When you see the success of the Liverpool youth team in recent years with the winning of the FA Youth Cup in 2006 and 2007 while being runners up this year, it seems to be bizarre to be talking about the dearth of talent that has come through the academy into first team football in recent years. The fact that only really Stephen Warnock, out of so many youth players, has gone on to play top flight football since the start of the decade when players such as Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard came out of the academy in 90s, seems also very strange.
Rafa Benitez also recognised the disparity between youth team success and the lack of young players progressing towards first team football; it was the fundamental sticking point between him and Rick Parry which led to the chief executive’s departure in the summer. Benitez had realised that the youth setup had become totally separate to the first team squad meaning that there was no avenue for players to go down to gain the experience needed at the highest level. On top of this problem, Benitez had no control to correct the issues he realised were stunting the growth of youth players and so when he renegotiated his contract in March of this year, one of his demands was to have direct control of the youth team, such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger had at their respected clubs. It led to long, protracted negotiations with the board and to stiff opposition from Rick Parry who believed that Benitez had enough responsibilities as a manager already.
Benitez fundamentally disagreed with Parry on this issue; he believed that both Parry and the Academy director Piet Hamberg had been too slow to acquire youth players from abroad after they had been targeted. Benitez was also critical at how Hamberg and previous director Steven Heighway had run the academy completely separate from the club. The academy was split into two at Melwood and Kirby where the elite players were seen by Benitez at Melwood while Kirby youth players were hardly ever observed by first team scouts or coaches. It was an odd situation which meant many youth players had no experience of even reserve team football. In Benitez’s new contract, he acquired overall control of youth team matters at the club and immediately fused the academy to the football club, cutting the number of youth team players in half to focus on the most talented.
For the first time Benitez also had the power over appointments to the youth team setup and he subsequently sacked 17 backroom staff in the summer. High profile departures including reserve team manager Gary Ablett, academy director Piet Hamberg, head of recruitment Malcolm Elias and Under-18s coach Hugh McAuley. The restructure led to Frank McParland returning to Anfield as head of the Academy with many other Spanish coaches appointed to important youth team positions. This drastic overhaul of how Liverpool run its youth setup will hopefully bear fruit in coming years with more players coming into play first team football as Benitez has more control over their development and can monitor their progress more closely at the academy. It is still a long way to being like Arsenal’s academy but Benitez is now in a position, like Arsene Wenger, to scout, buy and develop the players he believes are capable of becoming first team footballers.
Martin Kelly – England U19 centre-back Martin Kelly graduated to Melwood in the summer of 2007. He is a big, strong, mobile defender who can play across the back four. Kelly broke into Gary Ablett’s reserves during 2007-08, helping them win the league.His senior debut came as a substitute in a Champions League clash with PSV on December 9, 2008. Made high profile appearance during Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat to Lyon in the Champions League last month
Jay Spearing – graduated to Melwood in the summer of 2007 after the best part of a decade at the Academy. The central midfielder captained Liverpool U18s to the second of their successive FA Youth Cup victories in 2007 .He then played a crucial role as Gary Ablett’s second string clinched the FA Premier Reserve League title in 2007-08. Spearing, came on as a substitute in a Champions League clash with PSV on December 9, 2008 to make his senior debut. The Kop sung his name for the first time during a great cameo performance in the 4-0 thrashing of Real Madrid in March 2009. He made his full league debut in the 1-0 to Sunderland last month.
Nathan Eccleston – England youth international Nathan Eccleston is a fast striker currently playing in the reserves. The Manchester-born forward scored on his second string debut against Bolton in 2007-08 and the season also saw him score great goals against Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Youth Cup and Manchester United in the Lancashire FA Cup final. Eccleston was promoted to Melwood full-time ahead of the 2009-10 season, and came on for a recent outing in the first team against Arsenal in the Carling Cup.