The following is an extract from Liverpool's Blueprint; an e-book that looks at the past, present and future of Liverpool's academy. This e-book is available for sale here with profits from sales made till the end of December 2015 being donated to Alder Hey hospital.
“The road to hell is full of good intentions,” goes one saying. “Hindsight is 20/20,” goes another. Both are apt when it comes to discussing Liverpool’s academy, particularly its location in Kirkby.
When Liverpool announced that 55 acres had been bought in Kirkby with the aim of building the club’s academy in the area, it was seen as a visionary move. This was to be Britain’s first club-based football academy and would be providing Liverpool’s youths with all the facilities that one could dream of. Such was the state of youth development at the time that one newspaper, in reporting the news felt the need to highlight that the academy was going “to supply youths even with beds”!
Yet within the club there was a realisation that transfer fees were going to spiral and, equally, that the best way to ensure a degree of player loyalty was by developing them. The pending impact of the Bosman ruling, and the lack of loyalty that could result off it, also preyed heavily on the management’s mind.
“We believe that it will be vital in the future that the club be able to produce as many of its own players as possible, as a consequence of the Bosman judgement. Although our record is an excellent one, the soccer academy will enable us to compete with anyone in the world.”
It was an understated move but very much in the style of the man who made that statement, club secretary Peter Robinson. His work never received the credit that it deserved by this was a man who had played as important a role in building Liverpool as had the various managers who had been put in charge. Most of the decisions that he took, along with chairman Sir John Smith, ensured that Liverpool remained well ahead of the rest of the league both on and off the pitch.
This move, in their mind, was going to ensure that Liverpool’s dominance would continue.
He had every reason to feel confident. Liverpool had looked at the various models that existed around Europe, in particular those at Ajax and Auxerre. At the time, Ajax had just won the Champions Cup with a team heavily made of home grown players whilst Auxerre had enjoyed substantial success in France adopting a similar model. Both had off-site academies and it was their lead that Liverpool were following.
In truth, a reluctance to leave Melwood also played a big part. “We did look at great length at combining the academy with the senior set-up, but we would have had to leave Melwood for that to happen and that would have caused a major amount of upheaval,” he admitted years later. “In the end, we decided to go along the Ajax route because we wanted to retain Melwood.”
Sadly, it proved to be the wrong decision.
Gary Neville talks of the importance that seeing Manchester United’s first team players train on a regular basis had on his career. It allowed him to see first-hand what they were doing and how hard they were working in order to succeed. This, in turn, helped him determine just what he had to do in order to make it into the first team himself. And all of this was possible because everyone at Manchester United trained in the same complex: he could physically see what the first team players training.
Liverpool were losing this and, although it was a conscious decision, the impact was there nevertheless and it was being felt years later.
“The manager wants it. The owners would like it. It would be great for our kids to be close to the first team. It would be fantastic for us to do it. Everyone would like it to happen. The manager has spoken about it a lot,” Frank McParland, by then academy manager, said in 2012 about the possibility of having all players on one site.
Worse than the issues caused by young players not seeing the first team players and learning off them, however was the resulting ‘us and them’ mentality that fragmented the club, wasted millions and – worst of all – stunted the career of dozens of young players.
It is all too symptomatic of the leadership – or lack thereof - at the club at the time that this was allowed to happen. The decision to bring in Gerard Houllier as joint-manager, rather than as an outright replacement of Roy Evans, was a prime example of this.
Liverpool had not sacked a manager since Don Welsh in 1956 and, as the Liverpool board at the time didn’t want to break that tradition, they pushed on with the farcical idea. Closer examination of Liverpool’s past would have educated those running the club that success had always stemmed from the club’s ability to take tough decisions when the time came. Sentimentality was rarely shown towards players when their performances were faltering, selling them to ensure that the team remained on top. Yet this time they abdicated and, even worse, they continued to do likewise every time that they were faced with a similar situation.
One of the reasons that Houllier was brought in was his experience in setting up the Clairefontaine academy from which so much of France’s success at the time stemmed. The idea was that, apart from reshaping the practices at first team level, he could also provide help the academy by dipping into his experience.
On paper, it was a good enough idea. The problem was that a man like Houllier was never going to be content with making suggestions and let others decide whether the wanted to act on them or not. He was a man who was convinced of his methods – as most top managers are, it is fair to point out – and so felt that whatever he was proposing over the academy should be automatically adopted.
This would have been fine if his remit also covered the academy. Alas it did not; that was Steve Heighway’s job. And Heighway, whilst willing to listen to what the manager had to say, was also convinced of his own ideas on how best to develop players capable of playing for Liverpool FC.
Actually, the relationship didn’t get off to a bad start. Soon after Evans had resigned, making Houllier the sole manager, he went to watch the reserves train and quickly pointed at two players who were good enough to train with the first team. A couple of weeks later and one of those players – a certain Steven Gerrard – was making his first team debut for Liverpool.
Indeed, Houllier played a pivotal role in shaping the career of young players like Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Gerrard. He provided them with a disciplinary framework that allowed them to thrive and guided them in a way to ensure that they were could develop properly thus ensuring that their potential could be fully realised.
Sadly, he was less patient with others. After Gerrard made the step to the first team, no other player progressed. Stephen Wright (the other player that Houllier had identified alongside Gerrard) made some appearances but his progress was cut short when Abel Xavier was signed. Another Stephen, Warnock, showed promise yet he too found himself unable to break into the first team.
Things hardly improved when Houllier left. Initially some players were given an opportunity. Neil Mellor got some games and scored a couple of memorable goals whilst others like Darren Potter, Stephen Darby and John Welsh featured briefly. With time, those opportunities started to get less and less. If anything, the situation worsened.
Whereas Houllier had at least kept up appearances, Benitez wasn’t interested. Instead, he quite visibly started setting up his own reserve team in Melwood. Players were bought specifically for the reserves with the intention being that of having a ‘B team’ training with him at Melwood. Some of these players had potential (Mikel San Jose, Antonio Barragan) but others had clearly been signed to make up the numbers (Jordy Brouwer and Vitor Flora).
The message was clear: if you won’t give me a say in the youth system then virtually no player will make the jump from Kirkby to Melwood. The physical distance between the two training complexes became an unsurmountable barrier and it was as if the two were distinct clubs.
It should have been up to those running the club to put an end to this but, again, it was symptomatic of the leadership at the time that nothing was done. Money was invested in the academy and money was spent on Benitez’s reserves with no clear idea of having anyone accountable for all that investment.
Heighway’s departure provided the club with an ideal opportunity to start re-uniting. Sadly, by then the political infighting had taken a turn for the worse and rather than giving Benitez some say, the policy of alienating him was stepped up with the appointment of Piet Hamberg.
The Dutchman had a good reputation in youth development and his appointment was partial admission that perhaps the academy needed some new ideas having been for so long under the guidance of one man. Even so, it was a strange decision not least because there had seemingly been no consultation with the manager prior to his appointment.
The result of this decision was the gap between Kirkby and Melwood grew wider than it had ever been.
Those were wasted years; a period where Liverpool were knowingly throwing away the money that had been invested into the academy not to mention the emotions and aspirations of those players who were enrolled during that period. Whilst the chances of a player making it at a big club like Liverpool are always very remote, they became practically non-existent during that time.