Google+ Blueprint for Football: Looking for a Brighter Future

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Looking for a Brighter Future

Paul Grech

Neil Mellor left Preston to join Sheffield Wednesday on year's loan deal this summer. It isn't the sort of transfer many Liverpool fans will have picked on but it is significant for one particular reason: Mellor is one of the most successful graduates to emerge from Liverpool's academy over the past ten years.

Indeed, apart from Stephen Warnock, no player from the club's academy who made his senior debut during the past decade currently plays in the Premiership. There are a handful - David Raven, Jon Otsemobor, Stephen Wright, Darren Potter - who have all gone on to establish themselves as good players in the lower leagues but none who have shown that they could have made it at the club.

Pinpointing a reason for that is tricky. It is far too easy to get bogged down in arguments involving Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez's reluctance to give younger players an opportunity. Inevitably, these arguments would turn into a debate about whether this was down to players not being good enough or rather the players themselves not developing because their progress was stalling through lack of opportunites.

The truth is, of course, that there isn't one single reason just as it isn’t only talent that is needed for a player to make it in professional football.

Indeed, there are a number of factors - luck, injuries, physical strength, mental resilience, tactical awareness - that always have to be kept in the forefront of any discussion about young players. The temptation to build them up as potential stars is often hard to resist when in reality, sad and cynical though this might seem, it takes much more than talent to be able to get a chance in the game.

The nineties witnessed the largest number of home grown players in the modern history of the club – Mike Marsh, Dominic Matteo, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, David Thompson, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard. Yet this was also the worst decade in the modern history of the club as far as results were concerned something that played a factor in all of those players getting their opportunities as early as they did.

Of course, most of those players were fantastically talented individuals who would have made it in any case. Then again, the injuries that plagued Gerrard early on in the first team could have easily ruined his career. It was Carragher’s mental strength rather than his playing talent that saw him carve out a space for him in the team despite the number of supposedly better players brought in.

Such factors are often overlooked, yet they are what really makes a difference.

This doesn’t answer the question as to why an academy such as Liverpool’s that had been so successful stopped churning out players. The methods certainly didn’t change and the talent pool available remained the same. So what happened?

The most probable reason, strange as this might seem, is that success happened. When Gerard Houllier arrived at Liverpool and started overhauling the first team to bring it in line with his view of the game, results improved markedly. By the time his first season came to an end, expectations had risen considerably and so too the pressure on him to succeed.

Houllier, of course, was a great believer in young talent. One of the reasons that he had been chosen for the Liverpool job was the success of the French youth system which he was credited with shaping. In his first months at the club, he had picked two young players from the reserves and included them in his first team.

The first one, Steven Gerrard, went on to become the club’s finest player in recent history. But, for the sake of this piece, it is the second of those players who is most important.

That player was Stephen Wright, a good right back who seemed to have everything needed to make the grade: strength, speed, willingness to work hard and knowledge of what to do with the ball. What he lacked, obviously enough, was experience and that was the root of the problem.

By the time Wright came to play for the side, Liverpool were on the rise and Houllier probably felt that he needed someone more experienced to rely on if his hopes of success were to be realised. So he turned to Abel Xavier. The move for Everton’s defender was a controversial one and not only because of the club from which he was joining. Xavier was seen as something of a joke and his playing skills weren’t exactly overly admired. But he knew how to deal with the pressure of playing in big games which is what Houllier was looking for at the time.

The manager was more than justified to reason this way but it meant that, all of a sudden, Wright had vanished off the radar. Within months, he was sold to Sunderland where he went on to prove to be a good player – with the potential to be even more than that – until his career was curtailed by a series of injuries that greatly limited his progression.

That move for Xavier didn’t only kill off Wright’s Liverpool career, it also sent the wrong message to the academy. And it wasn’t the only one.

It has long been rumoured that Houllier was irked by the lack of say he had in the running of the academy and although that was never really confirmed, the fact that he chose to turn to young French players (remember Patrice Luzi and Carl Medjani?) in order to fill his reserves was a clear indication of his lack of faith.

Once Houllier left, the hope was that the issues between Melwood and the academy would be sorted out. They weren’t and, if anything, the situation worsened.

Like his predecessor, Benitez wanted a say in how the academy was run but he too was rebuffed. So he set about building his own mini-academy with the reserves. A host of players (most of them from Spain) were brought in and these seemed to be guaranteed starting slots whilst players were left at the academy regardless of whether they were better than those ahead of them.

At that point the club needed to be strong and impose its mentality. Benitez shouldn’t have been allowed to stock up so many young players but, at the same time, he should have been given some say in matters involving the academy.

Sadly, that didn’t happend. Instead the academy became the focus of the standoff between Benitez and Rick Parry so much that when Steven Heighway left in 2007, Benitez wasn’t even consulted about the choice of his replacement in Piet Hamberg. In turn, his stance against the players coming out of the academy hardened amid rumours that Gary Ablett was allowed to pick players from the Under 18s for his reserves.

Ironically during all this, the Academy was apparently prospering. The FA Youth Cup was won twice in a row and, as far as results were concerned, everything seemed fine. Yet, at this level, results tell only half the story.

Potential players looked at their prospects of making it through the system and concluded that their prospects were probably better served elsewhere. It is, for instance, what led to Liverpool fan Jack Rodwell to opt for Everton. Liverpool no longer was the focus for the area’s best talent as it had been in the past when its reputation was enough to convince former blues like Carragher, McManaman and Fowler to join. So, whilst youth cup winning teams were being produced, this was down to the presence of a good group of players rather than that of a couple of exceptionally talented individuals.

