It is a shame that former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will not be around to reap the benefits of the radical and wholesale changes he made to the club’s youth and reserve set-up during his six-year tenure at Anfield.
When Benitez arrived from Valencia in 2004, the club’s bright young hopes for the future read- Darren Potter, Zak Whitbread, Robbie Foy and David Raven. Captain Steven Gerrard and club stalwart Jamie Carragher remain the last major successes to rise through the club’s youth and reserve sides, nearly 15 years ago. A statistic which remains a major concern for Liverpool fans.
Benitez was fully committed to revolutionising the club’s youth and reserve sides and named it as one of the key terms in his contract negotiations in March 2009. Former Barcelona man Jose Segura was brought in two months later to oversee operations at the club’s Kirkby Academy and was very much Benitez’s man. Benitez also gradually raised the standard of personnel at the club, who are now aiming to become the next generation of first-team Liverpool players.
Despite the positives, Benitez ultimately failed to develop a young player good enough to become a Liverpool regular during his time at Anfield. However, such fundamental core changes to the youth set-up and player recruitment structure could not be made overnight and Benitez’s legacy could yet be the players he signed for the club’s future. These players may or may not make the break through, however I do think this latest crop of youngsters are the best the club has seen in years. It is now increasingly difficult to develop local players and the Reds have now altered their strategy to attract the best talent in England and abroad from an early age.
In reserve, Liverpool now have fresh, young and exciting talent banging at manager Roy Hodgson’s door, desperate for some first-team action. Players such as Spanish starlets Daniel Pacheco & Suso are a testament to Benitez’s efforts, while youngsters JonJo Shelvey, Jack Robinson and Michael Ngoo have all been tipped to have massive futures in the game. One other notable player to look out for is 15-year-old Raheem Sterling.
The attacking midfielder was signed from QPR for an initial £300,000 and the fee could rise to £5m should the player become a regular at Liverpool. England youth international Sterling saw his reputation soar after breaking into the national u-16 side at the tender age of 14 and has both pace and trickery in abundance.
Liverpool beat off competition from the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea to land Sterling, considered to be as good as England star Wayne Rooney during his Everton youth days.
Sterling has been in impressive form for the Rodolfo Borrell’s unbeaten U-18 side so far this season and bagged two goals against Leeds United last Saturday. The winger also became one of the youngest ever players to make an appearance for The Reds in a pre-season game against Borussia Monchengladbach this summer. Academy Director Frank McParland certainly has high hopes for Sterling, revealing:
“The boy is only 15 so it was great that he could play 10 minutes or so. Everyone at the Academy was delighted about that. He is probably the youngest ever player to get near the first team and it was good that the manager showed his trust in our judgment.
“He’s still getting to know everything about the club and we are looking forward to working with him more and more in the weeks ahead.”
His former coach at QPR, Steve Gallen, also revealed: “(Sterling) has loads of natural ability. This boy can pass, shoot, head it, score goals, tackle, defend, anything.”
Sterling certainly has a long way to go before he lives up to his tag as ‘the next Theo Walcott’, but the early signs certainly look promising. Liverpool showed that they are now starting to compete with Arsenal and United with the signing of Sterling and The Reds will hope they are rewarded for their efforts in the future.
Watch the youngster in action below: