It has now been over ten years since Liverpool have seen a player from their youth set-up talented enough to break into their first team and go onto represent the club regularly at the highest level. Reds captain Steven Gerrard and club stalwart Jamie Carragher were the last two players to do it and there has not been a lot to write home about since. Somewhere between the youth and senior sides players get lost in the country’s sub-standard reserve set-up, so is it time for Liverpool to follow other the lead of other Premier League clubs and make a change?
Liverpool have produced a distinct lack of players ready to challenge the first-team action in recent seasons, despite winning the reserve league in 2008. While the club must also take into recognition the failings of its academy, the poor standard of the reserve league does not help. Liverpool’s success in bringing young players through the ranks has been minimal at best. Defender Stephen Warnock came through the club’s youth and reserve sides before going onto make 40 appearances for the club, but was ultimately deemed not good enough for Liverpool. Warnock has since managed to forge a career in the Premier League at Aston Villa and also went onto make England’s World Cup squad this summer. Yet you sense the left-back was never going to be a regular under former manager Rafael Benitez. Danny Guthrie and Neil Mellor were also swiftly moved on. Liverpool have also blooded South American youngsters Lucas and Emiliano Insua in recent seasons, however these were brought to the club as already highly rated prospects.
The club’s traditional reputation for producing truly talented young players who would go onto play for the club throughout their careers is dying. Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen all graduated from the club’s School of Excellence but the club has failed to produce a player in this mould for years. Liverpool have some catching up to do if they are to produce their own youngsters good enough to play at the highest level. The club have now finally started to challenge for the signatures of the best young emerging talent and the signings of players such as Raheem Sterling, JohnJo Shelvey and Danny Wilson point to a positive future for the Reds. Yet to ensure they develop to their full potential radical changes are needed and scrapping the reserve set-up could be a step forward.
Just 16 clubs will compete in the reserve league this season after Tottenham, Stoke, Birmingham and Fulham all decided not to participate. The reserves have traditionally been a platform to help young players develop and for members of the first team squad to find their match fitness. Yet with so many fixtures for clubs to fulfil, the timing of the matches has become a major problem. The reserve league has been stuck in the doldrums over the last few years and the set-up remains a problem that needs addressing. That’s why Liverpool should be seriously considering pulling out of the league and begin plans for a modern, customised and forward-thinking programme to help their young players develop. The Reds should embrace sending players out on long-term loans and setting up feeder links with clubs to give them the experience and the game time they need.
The reserve team is meant to equip players for first-team football but its lack of structure and cohesion can often hurt a player’s development. The reserve league ultimately fails to equip young players with the experience and knowledge of playing football in a truly competitive environment. Clubs with smaller resources find it difficult to accommodate all their fixtures and over the years the reserve league has become more of a nuisance than a positive aid for clubs to use. Clubs are left with players resting and recovering over different periods and being unable to organise their players and training sessions ahead of league games at the weekend. The inconvenience of the fixtures leaves a lot of clubs playing groups of youngsters, wary of sending first-team fringe players on long mid-week trips across the country. Such unorganised, shapeless fixtures have become regular viewing at Premier League clubs and some have decided to pull out altogether.
Pulling out of the reserve league would help Liverpool arrange matches as and when they need to and not have to worry about fulfilling fixtures which clash with their hectic first-team schedule. Yet concerns remain over players being away from their parent club for a long period of time and not being given the chance to understand the philosophy of Liverpool and the style of football the club wants them to play. Difficulties concerning player selection also makes this a problematic route to take when developing young players. A young player could be on the fringes on the first-team squad but unable to play regularly leaving him with no viable way of gaining match experience. However the clubs currently embracing the novel idea are confident games can be arranged accordingly with a wide range of opposition.
The gulf between the reserves and the Premier League is an enormous one and players need to experience a better standard of competitive football if they want to make an impact at the highest level. The model embraced by clubs such as Spurs and Stoke has yet to be proved a success and Liverpool will be again participating in the reserve league this season. But as the period between producing their next star player increases, Liverpool will have to think of fresh and alternative ways to improve their youngsters and pulling out of the reserve league may just be one of them.