Liverpool back on football Heighway to heaven
Former star back at academy and makes no apology for his policy of tough love, writes Chris Bascombe
Published 16/11/2016 | 02:30
Steve Heighway, legendary left winger, protégé of Bill Shankly and architect of Liverpool's academy, thought he had retired. He left Liverpool in 2007, heading to Florida to spend his spare time coaching youngsters at the Clearwater Charges.
Then, two years ago, he received a surprise call from current academy director Alex Inglethorpe. They arranged to meet in Formby Golf Club, a short drive from the Kirkby academy.
"He wanted to know what I felt to be the values, the ethics and the standards of Liverpool - the ideals," said Heighway. "He had his own ideas, but wanted to get back to the basics of the foundation of what this club stands for.
"Then he invited me in for some evenings to work with the 12- and 13-year-olds. I didn't want payment for it. It was such a joy to come back and work with the youngsters. It is like living a second childhood."
Last season, Inglethorpe formalised the arrangement, offering the former Ireland international a mentoring role for coaches and players. Heighway is a full-time, paid Liverpool employee again.
His return represents far more than the homecoming of an Anfield grandee. It is a symbol of a club restoration project. Heighway left when the academy and first-team manager did not speak, let alone agree how to develop young talent.
In 2004, Liverpool began signing overseas players in their mid to late-teens. Disillusionment grew in Kirkby, where the local boys felt their route to the first team had an additional obstacle imposed by their own club.
It was the essence of the philosophical argument that echoes across English football - is the shortage of England players due to lack of talent or opportunity? "I never wanted to be piggy-in-the-middle of an intellectual debate. I saw youth development in a different way so it was time to exit stage left," says Heighway.
"Rafa Benítez set up a mini-academy at Melwood. The children from here were not going to get the first look-in. There was no conflict. We just didn't communicate.
"A manager must have what he wants. If the manager wants one thing and someone else wants something else, why would the board not support the manager? That would make no sense. But I didn't leave with any sense of bitterness. I needed a rest. I was tired. It was hard running this place. I was ready for a break."
With over four decades of service at Anfield, Heighway remains both an idealist and cynic regarding the modern game. He is a staunch defender of the 'academy' system while freely admitting he despises the overblown pomposity of that word.
"Whoever came up with the word 'academy' is an idiot. We're youth development centres," he says.
Nevertheless, the biennial critiques of these facilities each time England fail at a major tournament irk him.
"Whenever England lose it is easy to blame academies because 99 per cent of the players have come through the system," he says. "What we need from those critics is ideas of what they would do differently.
"Those kids have to play football somewhere, whether it is school or Sunday league teams or here.
"We can do more than anyone else, for sure. Why wouldn't you create these environments with the best facilities and coaches? I hear about discipline and toughness. I don't accept academies are too soft and certainly not this one. I don't buy it.
"I've always taken a hard line towards how kids here should be treated. If they make it, there should be no shocks. These kids are heading for a well-paid but difficult life. Then they get to 34 and they have to prepare for the world beyond that.
"The balance you need is to know how tough you can be. That must start early. You can't let them get away with stuff at 10 or 11 and then try to impose discipline at 13.
"There has to be boundaries. I've always been a disciplinarian. I want there to be respect.
"My mantra is engage, confront, challenge and inspire. You have to confront youngsters with what they're doing, and challenge them to be better. After that you have to inspire greatness. It is a delicate balance.
"I hate the phrase 'old school' but a lot of the ideas of the past are still relevant. In the rush to be modern, don't throw the baby out with the bath water and discard everything.
"Being new and modern is about adding to what has worked before. Not everything in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties was irrelevant."
In line with these ideals, Liverpool's decision to impose a £40,000-a-year salary cap for their first-year professionals has earned applause, but Heighway doubts the rest of the football league will follow.
"Anything that keeps a young player's feet on the ground is worth pursuing. Capping wages is part of that," says Heighway. "To have that widespread would be fantastic, but you won't get it.
"What will happen is someone will want to take advantage. Someone will be in the ear of a player saying, 'Don't go to Liverpool, you'll only get £40,000 a year. We'll give you £100,000'.
