinson (should be loaned) and Jon Flanagan (should probably be sold for his own good). But when weighing the negatives like such and then reflecting on the result last night, a trashing of Inter Milan 4-1 at home, it certainly seems positive overall. A German youth prodigy scoring a brace, a local lad captaining the team to victory while converting to penalties. An American at the hub of midfield. The game ran by a Northern Irishman full-back and a Cockney winger running their defense ragged. It serves all the intents and purposes for the fans. A very attacking brand of winning football, a local core blended with international quality, with a realistic goal of making the senior team with a manager so willing to give youth a chance in Brendan Rodgers.
Without major funding it will be hard for any team to reach the top, but having the name ‘Liverpool FC’ and a realistic chance of senior football not too far beyond the horizon, we can compete with nearly any club for the best youth prospect’s out there. Attracting youth, developing them prudently and if possible giving them a chance in the senior team will be the way forward. If you don’t believe me try watching the Under 21s compete in the Premier League Elite Under 21 league commencing next weekend (the under 21s won their regional league going unbeaten). Or try your hand at the under 19s at the Next Gen. Believe me, you won’t be let down.