With demoralised Liverpool fans well aware that their quest for that elusive league title is to extend to 21 years at the very earliest, pundits have unsurprisingly turned their attention to analysing why the club have failed to win the prize that has eluded them since 1990. I do not possess the energy, or the desire, to discuss the merits and demerits of Rafael Benitez’s net spend since 2004. Nor do I wish to critique the side’s over-reliance on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard or the woeful efforts of Liverpool’s much-maligned American owners.
Instead, I feel the need to turn my focus towards a more ingrained issue that has been slowly eating away at the club since the end of their late ‘80s heyday. Rodolfo Borrell, the Academy under-18s coach at Liverpool, recently spoke out about the poor state of the club’s academy upon his arrival on Merseyside and expressed an overwhelming need to develop English players at the club. Formerly on the payroll at Barcelona, the man responsible for developing the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas emphasised the notion that success often relies upon the passion of local talent, stating that, “the best players to defend the Barca shirt are Catalan players, the best players to defend the Liverpool shirt are English players.”
Since the first-team ascension of club icons Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, a pitiful number of starlets have made the transition to first-team at Anfield, with none since Gerrard able to establish themselves as permanent fixtures within the first-team squad.
This has not always been the case. For decades, Liverpool’s success was based upon the esteemed ‘Boot Room’ philosophy; an entrenched culture within Anfield that was so inherently integral to the prosperity and fabric of the club. This ‘promoting from within’ tradition at Anfield was used to allow the metaphorical wheels of the club to turn smoothly when a manager resigned or retired, allowing the torch to be carried on to one with a deep-rooted love and understanding of the club. Established by the legendary Bill Shankly, it was this system that saw the managerial blooding of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Kenny Dalgish, with the club collecting 11 league titles and 4 European Cups during a glorious 18-year period.
In conjunction with this, the club were consistently in possession of a strong British spine who also understood the values and principles of the club that were repeatedly espoused within the fabled ‘Boot Room’. The likes of Ian Rush, Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith, Phil Thompson, John Barnes and Alan Hansen are just a handful of the legendary names who were undoubtedly schooled in the ‘Liverpool way’, with their passion for and understanding of the club allowing them to fruitfully contribute to the club’s prolonged success. It was this combination of the ‘promoting from within’ managerial strategy and stable core of British talent that served as the foundation for the club’s success.
Whilst pinpointing Liverpool’s decline is a murky area, many will agree that the appointment of Liverpool legend Graeme Souness acted as a catalyst for the side’s deterioration. Upon his installation as Kenny Dalglish’s replacement, optimism was high due to the man’s status as a Liverpool legend, with his appointment seen as a continuation of the Liverpool managerial conveyor belt. Unfortunately, Souness is widely regarded as the man responsible for the dissolution of the Liverpool boot room which had served the club so well since the days of the legendary Bill Shankly. A series of poor league finishes and an even poorer sequence of questionable signings later saw Liverpool’s domestic seat of dominance usurped by rivals Manchester United.
Whilst the 1990s heralded the Merseyside graduation of England internationals Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard (a quintet with 264 caps between them), the club still failed to land that elusive first Premiership title, with the search foir the title also fruitless in the following decade. An additional worry for the club is the lack of top-class talent produced at the club since Steven Gerrard made his first-team debut in 1998. During the Benitez-era, Neil Mellor and Stephen Warnock are the only notable Academy graduates to have made an impression on the first-team, although Warnock is now on the books of Aston Villa and Mellor is languishing in the Championship with Preston North End.
Whilst Reds fans will be loathe to do so, one only need only look across the M62 to see how the maintenance of a steady academy production line can be key to the continuation of a club’s success. Since 1992, Manchester United have won 11 league titles in a rich dynastic period resembling that of Liverpool circa 1972-1990. Although several players and have come and gone during this period, with Sir Alex Ferguson credited for building a number of title-winning teams, the Manchester United manager’s unerring ability to maintain a core of Mancunian and English players has been key in preserving the club’s winning mentality. The continued involvement of Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs has allowed said players to exert their influence upon new arrivals at the club, informing them of the club’s traditions and what playing for the shirt means. Although despised by rival clubs, one cannot question Gary Neville’s love of and commitment to the Manchester United cause, with his passion for the badge truly admirable. When the chips are down and the club have their back against the wall, it is these home-grown players that will be able to draw upon their passion and love for the club to pull out the heroic performances needed in a team challenging for trophies.
Liverpool do possess two players like this, with Jamie Carragher embodying the spirit that has been absent from too many of his past and present colleagues. His love for the club is unquestionable, having famously stated that, “If I was given the choice between winning the World Cup with England or doing what we did in Istanbul, I’d take Istanbul simply because I know how much it meant to Liverpool.” Can anyone honestly say that the likes of Rigobert Song, Jan Kromkamp and Josemi (to name but three) had this sort of passion for the club?
Thankfully, it appears that the club have finally heeded the calls to restore previous traditions. Last summer, Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish (the man voted number one in the list of ‘100 Players Who Shook the Kop) was brought back to Anfield to oversee the club’s academy and act in an ambassadorial role. Speaking of his ‘signing’, manager Rafael Benitez said, “We were looking for someone who has knowledge and a passion for the club and Kenny is the perfect choice. If you’re looking for somebody to go around the world on behalf of the club then I don’t know anybody better than Kenny.We are changing things at the academy, we are bringing in new ideas and new people but we’re keeping the spirit and the heart of the club. Kenny has played for the club, he’s managed the club, he’s done everything. He’s a fantastic signing.”
More significantly, the club have recently made substantial strides to address the miserly turnover of quality English academy graduates. In addition to the acquisition of Rodolfo Borrell, the club have acted to bring in fresh British talent, with the recent purchases of Michael Ngoo, Raheem Sterling and Jonjo Shelvey signifying a shift in Liverpool’s transfer policy. Speaking of Shelvey’s signing, Benitez said “(We want) players who you can feel what playing for Liverpool means to them. Shelvey is one of these and we have two or three names ready so we will try to do the best for the club.”
Although these moves may also be reflective of UEFA’s changing guidelines and the club’s lack of financial muscle, they demonstrate a step in the right direction for a club seeking to restore its former glories. The fruits of this project are not likely to be borne immediately, and any progress is likely to be noted over a period of time. Fortunately for the club, the long-suffering Anfield faithful are an extremely loyal and patient bunch. Whilst the ongoing mire concerning Liverpool’s ownership threatens to rip the heart out of the Anfield side, the implications of this future project could act to save the last remnants of tradition remaining at the club in possession of the most distinguished history in English football.