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Fifteen years ago, one of the finest British players of his generation made his professional debut. The story goes that Gerard Houllier went to watch Liverpool’s U18 team played and promptly picked a scrawny teenager by the name of Steven Gerrard as someone he wanted to put into his first team.
Put that way, Gerrard’s selection might seem fortuitous but people within the game had long predicted that he was going to be quite a player.
“We’re all aware of how many games he [Gerrard] has taken by the scruff of the neck in his career. Well, he was doing that from an early age. Technically his ability was second to none but probably what separates players like him from the rest is that they've got the drive and inner determination to go on where they want to go.”
So says Mike Yates who knows something about Gerrard having grown up playing alongside him in Liverpool’s youth teams.
“When I was young, I’d always found goals easy to come by and there had never been a defender who could stop me from scoring. I hope that this doesn’t come across as arrogant but that was how it was for me.”
“I’d heard a few things about Gerrard and the first time I saw him I knew that he was a player by the way he struck the ball. When I played against him it was the first time that I’d found it hard. He nudged me, tugged at my shirt and did anything in order to get an advantage even though he was eight years old and add to that he could play!”
Like Gerrard, Yates had been spotted some time earlier by Liverpool’s network of local scouts. “I was spotted as an eight year old playing for Burscough Dynamo. It was Tommy Galvin, a local scout who had links with Liverpool, Everton, Blackburn and other clubs in the area who recommended me to Liverpool.”
“Hughie McAuley came to watch a game which we lost 8-1 but I scored the only goal and after the game he asked me whether I was interested in going for a trial at Liverpool. I immediately accepted, the trial went well and I joined Liverpool.”
His was a well-trodden path that mirrored those of Steve McManaman and Jamie Carragher who spurned their youthful allegiance to Liverpool’s neighbours. “Actually, my family were all Evertonians! In fact, my biggest worry was about how my big brother was going to accept the fact that I had joined Liverpool.”
“It was also difficult for me to find a football shirt to wear for the trial because all I had was Everton shirts! Eventually, I found a Real Madrid one which I wore.”
Those loyalties were quickly forgotten as Yates started progressing through the system, eventually coming within touching distance of the first team.
“My first year YTS happened to be after Euro ’96 and a lot of the players hadn't come back so there was an opportunity for us to train with first team. I did well and managed to get into the reserves, played a game for them and did well. In my own mind there was an opportunity to push on.”
“My parents always told me to be prepared if it didn't happened. Mum and dad always encouraged to look at other things.”
“That said, I always believed that I was going to make it. It is important that you get the balance, that you keep your feet on the ground, however you always believe that you’ll keep on progressing. When I was 16 we saw Jamie Carragher making it into the first team and it becomes more real for you.”
“Unfortunately I broke my arm and that was a real sliding doors moment. I don't think I ever recovered from that. The others pushed on during those two and a half months and I struggled to catch up, I made it to the reserves but I couldn’t make the next step.”
“There was a Youth Cup game and I was left out of that, which was strange for me. Then Steve Heighway told me that he wanted to come round to my house and immediately the alarm bells started ringing.”
“On the day I went to Melwood, cleaned the kit of the staff members and then went for training. Afterwards I rushed home to wait for Steve to come around. When he did, he told me that they felt that I wasn’t going to make it and they weren’t going to offer me a professional contract. I was in a daze to say the least. For ten years I had been working really hard and suddenly it was all gone. There had been plenty of sacrifices, not just by me but also family, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.”
A key figure in Yates’ story at Liverpool is Steve Heighway. Sadly, there are those who belittle Heighway’s time at Liverpool’s academy, choosing to remember him instead for the battles that he had with Houllier first and Rafa Benitez later over the control of the academy. That, however, overlooks his work in overhauling the whole youth system putting in place the structures that helped produce a host of Liverpool’s finest players of the past two decades; the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen.
More than that, however, he was a man who managed to find a balance between the club’s best interest and that of the kids that had been put in his charge.
“In my opinion, Steve has done nothing but good for LFC and for a lot of players, not only players who have gone to play professionally but also those who didn’t will tell you that. There are a lot of players doing other jobs who still thank Steve for what he did. He gave them skills for what they did in life and not just for the football pitch.”
“As soon as I set foot I was immediately made to feel at home and there was a real family feeling. It didn't take me long to feel part of the group. The likes of Hughie McAuley, Dave Shannon, Frank Skelly and Heighway himself made sure that everything was fine and that there
weren’t any problems.
I was also lucky in that my parents instilled in me certain values such as the importance of looking the part and of time-keeping. Those were values that the people at the club also made sure you observed. And along the way I played alongside some really great players.”
He had also acquired other skills, as the club was very adamant on the importance of their youth charges doing so. They also insisted that they had to do their coaching courses and it was this that led to Yates being offered a new opportunity on the day that his dream of playing for Liverpool had been shattered.
