There seems to be the impression that Neco Williams’ emergence as a potential backup to Trent Alexander Arnold came as something of a surprise for Liverpool. It is a belief largely fuelled by the manner in which his inclusion in the Liverpool squad and eventual first team debut came about.
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Last season, when Jürgen Klopp looked at the options coming through at right back, his choice fell on young Dutchman Ki Jana Hoever. The expectation was that when an opportunity arose this time round he would again be the main choice.
That might indeed have been the case were it not that Hoever was away with the Dutch U17. His absence opened up the path for Williams who made the most of the opportunity, showing up so well in training that Klopp had no compunction in putting him in the team. Williams went on to cap an impressive debut with the assist that led to Liverpool’s draw in the astounding 5-5 League Cup draw with Arsenal.
Since then he has gone from strength to strength, so much that it appears as if Liverpool will not be looking to the market in order to strengthen the squad in that position. Whilst his original inclusion might have been a bit fortuitous, that he was ready enough to make the step up as well as he has bears testament to the quality of the Liverpool academy players.
It is also a sign of Liverpool’s maturity as a club and its growing confidence in the work being done at all levels. After years of mistrust and infighting, the youth structure is now in sync with the matters at first team level. The pathways of young players are taken into consideration when deciding where to invest to bulk up the first team squad. The ambition is always that of ensuring that homegrown players always have the opportunity to prove that if they are good enough they will get the opportunity.
It was not always the case.
When Kenny Dalglish convinced Steve Heighway to come back to the club to head the youth section in 1989, it was another example of Liverpool’s forward thinking that often set them apart from their peers. They realised that the game was changing and a way to stay ahead from the rest, was by ensuring that they had a steady stream of players coming through their ranks.
Heighway proved to be the perfect choice for the role. His mixture of intelligence, football knowledge and vision transformed Liverpool’s youth system into one of the finest in the country. In 1996 he delivered the club’s first ever FA Youth Cup success (they would do it again in 2006 and 2007), but more significantly, a string of exceptional talents emerged from within.
Dominic Matteo, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard had all developed under Heighway’s guidance. This is as impressive a record as any coach might wish for. Every name in that list of players was among the finest that put on the reds’ shirt in their respective eras and were among the best in the league.
Unfortunately, for both Liverpool and the players themselves, the rest of the team often wasn’t good enough to help them fully deliver on their talents. At one time or another, most of those players ended up carrying the team rather than being empowered by it.
At the same time, the club was struggling to shape its identity at a time when the game was changing drastically. The focus on youth began to fade. Panic set in resulting in an increasing reliance on bringing in readymade players in the hope that they could possibly deliver the much desired league title.
Heighway remained at the academy, providing both guidance and dedication to everyone who was there with him. However, he had become increasingly marginalised. Both Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benitez came in with ideas of their own that clashed with those of the man running the academy. Heighway was too respected within the club for anyone to ask him to leave but with managers unwilling to consider the players that he was developing, the end result was an internal cold war.
Eventually, the whole situation became farcical. Benitez, unable to have the control he wanted, started scouting and signing young players rather than consider academy graduates. For Liverpool’s home developed young players, getting a spot in the reserves side became almost impossible, let alone the first team.
This state of crisis eased a bit in 2007 when Steve Heighway retired having delivered another FA Youth Cup. Before leaving, however, he made his feelings public.
“I worked with a French manager here who had some very strange views of the game, didn’t like anyone disagreeing with him, who bought 14 French players who all had to be sold when a new man came in,” he said about Houllier in an interview with the Liverpool Echo. In a conversation with the Times he later said, “Rafa is a terrific manager, tactically astute with qualities I really admire, but in my view I’m the best coach of 17 and 18-year-old players in this club. But I no longer get the chance to do that. That’s crazy, that’s mad; it’s to the detriment of the young players at this club.”
It provided a stark glimpse at the level of incompetence by those running the club that such deep lying issues were left to fester for years with little being done about them.
In reality, the problems were deeper than a mere disconnect between those heading the academy and the people in charge of the first team. The physical disconnect was proving to be as much as an issue. When the academy was being set up, the club found it impossible to do so within the Melwood complex and so they had gone for a site in Kirkby. In time, this turned into an ‘us versus them’ situation where the two sites acted independently from each other.
To compound matters, no player good enough for Liverpool’s first team came through following Steven Gerrard. It meant that by the time Heighway left, the academy had gone through almost a decade without delivering on its ultimate aim, that of having players in Liverpool’s first team. There was also the feeling that many on Merseyside had come to see Everton’s academy as the leading one in the area with most promising young players opting to go there. It was hardly surprising seeing how it offered a much clearer path to the first team.
What is beyond doubt is that the lack of cohesion had poisoned the environment within the academy and matters did not improve once Heighway left. Indeed, they got worse and without his leadership, it was drifting rather than moving forward purposefully.
The situation only started to get better once Rafa Benitez finally got his way with control over the academy written into his contract. This led to a massive shakeup of the whole organisation and a review of the setup that was quite overdue at that point. Benitez was never one to give too much weight to reputation, so it was hardly surprising that he got rid of a number of long standing coaches like Hugh McAuley and Dave Shannon.
Even so, it was a dramatic period for Liverpool’s academy. All of those coaches had been widely respected with some feeling that the baby was being thrown out with the bath water. Yet Benitez probably saw it as a necessary sacrifice if he really wanted the reshape to work.
