By Paul Grech.
First there was Dominic Matteo; a classy if injury-prone defender who had bags of talent but not really the application to make the most of his abilities. Then came Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen; each one immensely talented and worthy of being labelled as world class. In turn they were followed by Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard; two players who would shape Liverpool’s fortunes for over a decade.
For ten years there has been a big question mark surrounding Liverpool, one regarding the reasons behind the lack of homegrown talent coming through. What happened? Where did all the talent go?
The successes of the nineties had raised hopes and expectations for the new academy facilities opened in 2001, especially when Gerard Houllier – famed for laying down the plans for France’s highly successful Clairefontaine academy – was appointed as manager.
Yet rather than providing the basis for Liverpool’s return to the top of English football, the Academy became a battleground of ideologies and personalities. It is one of the saddest episodes of Liverpool’s recent history, yet one that is so symptomatic of the club’s inability to get its act together. It is, in many ways, an unbelievable story. One where Academy directors were appointed without any form of consultation with the club’s manager. One where the reserves set-up at Melwood was practically excluded from those players coming through the Academy. It seemed that an us-against-them mentality between the Academy and the first team was not only tolerated but even actually encouraged.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that only two players – Stephen Warnock and Danny Guthrie – have managed to make it and obtain a degree of success at Premier League level. Amazingly, the bulk of two FA Youth Cup winning sides (2005-06 and 2006-07) vanished without leaving a trace, with only Jay Spearing making anything like a substantial number of appearances for Liverpool.
It is difficult to determine why this situation was allowed to develop, for there is no reason other than lack of leadership and vision. It is impossible to explain otherwise why the club would continue its significant annual investment in the Academy whilst at the same time allowing it to become a black hole for talent.
Eventually it came down to a battle of wills between Rafa Benitez and those running the club; a battle that the Spaniard won not because others had been convinced by his arguments but because politically he was too important for the owners in their desperate battle to keep hold of the club. Getting control of the Academy was one of his key requests when it came to signing a new contract and, given that it was seen as a way of quelling the club’s rebelling fans, eventually it was what he got.
That was the chain of events that led to the defining shift in strategy at the Academy. Out went a host of coaches who were deemed as not being good enough and in came three men handpicked to start the revolution.
Scouser Frank McParland had worked with Benitez as a scout before joining Sammy Lee as General Manager when he was named manager of Bolton Wanderers. That didn’t last long (Lee was sacked within six months of him getting the job), so he was available when Benitez came calling with the offer of a position as Academy Director, which was the fancy name for a rather administrative role that involved overseeing all that happened at the Academy.
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