Not so many years ago, Liverpool’s academy was regarded as one of the finest in world football.
A gradual and consistent production of international players, all of whom made their mark on the first team at Anfield, meant that the club gained a reputation for its ability to get the best out of youngsters.
Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Dominic Matteo and Steven Gerrard all went on to become fans favourites, as the club enjoyed a period of relative success as regular Cup winners.
And, whist the Premier League continued to elude, the Reds were mainstays at the top end of the table, becoming one of the original ‘big four’ and cementing a regular place at Europe’s top table – the Champions League.
Relocation to a state-of-the-art Academy in Kirby in 1998 was supposed to be the launch pad for more talent to make the senior grade, but in truth the pickings have been relatively slim since the turn of the Millennium.
Neil Mellor played his part in the 2005 Champions League win, but wasn’t around long enough to make a meaningful impact. Martin Kelly and Jay Spearing are current first team contenders, but aren’t in the same generation-defining mould as Fowler, Carragher or Gerrard.
So, have things gone wrong at Liverpool in the past decade?
Not necessarily. It’s true that the path to Melwood, the club’s first team training ground, hasn’t been walked by a string of superstars. But, how often can a team produce a Steven Gerrard, a once in a generation player?
Under Gerard Houllier, who took charge in 1998, Liverpool’s youth policy took a decidedly French turn. The former head of technical development for the FFA was keen to bring the best youngsters Les Bleus had to offer, a potentially smart move given their success at the World Cup and subsequent European Championships.
However, the likes of Bruno Cheyrou and Anthony Le Tallec failed to make the grade, with more senior signings like Dietmar Hamann and Gary McAllister making a bigger impact than junior players.
Rafa Benitez’s arrival in 2004 provided a change in philosophy and focus, and during his six years at the helm he produced a famous fifth Champions League victory against AC Milan.
However, his critics cite a lack of opportunities for the club’s promising young players as a major failing during his reign. The likes of Zak Whitbread, Danny Guthrie, Adam Hammill, Lee Peltier and Jack Hobbs all rose through the ranks, but have since found pastures new in the Football League to get their senior chance.
Benitez wasn’t afraid to spend on youth players (Hobbs arrived from Lincoln for a reported £750,000), and before his departure in 2010; Dani Pacheco, Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey were all signed.
Big things were expected of Pacheco, who never quite hit the heights he promised. As for Shelvey, he’s on the edge of the first team at Anfield, having impressed during loan spells away from the club.
And then there is Sterling, one of English football’s brightest hopes. The tricky winger has pace and skill, as well as an all-important final delivery. In the recent NextGen Series quarter-final against Tottenham Hotspur, he was the stand-out performer by some distance.
Despite the 1-0 defeat, Spurs have since been thrown-out of the competition for fielding an ineligible player, giving the U19s another chance to show their skills, this time in a semi-final against Ajax next month.
Suso, another Spaniard brought to the club under Benitez, was also on show at White Hart Lane last month, and the Iberian influence remains throughout the junior setup thanks to Rodolfo Borrell’s presence as reserve team manager.
Both Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish have kept Borrell in a key role at the club, unsurprising given his 13 years experience at Barcelona before joining the Reds in 2009. He had overseen the development of some of the world’s best players at the Nou Camp, including Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas.
He now has Sterling, Suso, Connor Coady, Adam Morgan and Toni Silva at his disposal, the cream of a promising new crop at Liverpool. Jack Robinson and John Flanagan have already made the step-up under 'King Kenny'.
Jordon Ibe and Seyi Ojo should also not be forgotten, with the two England youth internationals set to join-up with the academy in the summer from Wycombe Wanderers and MK Dons respectively. Both have arrived for significant fees.
Under new owners Fenway Sports Group, and with Damien Comolli as Director of Football, the Reds now seem happier than ever to invest in young players. Comolli also has a track-record of investing in young players, helping Spurs lure Gareth Bale to the club during his time in north London.
With the Financial Fair Play rules expected to make an impact on how clubs look to get players on the pitch, the importance of youth systems and academies has never been greater.
And, after some relatively baron years for a club steeped in history and success, a new batch of teenage talent are ready to bring the glory days back to this great club.
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