This feature is part of The Academy Way
THE TRULY ICONIC FOOTBALL CLUBS ARE DEFINED BY THEIR ABILITY to dominate on and off the pitch. Perhaps no other enterprise is as results-driven as football and Liverpool Football Club, long the goliaths of English and European football, boast one of the most recognisable brands in the world. But long before a homegrown player takes that famous walk through the tunnel under the renowned This is Anfield sign on to that hallowed pitch, the journey begins at The Academy. The Academy opened in 1998 and is located in Kirkby in the northern part of Liverpool.
True football development requires a club to invest time, energy, resources to create not only talent footballers, but true ambassadors for the club’s reputation, brand, and values. At Liverpool, it an academy system that boasts a list of graduates whose names are synonymous with Liverpool Football Clubs. Men like Billy Liddell, Phil Thompson, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Jamie Carragher, and Steven Gerrard are but a few of the stellar devotees to the red half of Merseyside.
Liverpool Football Club commands the historical significance of producing winning football dating back more than a century. The fact is, Liverpool have claimed more top-flight wins than any other English team. To win five European Cups (only Real Madrid and AC Milan have more with Bayern Munich tied with five) is built on a foundation relying on consistency and cohesion from the bottom-up and the top-down.
In world football there are few clubs that have the power and luxury to scour the world for the best young talent, but at The Academy, the goal is to rigorously scout the Liverpool area for promising and highly coveted youth talents. The scouting network deploys scouts to local games and parks and depends on the brutal objective analysis of each report before a prospect is considered, as typified by this line in Michael Calvin’s excellent book The Nowhere Men: “When you are working for Liverpool, a lot of the time you are crossing names off your list.”
The selective nature of the scouting system demonstrates the sobering reality of football that few see and even fewer fully understand. In the entire academy system in English football, the number of players in the system oscillates around 10,000 players who have been identified and had a dossier constructed on their progress. When a club like Liverpool considers putting an academy player on its books – and according to Calvin’s book – it must balance the harsh truth that two-thirds of those given a professional contract by the time they are 18 are most likely out of professional football by the time they are 21.
Liverpool’s academy starts training players from the under-6 up to the under-21 squad, which functions as the reserves. Like all top academies, training is structured on implementing and mastering the fundamentals of the football the club aims to implement holistically. The objective is about producing players who understand that The Liverpool Way is not just a catchphrase, but the modus operandi the club believes in.
Each level targets the different pedagogical methods required to educate players on and off the pitch and are split into groupings of U6-U9, U10-U11, U12-U14 and U15-U16 age groups. Liverpool legends Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard started at the club when they were nine, Michael Owen became eligible to sign a schoolboy contract with Liverpool when he turned 12. Jordan Rossiter, Liverpool’s Academy Player of the Year in 2014, who was 18 months old when Steven Gerrard made his Reds debut and was once lauded to be one of the “next Steven Gerrards” had been in the academy since he was six-years-old is yet another local talent who was spotted playing for his local school side.
Early on, academy players train in after-school sessions. Those who are selected to stay on into their teenage and more formative years have their education transitioned from their former school to the actual Academy. Here, players become scholars of the football academy and are groomed to play the system the current coach requires. Furthermore, players serve another purpose for the club: revenue producers. It is in every football club’s best interest to produce talented footballers who will never make it within the parent club’s giant structure, and sell them on to other interested clubs at a profit.
As a player progresses through the age levels, the probability of making it as fully-fledged Liverpool player decreases dramatically as the older they get the more their performance is judged against the global talent pool a club like Liverpool has access to. As such, the club cannot ignore the importance of continuing the formation of a player’s educational foundation.
Each year, The Academy trains and educates around 80-100 players. Each group is exposed to age-appropriate fundamental practices, which include small-sided games, technique repetition, and transition play in confined areas to ensure each player is exposed to both the attacking and defensive side of the game. The training environment is comprised of four full-size grass pitches, one state-of-the art artificial surface, seven to ten additional mini-pitches and an indoor football pitch.
At the Liverpool academy the emphasis focuses on technique, attitude, balance and speed; the same principles that shape the first-team squad. Part of The Liverpool Way is the constant reminder that teamwork is more of a priority than winning matches. Much like the world’s famed academies, the philosophy has to be about producing players of the competitive and creative ilk to be technically, physically, tactically, and mentally ready for the rigours of the professional game. Once players reach the under-18 and under-21 levels, they are assessed before their professional status is decided. An exclusive few jump from The Academy at Kirkby to the training ground at Melwood, a facility reserved for the first team.
In an interview with the Liverpool Echo, Academy director Alex Inglethorpe believes in striking the competitive balance required for a club like Liverpool to serve the local community while competing on the domestic and continental level. “Liverpool has always been synonymous with having local lads coming through,” he says. “Whether that’s a Michael Owen, a Robbie Fowler, a Steven Gerrard or a Jamie Carragher, that bloodline has always been there. We will always look to recruit the best, both from England and from abroad. But we also don’t want to forget what’s under our noses.”
Despite historical success producing players who represent the Liverpool community, the state of football today requires powerful clubs to look beyond their own proximities. Liverpool faces competition for players from world-class clubs boasting their own powerful and far-reaching academies less than 50 miles away.
In addition to the proximal competition, fierce in-town rivals, Everton, have a strong youth setup as well. During the Rafa Benítez reign, Liverpool recognised the importance of bringing in outside methodologies and practices to oversee the revitalisation of the club’s talent mill. The Academy recruited the services of José Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, both of whom worked with FC Barcelona’s vaunted academy, La Masia, to oversee the establishment of a strong Spanish-English pipeline of talent during the Benítez years.
Under Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish, the club saw a refocused effort to recruit and foster domestic and local talent as the services of Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Jon Flanagan all graduated from The Academy. As the world of football aligns with the modern business practices of big-money transfers, even for unproven prospects, the football clubs vitality remains rooted in its ability to compete in the realm of the unpredictable.
Jürgen Klopp, with his progressive philosophy of high-tempo, possession-based football, is competing for a footballer the whole of world football covets in the technically adept, speedy and versatile transition player. Klopp, who has been noted for his ability to personally name players in The Academy, is a man whose trust in the players must be reciprocated in their trust for him. It is of little wonder that many see Klopp and his assistant, Željko Buvač, frequenting the pitches at Kirkby to assess the work of Alex Inglethorpe on a regular cadence. In addition to his conferences with the youth coaches, the input of Chief Scout, Barry Hunter, is of the utmost importance.
Liverpool Football Club is an example of a club in flux. Nobody can deny the impact of its historical success for English football both domestically and abroad. The challenge for Liverpool is not only to recreate its illustrious history, but to continue the ascendancy of the Liverbird – and to do that, the fledglings of Liverpool’s football academy must be taught not only to fly, but to soar.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3