Thursday 22 June 2017

Comment: Why things are suddenly looking up for the future of Liverpool Football Club

Liverpool's Oviemuno Ejaria comes on. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Liverpool's Oviemuno Ejaria comes on. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters

Simon Hughes

In the bad old days at Liverpool, when Tom Hicks and George Gillett were feuding owners; when Rafael Benitez did not know who to trust and lines of communication across the club were completely broken because voices at the academy had stopped being listened to, it was arguably the FA Youth Cup winners of 2006 and 2007 that suffered the most.

Craig Lindfield was a striker in those teams. After a goal against Crewe Alexandra in the pre-season of 2006 for Benitez's senior side, he remembers being congratulated by Robbie Fowler. In a revealing interview with the 'Anfield Wrap' broadcasted last month, he did not mind sharing the detail that in that moment, he hugged Fowler, and, overcome by emotion, decided it appropriate to whisper tenderly: "I love you."

Lindfield also spoke about football not being the exact science many claim it to be. His story became darker as it wore on. He was still scoring for the U-18s when lank-haired Dutchman Jordy Brouwer was not doing the same for the reserves, though Brouwer played, he thinks, because Benitez had created his own mini-academy at Melwood in spite of the youth director Steve Heighway after they fell out; thus cutting opportunities for progression when it's hard enough anyway.

Selected

Though some might reflect on Lindfield's subsequent career path (he currently plays for Marine in the Evo Stik Premier League) and conclude that he'd have made it somewhere else if he was good enough, the fact that all of those selected ahead of him were released too may reflect that momentum at a vital time in the player's development was lost in the pursuit of control and that ultimately, when nobody in charge is really acting in the best interests of the club, everybody else loses.

Liverpool as an entire club has been attempting to rediscover its identity ever since and it is only now - with a first team manager of continental standing clearly enjoying his job and attached to a long-term contract while buying in to the solid platforms set by academy director Alex Inglethorpe, who has had the wisdom, humility and courage to reintegrate Heighway into his coaching set-up - that Liverpool is beginning to find itself again.

It is fair to say that the Premier League's most recent Double Pass audit of Liverpool's academy was not as glowing as several of clubs they are competing against.

On paper, at least, Liverpool might be considered some distance behind the lead spenders at youth level, Manchester City, who have Bobby Duncan, Steven Gerrard's 15-year-old cousin, within their ranks. Last week, Duncan became the first English footballer in history - at any level - to score a hat-trick against Brazil.

Hard work will help keep Ben Woodburn on the right track, according to striker Divock Origi
Hard work will help keep Ben Woodburn on the right track, according to striker Divock Origi

There is a wide belief, however, that the Elite Player Performance Plan pioneered by the Premier League and carried out by the Belgian-based assessors, Double Pass, is impractical and homogenous; a scheme, indeed, that overlooks the fact that just because something works for one club, it might not work for another.

Critics also say it also ends up rewarding financial clout: bricks and mortar over care and guidance - aspects of academy life that cannot always be measured accurately by investment or facilities.

While is unlikely the Premier League's association with Double Pass will continue beyond the end of its current contract, there is a palpable sense of positive change at Liverpool.

On Tuesday night, 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold was named as man of the match in the League Cup quarter-final victory over Leeds United and Ben Woodburn, at 17, became the youngest goalscorer in the club's history.

Perhaps, though, it is the story of Ovie Ejaria that really reflects how things have improved at Liverpool's academy over the last few years: how sharp the recruitment strategy has become and how the decisions are with players once they have them are now the right ones.

There is a narrative about Ejaria that reads something along the lines of Liverpool being fortunate recipients following his release by Arsenal, in much the same way Brouwer was brought in after being let go by Ajax all that time ago.

At the beginning, it was a message Arsenal were keen to lay down, one that disguises the problems at youth level where too many opinions held by bickering decision-makers led to an impasse, forcing Ejaria to feel unwanted.

Recognised

Steve Bould, Arsene Wenger's assistant manager and Arsenal's former U-18s coach, recognised the teenager's ability and was furious when he found out it had reached the point where Liverpool held the all the cards because Anfield delegates had met Ejaria's father at his home, a two-bedroomed high rise flat that overlooks Southwark, South London.

There, in 2014, he was persuaded Liverpool possessed clear thinking and the type of environment where his son would be able to thrive.

Ejaria was released because Arsenal knew Liverpool had already taken him. Though he suffered from acute homesickness during the initial months on Merseyside, Ejaria has reached this point: one where he is presently considered by Jurgen Klopp as a better midfield option than Marko Grujic, the Serb from Red Star Belgrade who cost £5.1 million. (© Independent News Service)

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