independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Liverpool's youth dream will never work alone

For all the jokes at his expense over the years in the ersatz 19th hole atmosphere of 'Match of the Day', Alan Hansen was right back in 1995 when he said: "You don't win anything with kids."

The Manchester United team he spoke about may have featured Fergie's Fledglings Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, but their march to the Double that season owed a huge amount to the veterans.

The core of that side was Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin, of whom Cantona, at 29, was the youngest. There were also a pair of battle-hardened 24-year-olds: Roy Keane and Andy Cole.

Alex Ferguson has always been ready to give talented youth a chance, but he always makes sure there are plenty of old heads around them.

This caveat seems to have eluded Hansen's old club. The word on Merseyside is that Liverpool are now operating an unofficial transfer bar on anyone over 24. The future is to be a young one. How much this is down to Brendan Rodgers' belief that young players will more readily adopt his style of play, and how much is due to a 'Moneyball' style philosophy of the owners, is unclear, but the upshot is that Rodgers has signed six players to date and none is older than 24.

Status

With Vegard Forren (24) yesterday signing for Southampton rather than go on trial at Liverpool (which speaks volumes about Liverpool's modern status) the only acquisition of this transfer window is Daniel Sturridge, a 23-year-old who is talented, but far from the finished product.

Rodgers' predecessor, Kenny Dalglish, did sign a couple of oldies in Craig Bellamy and reserve goalkeeper Alexander Doni, but everyone else was bought with a view that their best years were ahead of them.

The consequence so far appears to be a team which plays pretty football, but folds whenever life gets difficult. Liverpool have now gone 11 matches without beating a team placed at the time in the Premier League top 10, this despite the presence of Steven Gerrard and what ought to be a decent defensive heart of Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger.

Rodgers is building a new Liverpool, just as Bill Shankly did – a reference point Rodgers has not shied away from. But while Shankly signed or brought on young men such as Kevin Keegan, Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith and Ray Clemence, he made sure they had the likes of Ron Yeats, Gerry Byrne and Tommy Lawrence around them, and gave them time to develop. Clemence, for example, was signed as a teenager, but did not make his debut for more than a year and did not displace Lawrence in goal for three seasons. That pattern was followed throughout the glory years that followed.

Bear in mind these were the days of smaller squads and less squad rotation and consider the way players were matured by the Anfield Boot Room.

Terry McDermott, already a First Division player at Newcastle, signed at 22 years of age, made 15 appearances in his first season and nine in his second. Ian Rush signed at 18, and played zero, seven and 18 games in his first three seasons respectively. Steve Nicol, who like the others went on to become Footballer of the Year, played four matches in his first two seasons and did not establish himself until his fourth. Hansen himself arrived just before his 22nd birthday and played 18 matches in his first season.

Another significant difference is the hard experience these players had gained in those pre-academy days. Phil Neal played 187 league games before joining Liverpool at 22, Mark Lawrenson 225 before joining at 24. Sturridge (23) has played 95, many off the bench.

Once signed, players were given time to learn the Liverpool way and feel their way into a team which was the best in the land. Fast forward to today and compare with Suso, the 19-year-old from Spain who was thrown into the Merseyside derby and withdrawn at half-time, then looked equally bewildered on a grim night at Stoke. He can play, but it is a sharp learning curve.

Not everyone made it in the old days. Frank McGarvey arrived from Scotland with fanfare in 1979, but never played a match. Richard Money and Michael Robinson also came with little impact.

The old Liverpool were always happy to buy in experience if needed. Dalglish, Graeme Souness and John Wark were leading players when they arrived at Anfield. In the summer of 1987 Dalglish, by then manager, responded to losing the title by bringing in John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, leading England internationals. John Aldridge, aged 28, joined earlier in the year and Dalglish would later sign Glenn Hysen two months short of his 30th birthday. The Swede became a core part of Liverpool's 18th and so far last title.

Would Fenway Sports Group sanction the signing of such a player today? At QPR, Harry Redknapp has been pleading with Ryan Nelsen, his 35-year-old centre-half, to delay his move to Canada to help Rangers stay up. There is, as Gerrard has said, value in experience. But it does not show up on the balance sheet (unless you add the value of playing in the Champions League, or, in QPR's case, avoiding relegation).

There's a lot of emerging young talent at Anfield, some of it developed through an impressive youth scheme, some, like Suso and Raheem Sterling, poached from other academies, but Rodgers' rookies will need a few old pros around them if they are to fulfil their potential, Fenway's targets, the manager's ambitions and the Kop's longings.

Otherwise his New Liverpool will turn out not to be a remake of Shankly's, but a watered-down replica of the new Arsenal, always on the cusp of glory, never quite achieving it. (© Independent News Service)

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