Liverpool's youth: Why we should hope but not expect
From issue 9 of Well Red magazine
JOHN Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Raheem Sterling, Conor Coady, Suso – kids with barely a handful of first-team appearances between them. In the past, they would be under the radar for most fans. Yet with the saturation coverage of the modern game, these are names on the tip of many a Red's tongue.
These lads, teenagers, some not old enough to buy a pint, others yet to be faced with a beard in the shaving mirror, are presented as solutions by some to positions that have hindered the progress of Liverpool for years.
As much as everyone wants them to be, history says they won't be. If one, two or three make the grade long term and carve out a successful career at Liverpool it will be a job well done for Pep Segura, Rodolfo Borrell, Frank McParland and Kenny Dalglish. If six, seven or eight do it, it will be a miracle of water into wine proportions.
Expectations have been fuelled by a string of impressive performances, individually and collectively. The style and the team ethic displayed has widened smiles on faces already lit up by the return of Dalglish and the exorcism of Hicks and Gillett. Reserve and academy games are screened live on LFCtv, streamed on the web, and covered in depth by newspapers, bloggers and websites.
This unprecedented coverage for a level of football previously undiscovered by most, has prompted a million declarations of a bright future. With spiralling transfer fees, monstrous wages, the homegrown rule and Financial Fair Play to consider, more so than ever before it is vital that clubs produce their own talent (or nick it at an early age from other clubs).
So the prospect of a clutch of fresh-faced wonderkids emerging from the Liverpool Academy to boost the first-team squad is a mouthwatering one – particular given the brand of football they are now playing.
But while fans are understandably desperate to see the kids shine, they need only to turn back the clock five years to understand why expectations of Anfield's current crop of young talent should be tempered.
This is after all, youth football and reserve team football. It's light years away from performing consistently and regularly against world-class stars on the Premier League stage. These lads have got a long way to go before they can say they've made it. And the prospect of a large number of the current crop going on to forge long and successful careers in a red shirt is far from the done deal so many think it is.
Watching a local kid shine for the football team that carries the name of his city is one of the most romantic parts of the sport. As Peter Robinson once told the Echo: “The fans like to see locally produced players in the team and it is a great fillip for the club when this happens. Merseyside is like one big family and the people love to see their own coming through.”
But for all the fanfare around the current crop, a dose of realism is required. Shining at youth level in the past has given little indication of whether a player will have a long-term impact on Liverpool's first-team squad.
For every Steven Gerrard there has been a John Welsh or an Adam Pepper.
Five years ago, there was a feeling things were about to change. When the Academy was built in 1998 it was presented as a pioneering goldmine. Yet for too long the digging seemed to stop.
In 2006, David Roberts, Stephen Darby, Robbie Threlfall, Jack Hobbs, Godwin Antwi, Charlie Barnett, Paul Barratt, Ryan Flynn, Craig Lindfield and Paul Anderson were the names on supporters' lips.
That's 10 of the 11 that beat Manchester City over two legs to win the FA Youth Cup Final that season. The 11th was Adam Hammill - and now he's the only one of that starting eleven who looks like getting regular minutes in the Premier League.
Even he had to do it the hard way, working at his game with Barnsley before earning a move to the top flight with Wolves. Jay Spearing was there, too. He came on as a sub in the second leg. But the point stands - that victory was supposed to be the watershed, the signal that Liverpool had cracked it and the conveyor belt of young talent that for so long had stuttered and stalled was finally churning out an end product.
That Youth Cup win was the first time in 10 years that the Reds had lifted the biggest prize in English youth football and it was only the second time in 50 years of competing.
After City were confidently swept aside 3-0 in the first leg at Anfield, fans hit the forums to predict big things for the team. “What a right peg Charlie Barnett has...every corner and free kick was on the button,” said one. “Godwin Antwi started off nervously but soon settled down and controlled the defence as though he was a first team regular,” wrote another.
In his report for The Guardian, Dominic Fifield wrote: “The success of a youth team is measured more in the number of graduates who break into the senior set-up than trophies gleaned with the juniors, yet there were indications last night that the academy is flourishing at last.”
The second leg at the City of Manchester Stadium was a huge disappointment. The Reds fought and scrapped their way to win the cup in front of a large travelling support but City – whose side included Daniel Sturridge - were much the better side that night and ran out 2-0 winners. It was not enough to prevent Liverpool lifting the cup, and not enough to dampen expectations. Hopes remained high. Five years on, it appears much of those hopes were unfounded.
It was another false dawn. Skipper on the night Stephen Darby is the only player who started against City in that second leg to remain on Liverpool's books. After failing to chalk up a first-team appearance last season, particularly when Kenny Dalglish made a point of giving youth a chance, it looks like his Anfield days are numbered after he was again sent out on loan, this time to Rochdale.
Goalkeeper David Roberts is now plying his trade for Newtown AFC in the Welsh league. Robbie Threfall had loan spells at Hereford United, Stockport County, Northampton Town, and Bradford City, before signing for the Yorkshiremen permanently in 2010. He started 16 games for the League Two side last season.
Jack Hobbs ended up at Leicester, initially on loan before signing a four year deal in 2009. The centre-half is an established first-team regular and has captained the Walkers Stadium side.
After loan spells with Accrington, Hartlepool, Tranmere and Hereford, centre half Godwin Antwi signed for Danish side Vejle Boldklub in 2009. Charlie Barnett joined Tranmere Rovers in the summer transfer window of 2008. He played 36 games, scoring four goals before moving to Accrington Stanley in 2010.
Paul Barratt is a regular for Southport, who were relegated from the Blue Square Premier (or the Conference to you and me) last season. They were later reinstated to the Conference. Ryan Flynn had loan spells with Wrexham and Falkirk before he signed permanently for the Scottish First Division side. He scored seven goals last season.
Craig Lindfield has had more clubs than Nick Faldo. The striker was loaned to Notts County, Chester, Bournemouth and Accrington Stanley from Liverpool, before he signed for Macclesfield in 2010. He was later released and signed a one-year deal with Stanley before going to Kidderminster Harriers on loan. He is now back with Accrington.
Lastly, Paul Anderson, who was described as the one to watch in the programme for that 2006 final, stayed at Liverpool until 2009. After loan spells with Swansea and Nottingham Forest, he signed for Forest and is a regular on the wing for the Championship side.
It's a sobering evidence.
Of course this is a different set of players now and the academy set up has changed beyond all recognition in the past five years in terms of approach, direction and leadership.
But it's still important to heed the lessons of the past.
Overburdening young footballers with expectation is something fans and media have been guilty of too many times. In the past fans have felt a need to champion the kids because the way to the first team appeared to be blocked. The Academy and Melwood shared the same prefix to their postcodes but they may as well have been on different planets.
Now the thinking is joined up. People talk. The club is one. There is a clear pathway to the first team for those that can handle the pressure. And that pressure won't arrive from inside the club, as Dalglish made clear when discussing the hype surrounding Sterling:
“We don't have to manage the expectations of anyone apart from yourselves, you are the ones who are blowing things out of proportion,” Dalglish told the media.
The media are guilty of that. But so too are fans. Suso may be able to ripple the net from 30 yards when he's playing lads of his age and build. But it's a different story when he's got a battering ram centre half with speed, strength and experience bearing down on him.
Dalglish has shown he is willing to give youth a chance – if that youth is good enough. We'll just have to trust him and hope.
But maybe not expect.
|Last Updated ( Wednesday, 21 September 2011 22:53 )|