Dalglish's next generation
Academy graduates passing the test
After more than a decade of drought, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish believes the production line of home-grown talent that groomed the likes of Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen is ready to start churning out the stars of Anfield's future again.
The Scot has already brought teenage full-backs John Flanagan and Jack Robinson -- both of whom finished Sunday's dramatic 1-1 draw with Arsenal -- into his side, while granting another graduate of the club's Kirkby Academy, Jay Spearing, the first run in the senior team of his career.
While all three have been fast-tracked into Dalglish's plans because of Liverpool's paper-thin squad and increasingly lengthy injury list -- featuring Martin Kelly, another graduate -- the 60-year-old has such complete faith in the quality of players being produced at youth-team level that he is convinced they are blazing a trail many others will follow.
"For me, I think some of (the academy players) have a lot to offer, whether it's this year or next," he said.
"We are delighted with the progress the academy has made, and the individual players, too. It is in really good shape.
"Rafa (Benitez) put the structure in place over a year ago, bringing in (technical director) Pep Segura and (academy coach) Rodolfo Borrell, and (academy director) Frank MacParland going down there for recruitment.
"Since then, what they have done has been brilliant -- really helpful to the players and if it's helpful to them it will be of use to the club."
Dalglish, of course, was part of the original revamp of the academy staff, being brought in to work at Kirkby as a club ambassador.
It was no surprise to see him sharing a smile with Robinson as he came on at the Emirates, or a quiet word with Flanagan after his clash of heads with Carragher: these are players he has seen grow up.
There are others, too. Raheem Sterling, the 16-year-old winger and star of the club's U-18 side, warmed up with Dalglish's substitutes before the game against Arsenal, while Conor Coady, an England U-17 captain, was included on the bench for a Europa League game with Sparta Prague.
The Scot insists he cannot explain why Liverpool's formerly prolific youth system lay fallow for a decade -- Stephen Warnock, now of Aston Villa, was the last player of note to emerge -- but it is easy to conclude that his intricate knowledge of the academy means he is better placed to judge the merits of its products than any of his predecessors.
That, in turn, makes him uniquely placed to fulfil the wishes of the club's new owners, to have a side made up of big-money signings and free, home-grown talent.
"Certainly all the lads who have been here training, I knew from working down there," he said. "Maybe that does help, but maybe you know too much about them.
"It does not matter where the squad comes from, it is the quality that is most important. The greatest priority is ability, and we have been delighted by what we have seen from the academy.
"We have to be careful, too. I don't want to put a wet blanket over it, but we have to make sure we do not get carried away.
"The players at the academy know if they are there they are going to be in our thoughts. But we have also got to be really careful we don't throw them in and spoil them and then don't have them for the future."
One noteworthy graduate, though, is clearly impressed by what he has seen of the new generation. It should, perhaps, be of no surprise that Carragher is confident the future is in safe hands: his eight-year-old son, also James, enrolled in the club's academy last week.
"Over the last few years the academy has had a bit of criticism," said Carragher. "But over the last 15 or 20 years there cannot be many clubs to have produced more quality players than Liverpool.
"There are still players to come through, but what (Flanagan and Robinson) look like they have already is character in abundance.
"To play for Liverpool you need that, no matter how good you are because you have ups and downs. That is something you need if you want to have a long career at Liverpool and it is something the fans demand." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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