For the first time in what seems like an age, Liverpool’s conveyor belt of young talent, somewhat rusty and creaky in recent years with disuse, is finally back in motion.
Last night’s victory for the Reds over Manchester City was a point of celebration for many reasons, not least of all the comprehensive manner in which Kenny Dalglish’s patched-together team disposed of Roberto Mancini’s expensively-assembled legion of international stars, nor the occasion of Andy Carroll’s first goals for the club as our new number nine, but also because of the noticeable effect on a good first team performance from a number of locally-produced players.
Vice captain Jamie Carragher, central midfielder Jay Spearing and teenage full-back debutant John Flanagan made up almost a third of Liverpool’s outfield players who came directly through the club’s academy programme, local graduates who have made it to the biggest of all stages, playing in the Premier League at Anfield.
Add to that list left back Jack Robinson, still only 17, who was on the bench for the game as an unused substitute and the missing club captain Steven Gerrard and defender Martin Kelly, both ruled out through injury, and the local-bred influence in first team affairs is once again beginning to rear its head, with four local-born ‘regulars’ and two very promising full backs in the squad.
Not since Gerrard himself broke through to establish himself as a first team regular have Reds fans had someone local to back as they bid to make the grade; at least, not for any significant period of time.
Plenty of players have come and gone of course, some making a dozen or more appearances before succumbing to being released, sold on or deemed not good enough and replaced by imports from the continent and beyond.
Stephen Warnock, with 67 appearances, heads the list of those who ran a hard race but ultimately failed to make it as a regular, while the likes of Neil Mellor (22 games, 6 goals), Stephen Wright (21, 1) and Darren Potter (17) all had their moments in the first team before moving on. The list of players who graduated from the academy to make a handful of appearances is even longer – Lee Peltier (4), Danny Guthrie (7), John Welsh (10), Jon Newby (4), Jon Otsemobor (6), David Raven (4), Richie Partridge (3), Zak Whitbread (7), James Smith (1) and Layton Maxwell (1) are just some of them – while the likes of Paul Harrison, a goalkeeper who was on the club’s books during Rafa Benitez’s reign, made the bench over a dozen times for the first team without actually playing. New Wolves recruit Adam Hammill was another youth player who after several loan moves found himself transferred permanently without having worn the Red of Liverpool in a competitive game. Current full back Stephen Darby, on loan at present to Notts County, has also made 6 appearances and looks set to be another offloaded without quite proving good enough.
Add to that the list of players who were signed as youngsters, either at Academy or reserve team level, and had brief spells in the first team and the picture begins to take shape that perhaps things were not quite being done as they should have been somewhere along the line; whether in the scouting department or that of the coaching, perhaps we will never know. Sebastian Leto (4), Lauri Dalla Valle (1), Antonio Barragan (1), Miki Roque (1), Jack Hobbs (5), Frode Kippe (2), Gabriel Paletta (8, 1), Damien Plessis (8, 1) all came and went, while the likes of Paul Anderson, Haukur Gudnason, Miki San Jose, Alex Kacaniklic, Godwin Antwi and of course Krisztian Nemeth all left without a single minute of first team action to their name.
But now a new clutch of youngsters are at the club; both locally-born and signed from afar.
And perhaps a new era of Liverpool Football Club is upon us; not just in terms of the owners and the manager – which will surely be officially Kenny Dalglish, sooner or later – but also in terms of the effectiveness of producing our own new crop of first team players.
Martin Kelly, so excellent during the middle part of this season until his injury sidelined him, has now made 27 appearances for the club, more than any other academy graduate since Stephen Warnock left for Blackburn Rovers in January 2007.
Jay Spearing, repaying the faith shown in him by Dalglish of late and completely dominating the midfield last night alongside Lucas Leiva against £12 million Gareth Barry and £24 million Yaya Toure, has now played 21 times for the Reds, and recently penned a new contract as he continues his development. At 22 years of age, his push into the first team has come slightly later than some might say is the right age, but Spearing is now showing ample proof that he can be a part of the rebuilding of the Liverpool squad – certainly is some distance ahead of the vastly more experienced Christian Poulsen, who failed to even make the bench last night.
Flanagan and Robinson have each now made their Reds bows, while Thomas Ince also made his debut earlier this season, Andre Wisdom has figured on the bench and on-loan forward Nathan Eccleston has made 9 Reds appearances. Add to that Conor Coady who was recently handed a squad number and has been involved in first team travelling and training, as well as free-scoring striker Adam Morgan in the under 18’s (17 goals in his last 12 games at the time of writing) and it is clear that the young contingent at the club, brought up through the Academy at Kirkby from a variety of ages, are now reaping the benefits of both the faith in them by the main man at the helm, Dalglish – who of course oversaw their development as part of his Academy ambassador role – and also their string of coaches on the way up the Liverpool Youth teams’ ladders, culminating most recently in Rodolfo Borrell with the under 18’s and (latterly) John McMahon and Pep Segura in the Reserves.
At first team level this season, Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey have also had some limited impact – neither bought to the club as ‘youth players’ as such, but at just 18 years old each certainly signings with more than half an eye on the future of the club. Current back up to Pepe Reina, Peter Gulacsi, joined the club as a 17 year old, initially on loan and later permanently.
Other youngsters plying their trade in both the under 18’s and reserves this season who have been brought to the club from other teams include the likes of much-talked about Raheem Sterling, a pacey and tricky wide man; Suso, a creative left-footed attacking midfielder from Spain, Kristjan Emilsson, an Icelandic forward with a knack of scoring goals and Toni Silva, a fleet footed and skilful Portuguese winger – all have impressed at various stages this season and look like they could make the next step, which would be to perform regularly at Reserve team level.
Of course, nothing is to say that any of these players are going to go on and have the kind of impact at the business end of the club as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have had. Those two combined have played over 1200 games for Liverpool and have won countless trophies and will go down in history as two of the finest players to grace the Anfield turf.
Indeed, it is even probable that despite the promise shown by many of these players, not all of them will make the grade at Anfield. Young Gerardo Bruna, still a reserve at the club, was highly thought of and a ‘sure-bet’ to make the left side of midfield his own but has even yet to make the bench for the first team and in all honesty does not look close to it now.
But it takes all kinds of players to make a club work and if we get even three or four of the very best of these youngsters into the team on a regular basis over the next couple of years, and the under 18’s coming up behind them can offer a similar output, then the long-term future of the club will certainly be secure – both in terms of quality and in having a good core of local-based talent playing their part in the revival of the club.