"The problem with football is there is no organisation that exists solely for the good of the game. All have their own interests above the broader good.
"When organisations take control or get involved where the primary motive is making money, I see dangers.
"If there were a ruling organisation that did not have its own self-interest, many things would be different. There could be more uniformity, such as controls on young players' wages or the age players can turn professional.
"There is not just one thing that needs to change, but a sensible cap in the early days of a boy's career is a start. Whatever the industry, you should not be rewarded until you're successful.
"In this game, there is no ladder going up, just snakes that can take you down quickly. We have to prepare our young people for life when their career ends.
"Instead you have a situation where some clubs approach it like they want to conquer the world.
"All we can do is show we have something so powerful that if Liverpool want you, you go to Liverpool. That comes with reputation and our quality and our identity."
The lingering, most fundamental question remains: why, after such unprecedented success in the Nineties, did so few follow Steven Gerrard as the last, genuinely world-class academy player in the senior side?
"It is more difficult now. The market shrank," says Heighway. "Until the 1990s there were a couple of hundred young players competing for a couple of hundred first-team places in a top-division team. Now there are thousands from every country in the world.
"You have to be so good to get a chance and there are few opportunities for English players. That is a big part of it.
"With some players you just don't know how good they will be until they go down the tunnel, and now there are fewer chances to go down that tunnel. It's not a sinister reason.
"Fewer players are coming through everywhere because it is enormously difficult. Some people talk about quotas but they are unworkable. How can you enforce that?
"Nothing will change on that front. All you can do is the best you can based on your ideals and your club's identity.
"Pass a player to Jurgen Klopp you're sure is good enough at the age of 17, and then it is up to the manager to do what he feels is best for his team."
Crucially, Klopp has vowed to grant opportunities and reward emerging talent - as demonstrated by new contracts for teenagers Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn.
Liverpool realise their greatest selling point is their manager.
"There is no relationship between football now and from the Bill Shankly days, but that does not mean the people from the past did not leave an indelible mark on the football club," Heighway says.
"There has been enormous change at Liverpool, but when I see what is happening here now - and what the first team are doing - I approve. And I think Shanks would approve, too.
"He'd approve of the ethics. He'd approve of the work rate. He'd approve of the way the first team is playing. And he'd approve of the way we are treating the youngsters. He would like that. He would like that a lot." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Best of Heighway's Anfield graduates
Tony Warner - Goalkeeping deputy to David James in the mid-90s, he spent most of his career at Millwall where he made over 200 appearances.
Stephen Warnock - Part of the Liverpool squad that won 2005 Champions League, Warnock was called up for England. Played for numerous Premier League clubs. Now at Wigan.
Jamie Carragher - One of the greatest Liverpool players, and certainly among the bravest. Played over 500 games for the club and secured his legendary status in Istanbul in 2005.
Dominic Matteo - Made over 100 appearances for the club in the 1990s, before being sold to Leeds by Gerard Houllier. An elegant, steady and versatile defender.
Stephen Wright - Was called into the Liverpool senior squad at the same time as Steven Gerrard in 1998. Was a back-up player, but moved on to Sunderland where he spent six seasons.
David Thompson - A midfield firecracker. Arguably sold too soon, but enjoyed a fine Premier League career elsewhere - notably at Coventry and Blackburn - before injuries took their toll.
Steven Gerrard - Considered by many the most influential Liverpool player of all time, without doubt the greatest Liverpool-born player ever. Memorably inspired the Champions League win of 2005. A genius and a leader.
Jay Spearing - Spearing broke into the Liverpool side under Kenny Dalglish, featuring in the FA Cup Final in 2012. He is currently at Bolton where he's made over 100 appearances.
Steve McManaman - Another Anfield legend who made Roy Evans' side a delight to watch. Rose to world-class status at Real Madrid where he became a Champions League winner.
Robbie Fowler - One of the greatest goalscorers English football has ever produced, earning the nickname 'God' from The Kop. A Liverpool great still loved at Anfield.
Michael Owen - Another Academy legend. Owen made his debut at 17 and was a superstar within a year. Scored over 100 goals before moving to Real Madrid in 2004.