Over the past few years it has become more and more common to decry the state of Liverpool’s youth system. In the past players like Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler emerged from what is now called the Academy, but that is no longer a regular occurrence. Why not? What has changed?
The short answer is that nothing much as changed, the long answer is that everything has.
When you look at the long answer in a bit more detail, though, you’ll see that it’s a complicated situation that deserves more thought and consideration. The game has changed in such a fundamental way now that generations of kids like that will almost certainly never emerge, unless something radical happens to the way the system works. The kids are alright, they’re just not given many chances to prove they’re better than that.
The Old Days
Many a racist and idiot will make reference to the notion that ‘political correctness has gone mad’ and, in pretty much every sense, they’re completely wrong. What is true as far as football is concerned, however, is that life is much easier for young players now than it was in the past. Compared to the things experienced by the likes of Gerrard and Carragher, youth players nowadays have everything handed to them on a plate and the game is worse off for it.
The money that is washing around football in the modern era means that clubs can’t take chances with youth players. If there’s a talented young kid on the block then teams have to do everything that they can to persuade them to come to them and that, unfortunately, includes offering them money and a charmed life. When Raheem Sterling left Queens Park Rangers in 2010 he didn’t do it because he thought Liverpool were going to be the biggest team of all time, he did it because of money.In days of yore players like Fowler and McManaman would have been required to clean the boots of older starts like Ian Rush and John Barnes. If they didn’t do a good enough job they’d be made to clean them again or be sent on a run around the training field as punishment. That sort of thing simply doesn’t happen to the same degree any more. Young players are treated in the same professional manner as their older counterparts, with their education seen as just as important as the footballing side of their career.
That’s the way it should be, of course. According to the PFA 50% of those who enter football clubs at sixteen years of age will be working outside of professional football within two years. As much as every club would love to see their youth prospects succeed it doesn’t happen in half of all cases. Quite right, then, that a club should ensure that players concentrate on their formal education just as much as their footballing one.
But that means that, in a lot of cases, a player’s footballing development doesn’t occur at the same rate that it used to. Not that players like Owen and Gerrard didn’t also go to school, obviously, but in the past they were attending actual schools with fellow pupils who had nothing to do with football, missing days to play for Liverpool’s youth set-up or the England youth team. Nowadays the Academies have their own school teachers and educators who can teach the youngsters maths and English and so on.
Another huge problem with the youth set-up is the types of games that players get involved in. The re-structuring of the youth league system means that the Under-21 games are, frankly, a bit of a joke. They might have two games in a week and then nothing to do for a month. In the past senior players would be sent to the reserves to get their fitness up, so kids like McManaman would have the chance to see John Barnes up close and personal, watching the way he works and learning from him. That sort of thing happens far less nowadays.
When Gerrard and Carragher were younger they would see the first-team players around the place, get to rub shoulders with them and envisage a time when they would be the stars of the show. Nowadays the Academy is in Kirkby and Melwood is in West Derby, nowhere near. It is only the ‘elite’ players who head to Melwood to train near the first-teamers that ever get any sense of what life is like for a professional footballer. What use is that to the late-bloomer? The kid who depends more on effort than innate skill?
Young players are used to playing on grass that is like a carpet. They have grown accustomed to working in the best possible facilities, so it’s little wonder that most struggle when they are sent on loan to a team in the lower divisions. They are used to being able to demonstrate their skills and abilities, not having to rough-house it with some lower league journeyman who hates the fact that some kid has been given everything on a plate. Some youth players are able to respond to this with ease and can develop as characters because of it, whilst most are affected in a negative manner that holds them back.
Managers Under Pressure
Perhaps the biggest area of change over the years is how quickly managers come under pressure in this day and age. The average length of time that a manager is in their job for is one year and four months. If things aren’t going perfectly after that time then they are sacked and clubs move on to someone else.
Little wonder, then, that managers often refuse to take a chance with young players. It doesn’t really matter which end of the managerial spectrum the boss in on, either. When Sheyi Ojo was sent to Wolves on loan he initially impressed, assisting in a 2-1 League Cup win over Newport County in his first start. Then as the season went on things started to go a little pear-shaped for the manager, Kenny Jackett, and he used Ojo less and less as he turned to more established members of his squad.
Again it’s completely understandable, all things considered. Young players are, by their very nature, likely to blow hot and cold. Even the very best youth player will have moments of inconsistency as they go about learning their game. Look at Wayne Rooney’s disciplinary record when he was younger. Admittedly that is something that still affects his game today, but it was worse when he was a teenager and struggled to control his emotions.