Hindsight proved him right. Frank McParland was brought in to oversee the whole administration of the academy whilst Spaniard Pep Segura joined to shape its technical direction.
Both proved to be pivotal moves. McParland set about bringing the academy more in line with what was happening all around them. Whereas before Liverpool had largely signed players from within the local area, they now started looking beyond that. One of the first moves was to spend £500,000 on Raheem Sterling which signalled that, whilst players from the Merseyside area would still always make the core of the academy, they were now willing to bring in talented players from elsewhere.
Segura’s role was even more fundamental. He had spent the early part of his career working at Barcelona, and whilst he had proven to be a relatively decent coach by leading Olympiacos to the Greek title, his strength lay in strategizing on a wider scale than he could on the sidelines.
In all, Segura spent three years with the club before leaving in acrimonious circumstances. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers and his refusal to accept working under a sporting director saw him missing out on a promotion he felt he’d earned and been promised. It was nothing when compared to Heighway’s eighteen years, but his impact was still significant.
During his time, he managed to change the culture within the academy by putting in place the coaching fundamentals and continuity within the coaching structure that built on what was already there but also embraced new ideas. Whereas the scouting, coaching and sports science arms of the academy had previously worked largely separately from each other, everything was now being pulled together.
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This he did by formalising the program that was to be the academy’s blueprint. It provided the guide for everything that happened there, from coaching to the selection of players. As he said at the time, “the program is a great tool to implement and not just having good criteria for selection of players. It’s the idea and style that make an organization strong.”
True to his words, Liverpool’s academy was getting stronger. Segura himself might never have gotten to fully witness that but a man who came in soon afterwards certainly has.
Alex Inglethorpe had been a striker in his playing days although those were largely spent in the lower leagues with Leyton Orient. He started his coaching career at Leatherhead were he combined this role with a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, he worked his way to a job within Tottenham’s coaching staff where he was rated highly enough to be considered to take charge of the first team following Juande Ramos’ dismissal, before the immediate appointment of Harry Redknapp put paid to that idea.
Initially, Inglethorpe was brought in at Liverpool to coach the U23 side but it quickly became clear that his abilities greatly surpassed that role. Within two years of his arrival, he was named as the director of the academy and put in charge of overseeing the whole department. Behind the appointment of Jürgen Klopp as first team manager, it has proven to be the wisest decision taken by those at the helm of the club over the past decade.
Inglethorpe has continued building on the good that his immediate predecessors put in place, particularly the tactical fundamentals of Segura. However, he is confident enough in himself that he’s been willing to reach out to those, others had pushed away.
One of his early decisions was that of roping in the likes Rob Jones, Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler in support roles giving specialised coaching. It was a welcome link to the past, but on a functional level, also important for the young players themselves. Having access to the people who have experienced going from youth football to the very top of the game is invaluable for these young players.
It is also not purely co-incidental that Liverpool’s best successes of recent years – Trent Alexander Arnold and Neco Williams – have come in an area that has benefitted from Jones’ expertise as well as his one-to-one coaching.
More significantly, Inglethorpe reached out to Steve Heighway. This was a big deal. Whereas others would have been wary of inviting someone who had been so important for the club’s academy, Inglethorpe focused on the huge benefits of having someone of that experience around rather above everything else.
So it has proven to be. Heighway has largely been involved with coaching younger age groups whilst providing opinions when asked for them. His experience is priceless but more significantly, his presence provides a direct link to the club’s past and its soul.
That said, Inglethorpe hasn’t shied away from implementing his own ideas. Whereas other clubs have opted to stockpile talent, at Liverpool they have gone in the opposite direction by reducing squad sizes by around forty percent. If that wasn’t enough, there is also a salary cap in place for first year professionals, which again goes counter to what is happening across the rest of England.
Both were changes put in place by Inglethorpe a few years back and are now starting to bear fruit. Smaller squads has forced the club to let go of those boys they had doubts over, which has given coaches the ability to focus on smaller groups. This has raised the quality of coaching they can deliver, and when gaps open up, calling in players from the younger age categories. As for the lower wages, the aim is to keep players hungry for more.
On the 26th of April 2019, Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup for the fourth time in their history and, significantly, the first time since Heighway’s era came to a close. The situation between this and the previous success, however, couldn’t be any more different. There is now much to envy about Liverpool’s academy set up, which is central to the way that the club operates.
When first team players are coming in, consideration is made so that the path of a promising youngster is not being blocked. The split between training sites – first team at Melwood and others at Kirkby – is to finally be fixed later this year as a £50 million redevelopment will see Kirkby renovated and first team moving to train there; a sign how there is all of Liverpool is now one.
Most importantly of all, a key player in the team that finally won the league title after a wait of 30 years came through from the academy. Trent Alexander-Arnold has revolutionised the art of being a full-back and, at 21, has already won the league and Champions League.
What’s best, he’s not the only success story.
With Jürgen Klopp opting for a smaller first team squad, he is constantly looking within to boost numbers. By the end of the season, Curtis Jones and Neco Williams will both have played enough games to deserve a league medal. Both can expect to play increasingly prominent roles in the years ahead.
The same can be said for Liverpool’s academy. They might have come in bizarre circumstances but during the current season, Klopp has given debut to more than 20 young players. For a few, that debut will be the highlight of their career but there are high hopes over many of the others.
With COVID-19 impacting Liverpool’s capacity to buy players, Klopp will be looking even more at what talent is coming through in order to add variety, and the likelihood is that whoever he chooses won’t be found wanting.