Nevertheless, those successes raised expectations that a handful of those players would make it into Benitez’s plans. That didn’t happen and whilst the political in-fighting certainly didn’t help, it wasn’t the only reason that prevented any of Liverpool’s double FA Youth Cup winners from 2006 and 2007 from getting an opportunity.

In fact, success in the FA Youth Cup rarely equates to progression to the first team. When one looks at the Manchester United team that was beaten in the second of those finals, only Danny Welbeck has got a look-in and even he doesn’t seem to be developing as well as had been anticipated.

As for the City team that was beaten a year earlier – a club that, until recently, had limited funds and therefore youth was more likely to be given a chance – the only player that got through was Micah Richards.

Indeed, that City team provides another case in point: Michael Johnson. The midfielder was said to have the dynamism of Steven Gerrard after making an impression in the Premier League as an eighteen year old. Four years down the line, however, and injuries have limited him to just four appearances in the past two seasons. Once again a reminder that talent by itself isn’t enough.

Of course, not all that was happening at Liverpool’s academy was wrong. The appointment of Malcolm Ellias as head scout was particularly inspired as he started to transfer the knowledge that had seen him spot Theo Walcott at Southampton. If Andre Wisdom, one of the trio of Liverpool players that this summer won the European Under 17 championship, fulfils his early promise it is Elias that Liverpool will have to thank for spotting him in Bradford’s youth team.

Sadly, Ellias left when Benitez finally won his battle and got control of the academy and his was one of the few truly disappointing departures of the purge that happened over the last summer.

Yet the academy also gained the likes Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borell, people with a track record of success at a club as famous as Barcellona. By the end of the season, their imprint could easily be seen as the Under 18 side coached by Borell was technically and tactically much better than the one that had started the season. Things, once again, were looking up.

And this was one of the biggest worries when Benitez left: would Borell be leaving as well? Would all the progress shown over the previous twelve months be washed away?

These doubts quickly brought to the fore the problem of having the first team manager in charge of the academy. Because that system works when you have people like Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger in charge, whose job is virtually theirs for life. Benitez may have been given a five year deal when he was given control over the academy but the feeling was always that he was one bad season away from being dismissed.

Until Liverpool have a manager who is in such an unsackable position, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to give them any control over the academy. After all, that doesn’t happen at Ajax or Barcellona where the club have thought up and live by pretty visionary ideals for their youth sector. Any manager coming in has to buy into that philosophy if they want the job.

Of course, that these systems continuously produce some pretty amazing players helps. And that is the other part of the equation. Houllier and Benitez became frustrated with the youth system not because their desires to control every aspect of the club were being thwarted (much as there are those out there willing to see it this way) but because the players that were coming out of the system weren’t good enough.

The real building blocks, therefore, have to be at the academy itself. This must continuously try for develop the best coaches (which, by targeting the likes of Borell, is what Benitez did), have the best facilities as well as adopt the best approaches.

At Manchester United, for instance, they have done research to see what ages the kids should be playing on full size pitches with full size goals. The message here isn’t that Liverpool have to copy what is out there but, rather, the opposite: Liverpool have to be at the forefront of innovation. Every step of the process has to be analysed to determine what can be done to help these kids become better players.

Above all there must be a philosophy to which the club holds and which got lost amid all the political in-fighting. And, at Liverpool, that philosophy has to based on the pass and move system.

That is why it is vital to have at the academy someone like Kenny Dalglish. In that respect, Roy Hodgson got it right when he said that Dalglish has a vital role to play linking the academy with the first team. Somewhere along the line that link was lost and instead it became an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

Dalglish can bridge all that as he is the perfect link between the club’s past, its present and the future. He knows how the club’s academy teams should be playing and can ensure that everything is done with the ideal of getting them to play that way.

All of this, however, doesn’t solve the problem facing every manager at Liverpool FC which is that of constantly being under pressure to attain success. Going back to Stephen Wright, in the long term he was the better option but at that stage Houllier needed immediate results so, for him, Xavier’s experience increased his chances of achieving that.

And it will always be that way unless a way is found to give players the experience that they need. Sweeping statements like ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough’ simply aren’t true. Players have to make their mistakes elsewhere, where they can learn from them rather than be castigated as happens at a top club like Liverpool.

You only have to look at someone like Emiliano Insua who was the standout player for the reserves for a long time but who has suffered badly from playing constantly for Liverpool. Quite simply, his rapid progression to first team regular – that was brought about by the lack of alternatives – has potentially burnt him out.

It would probably have been better for him to spend some time at a Premiership club with lower ambitions. That, however, was never going to happen. One of Benitez’s main problems was that he had very few contacts in the British game meaning that there were always limited outlets when sending out players on loan. Whereas someone like Ferguson, who knows most of the managers out there, can easily pick a Championship or even a Premiership club to send someone who needs games at Liverpool the destination was often a League One or League Two club.

Again the need is for someone like Dalglish who has the contacts and the charisma to get players the moves that they need at that particular stage in their career. With reserves football being the shambles that it currently is, that need is likely to become more pronounced in the future.

The good thing is that, fortunately, that future seems to be quite bright for Liverpool because there is a core of very good players in the Under 18s who seem good enough to keep on progressing.

It would be foolhardy to try and predict which players will actually make it because who knows what might happen to them. The important thing is that they are handled in the right manner and given the opportunities that they need to progress.

More important, however, is the need to ensure the direction in which the academy is going. At this point in time it might be too much to ask for the club to have a real vision for the academy rather than simply the notion that it is there to produce players but, given the direction football is heading, it might be the best hope for future success.

This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Well Red magazine.

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