Liverpool step up hunt for new Steven Gerrard
Rodgers cancels Dubai break and takes first-team squad to tell the academy 'the future is at your feet'
Published 28/02/2013 | 05:00
Brendan Rodgers stands before Anfield's next generation. They are the teenagers hoping to succeed Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher as the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club. Maybe they are expecting a pat on the back, a congratulations or gentle massaging of the ego. Instead, Rodgers' message is forthright.
"You may think you play for Liverpool," he remarks. "Let me tell you now. You don't. Until you play regularly for the first team, you are not a Liverpool player and you should not say you are a Liverpool player. If anyone ever asks you, all you should say is one day you hope to play for Liverpool."
There is a brief hush around the Tom Saunders Lecture Theatre at the club's academy in Kirkby, long enough for that particular sentiment to register.
For the next 40 minutes, Rodgers spells out the particular demands and sacrifices required, as the manager puts it, "to do what it takes."
"Do you want to live the footballer's life or live the life of a footballer?" Rodgers asks, warning of the perils of pursuing sports cars and celebrity ahead of sporting excellence. This is an insight into football's greatest fear in the modern age, where adolescents become millionaires before they have played 30 games. The world at their feet at 17, washed up at 21.
Liverpool urgently need to reverse a worrying trend since their academy was built 14 years ago. For many Premier League clubs, discovering and nurturing local talent is an aspiration. At Anfield, it is an obligation.
Carragher retires this summer. Gerrard is 32 and asking himself how long he has left. Those two embody the current Liverpool. Someone has to redefine it when they are gone.
"It's important for identity and this club is about identity," Rodgers says. "All I want is good players, whether they are from Liverpool, Spain or Ireland, but I also inherently believe if you have someone from this area you will get that extra passion because this is their club. You want those from your own family with you.
"Carra and Stevie would have always got to where they are. You need good people to help you get there quicker, but it's always the player's responsibility. Everyone here needs to understand the dirty work to get there."
The senior coaches and players have spent the day coaching at the academy. It may seem nothing especially unusual, first-team staff taking time to underline the requirements to those coming through. In the turbulent recent history at Liverpool, it is unprecedented.
Luis Suarez and Gerrard are playing five-a-side with the eight-year-olds, the captain hosting a question-and-answer session of his own. Pepe Reina is trying to stop the ambitious U-12s beating him in a penalty shootout.
Every other first-team player is involved at some level on site, joining in the small-sided games with each of the 198 academy playing staff aged eight to 21, and embracing a mentoring programme Rodgers is pushing. "We've never done anything like this before," Carragher observes, his son among those enjoying the coaching sessions with Gerrard and Suarez.
The manager also spoke to parents to offer a reminder that whatever issues they encounter as they seek the best for their son they should approach him or his staff. Such is the inclusiveness he is encouraging that he arranged for U-14 players to be ball boys in last week's Europa League tie with Zenit St Petersburg.
"We were meant to be in Dubai having a break this week," Rodgers says. "I cancelled it after we lost to Oldham and told the players we were coming here instead. I couldn't get it out of my mind, the idea of players walking around Dubai after we had gone out of the cup. I said 'no'. You have to earn those rewards. This is more important."
It was not so long ago different areas of this club were perceived as factions rather than departments. Liverpool's academy was the first purpose-built facility of its type in 1999, the aim then precisely as it is now: to maintain a conveyor belt that produced Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steve McManaman and Carragher.
There has been an assortment of good professionals who have come through since, but nothing comparable to the 'centre of excellence' crop who pre-dated the move to Kirkby. Even Gerrard had barely spent time here before being summoned to Melwood.
It is a moment of symbolism when the academy director, Frank McParland, introduces Rodgers to his development squad as "the boss." During the Gerard Houllier era and most of Rafael Benitez's reign, there was only friction. They would go years without stepping into the place.
Those who worked under successive regimes not only see a different relationship, but a different club. "We are one club compared to what it was then," says McParland, who took on his role in 2009. "There are clear lines of communication. The relationship offers the players a pathway. It's the best time there has been in terms of that relationship."
This season, the edict was issued that from the U-9s up, the fluid, passing style and formation of the first team was to be replicated.
"When I came in I sold the owners that idea so that if it doesn't work out for me, at least you bring in a different manager who wants to play the same style and then it evolves," Rodgers says.
"I want to create a shortcut so that everyone who comes in immediately understands what is expected in terms of style of play. It saves time, money and effort. This is the first year of that and, naturally, there are growing pains.
"The alternative is, you have no plan. You start one way, that doesn't work, so you bring in another manager who wants it completely different. Half your squad plays one way, the other half another.
"All you get then is stockpiling of players. Then it's the club's fault if you're not successful, not the players.
"The ideal is to bring us all together on one site. The environment here is terrific, but ultimately I've already advocated to the board the benefits of bringing us all together. If I'm here a long time, that's what I want to see happen."
Liverpool's last flurry of world-class youth products emerged in the mid-90s before that separation.
McParland was a community coach in those days, promoted in the final year of Benitez's reign and working alongside academy technical director Rodolfo Borrell, who was recruited from Barcelona's famed La Masia Academy. The network of scouts is spread across South America as much as Speke nowadays. The aspiration is to recruit the finest global talent, while keeping the Scouse heart beating.
"There will be a number of top, Liverpool-born players coming through in the next five years. I will say that for definite," McParland says.
"We've done well getting some through recently, but I don't think you can say they're proper Liverpool players until they played 100 first-team games.
"We have a massive network of scouts working for us, but you have to remember we also have to look beyond Merseyside.
"We want the best of the best, not just from this area, but from London and Lisbon. But we also want that team of Carraghers the crowd sings about. That genuinely is the aspiration."
One theory is Liverpool, just like Manchester United, simply enjoyed a golden period in the mid-90s that it is impossible to replicate. Look around the league, even across the continent, and few elite clubs are packed with academy talent.
"Throughout Europe it's a small percentage of U-21s in the first team," Rodgers says. "The recurring question is whether those top players are a product of nature or nurture.
"There are some you see straight away and you know they'll be a player, then others who haven't got quite everything but they will fight to be the best they can be. You want both."
Rodgers concludes his speech to the development squad, some of who have already enjoyed a taste of senior action. He tells them to honour and learn from their predecessors, but to strive to ensure the perennial quest to find the next 'big thing' from Anfield ends with them.
"The past is incredible but we can't be hostages to that," Rodgers says.
"Don't be one of those sitting in the pub at 55 blaming everyone else saying how you could have been this or that. It is down to you to learn from Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. It is down to you to make it happen." (© Daily Telegraph, London)