“Steve told me ‘we've seen you coaching and we'd like you to stay on board as one of the first five academy coaches’. Rather than be a player Steve wanted to keep me within Liverpool FC. I was devastated not to be progressing as a player but it was a confidence boost. Part of the deal was that I could keep on playing non-league football and so I accepted. A lot of young players can say ‘thanks, for offer but I’m going to prove you wrong’, but I’m glad that I didn’t have that reaction.”
Although he admits that he was confident that he was going to make it, Mike was one of the lucky ones who had people telling him that there was the possibility that this would not be the
case. “I think that it is really important,” he says of this awareness. “There is a statistic that 98% of players after age of 25 won't be playing football. The dreams and rewards are huge, so you think that you’re going to have a great career.”
“However I do think that seeds need to be planted so that they are prepared. Is there another avenue you can move into? Today there are loads of other jobs in football: analysis, sports science, loads of ways to be involved in the game.”
It was this desire to pass on a message that not making it does not mean the end of the world that led him to write his story in the form of a book; “Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen…and Me”.
“Original idea was to give something back for my mum and dad as they’ve made so many sacrifices for me. Dad had kept loads of scrapbooks and I wanted to give him something back.”
“Also with me being a coach I was becoming aware of players who were staying and those who were leaving. Eventually you come across players who completely disappeared. You have chat about somebody and nobody knows if they're still in the game or what happened to them.”
“I wanted to highlight just how hard it is but also highlight that because you could not make you can't have a happy life or be successful. The ‘me’ in the title refers to me but it can be any of the many, many players who can't succeed. If parents can read it, if it helps one youth player or a parent then the job's done.”
“That’s the purpose of me writing the book; I wanted to send a message to those who are in the academy system. I've got a great family, I’m married, have an amazing wife and I am enchanted by our beautiful daughter. My point is that not making it as a professional is not the end of the world. There are many people who would love to be in the position I am in.”
“The book was ghosted by Keith Miller. I was on holiday on Barbados and he heard that I was on the island. We met, had a few drinks and told him that it was my ambition to write a book. He told me, ‘you see those books on the table? Well, I wrote them. I'd love to help you do it’. At first it started as a labour of love. Our first port of call was the PFA and we spoke to Gordon Taylor who thought that it was essential to get a book like that out there. He actually ended up endorsing the book. When I spoke to all the other players they were pleased and flattered. The PFA have been very, very supportive and hopefully it will help some young players and their parents.”
“One thing else the book does, I think, is that it raises some questions for the young players. If you think you're doing enough, it makes you ask ‘am I?’ There are many interviews and comments which provide food for thought.”
His experiences have given him a unique perspective on the continuous debate about the state of grassroots football in England.
“From a Liverpool perspective, I think that our programme is doing a really good job.
As for grassroots football, facilities is a big one for me. We've got academies, and that is great, but lower down I don't think that there is enough where young players can go to play football. I’m not simply thinking of purpose built areas but the possibility of getting on your bike to go to a park and play. That is what I did as a kid and we could develop outside of a structured environment. By where I live but there is a grass area where a lot of kids meet to play. However, they’re now going build houses on it.”
He also has a clear idea of what it takes to make it to the very top, and it is not always skill, citing Jamie Carragher as an example. “Some have to work hard but he's had to go the extra yard to get there. It is one thing knowing where you want to go and another to do what is needed to get there. When he got a professional contract he wasn’t celebrating but thinking ‘well I've got this but now I need to get to the first team’.”
As for Mike, himself, he did eventually get to play professionally.
“I was playing for Burscough and with me coming out of Liverpool there was a lot of local media attention. I did really well, breaking a record in scoring 12 goals in 10 games. Manchester City and Oldham came to have a look but Dundee wanted me to go for a trail. Steve was very good about it and told me to go for the trial. I did well there and Jocky Scott eventually said ‘we'd like to sign you’.”
“It was a tough decision but ultimately my dad told me ‘well, what have you always wanted to do?’ The answer was to play professionally so I answered my own question. Again, Steve was great and told me that if things didn't work out the door was always open for me.”
“My time in Scotland was great. I played in the Scottish Premier League and scored there, which had been my dream. I ended up with the surreal experience of playing with Claudio Caniggia who joined when Ivano Bonetti was manager. Unfortunately, he brought in a lot of foreign players and a lot of British players got forced out. I was told to find a new club so travelled back home after trialling at Stockport and Hartlepool.”
“Eventually I spoke with Steve (Heighway) and he gave me a job at the academy. It was brilliant to get back and be involved.”
Today, Mike has moved on from coaching at Liverpool’s academy since then and today he is their International Academy Programme Manager. “When we see coaches or players act in certain way it is instantly recognizable, a philosophy we call ‘The Liverpool Way’ the football club will always be here and people will transfer through the club, but that has to be a defining thing. Liverpool Football Club consider all players a success, whether they make it to the top professional league, play in the lower leagues, become a football coach or whatever they decide to do. In my opinion the development of footballers is important but the development of people is paramount.”
“I believe I owe this club a lot. I'm happy that I took the opportunity to stay in the game. Just because you don't reach the top doesn’t mean that you can't have a happy life.”
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