It is a natural response for a manger under pressure to turn to older heads, players he knows he can trust and who will be consistent if nothing else. Why would you turn to a kid who might go missing for the duration of the match just because there’s the hope he might do something special? Managers have no obligation to play players merely because they’ve brought them in on loan. Football doesn’t work like that.
Brendan Rodgers was an excellent example of what I am talking about. During his early spell at Anfield, when expectations were low and he was enjoying a period of grace, the Northern Irishman was quick to give youth players a chance. Raheem Sterling got numerous games under Rodgers, though he actually got his debut well before his arrival at the club. The Ulsterman surprised everyone when he started Jordon Ibe in the Merseyside derby in February of 2015.
In fact, Rodgers gave debuts to no fewer than sixteen players under the age of 21 during his spell at the club. Some of them, such as Emre Can and Jon Flanagan, became regulars. Yet when things started to unravel in the 2015-2016 season this happened less and less unless Rodgers was trying to make a point to the owners, such as he did against Chelsea when he sent on Brad Smith.
What Is Success?
One of the biggest questions that needs to get answered is what exactly it is that we consider to be success as far as these players are concerned. As fans what we want more than anything else is a team that is capable of winning silverware and doing exactly that on a regular basis. We want players that can come into the first XI and start week-in, week-out.
But what qualifies as success to the manager and the head of the Academy? Is being part of the squad good enough, even if players only make it off the bench for friendlies or cup games that the manager isn’t too bothered about winning? What about if they’re sold at immense profit? Is that a ‘success’ in the modern era?
Most supporters will admit that Jordon Ibe had a huge amount of promise when he was younger. He looked like he could really step up to the next level and, whilst being a totally different player to Raheem Sterling, become a replacement for the Jamaican born England international in the sense of the young player who would go on to achieve big things.
So whilst it’s disappointing that he didn’t go on to hit the heights many expected of him, his sale to Bournemouth for £15 million has to be seen as something of a success. It gives the club a pretty impressive return on a reasonably modest investment. Combined with the £49 million Liverpool received for Sterling and that’s just shy of £65 million for two players signed as teenagers who went through the club’s Academy structure and played a number of first-team games for the club.
Sterling is worth talking about a little more, too. The now 21-year-old was signed for £600,000 at the age of fifteen, making his first-team debut as a seventeen-year-old in a game against Wigan in 2012. He went on to make 129 appearances in all competitions, scoring 23 goals. When people talk about the success of the Academy system, however, Sterling is somehow conveniently forgotten. Yes he was ‘bought in’ by the club, but so were many other players who didn’t go on to be anywhere near as successful as Sterling.
The Future Looks Bright
We live in a world where people want and expect immediate results. The performances of Ben Woodburn during the pre-season so far will have fans clamouring to see him start games, especially if the Reds struggle to deliver in front of goal once the Premier League gets back underway. Yet that is not helpful for the player’s development or his long-term future.
Supporters might be quick to criticise the Academy because it hasn’t delivered a crop of a players as talented as the Gerrard, Fowler, Owen and McManamans of the past, but things are by no means poor there right now. The kids are also fortunate that Jürgen Klopp has been appointed as manager, given the German’s propensity to turning young players with ability into superstars in the past.
Cameron Branagan, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sheyi Ojo, Ryan Kent, Ovie Ejaria and the aforementioned Woodburn have all been given chances by the former Borussia Dortmund boss and they will all feel that they have done little wrong on the pitch. Klopp will undoubtedly be considering how he can use them and protect them at the same time, moving forward. He knows it’s important not to force the issue over their development, but equally he’ll be excited by the kids he has at his disposal and they should be equally thrilled by his presence in the dugout for the next few years.
Jürgen Klopp salutes the work of #LFC‘s Academy, saying: “I would need to be blind not to see the talent of these young boys.”
— Melissa Reddy (@MelissaReddy_) July 17, 2016
Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months Liverpool’s future looks bright. Klopp is looking at ways to combine Melwood and the Academy, there are plenty of prospects in the youth ranks and we’ve got a manager who knows how to get the best out of them. For all that José Mourinho undoubtedly brings success, I’m far more excited about Liverpool’s long-term future than I imagine a lot of Manchester United fans are, for example. The kids are alright. For the first time in a while things might just be coming together to offer Liverpool Football Club a very bright future indeed.