Friday 17 January 2020

Young Reds shine on back of shrewd academy efforts

Local lad Curtis Jones has ambitions to captain Liverpool one day. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
Local lad Curtis Jones has ambitions to captain Liverpool one day. Photo: Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

Jeremy Wilson

It was a spectacular way to score both your first goal and win a Merseyside derby, but the wider internal message yesterday for Curtis Jones and Liverpool's conquering teenage heroes remained simple: Yes, it's great to win your debut or represent the first-team, but you have to go on and play 50 or 100 times before you can be considered Liverpool players.

It is an ethos that academy director Alex Inglethorpe has tried to instil and, even for Jones, whose winner will live long in Liverpool folklore, and team-mates Neco Williams, Harvey Elliott, Rhian Brewster and Yasser Larouci, still sufficiently uncertain to concentrate minds.

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Inglethorpe's "business as usual" attitude yesterday will come as no surprise to anyone at the academy's Kirkby base and reflects a culture that has seen Liverpool's young players quietly progress to the point last April of ending Chelsea's five-year reign as FA Youth Cup winners.

There is also a feeling that there is more to come. "This isn't just a one-off - Alex had built something," says Rob Jones, the former Liverpool and England full-back, who now works as an academy coach.

"People saw the group of players on Sunday and we know there is another coming up just below them.

"From day one, Alex has always kept the players' feet on the ground. He will be straight back on that training round, like the rest of the coaches, getting on with normal life.


"There is a lot of money thrown around for kids in football - Alex has got it right from the start."

A £40,000 annual academy wage cap was one of the big early decisions of Inglethorpe's tenure and, while bonuses would accumulate with U-23 and first-team appearances, it represented a considerable risk.

The marketplace, after all, is one in which some of the most wealthy clubs may offer more than 10 times that salary to the best talent.

Inglethorpe's own experience is that young players who get too much too soon rarely fulfil their potential and, mindful that most academy players never actually reach the first team, has placed a heavy emphasis on education and then aftercare for those not taken on as professionals.

Liverpool have also taken the unusual step of forging a formal partnership with a local school - Rainhill High near St Helens - whose alumni now include Brewster, Curtis Jones, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Raheem Sterling and Ben Woodburn.

The school insists upon a full curriculum of GCSE subjects and have even organised exams while past pupils are playing in the European U-18 Championships.

"All Liverpool students are integrated into life at Rainhill," said a spokesperson. "They are in normal lessons virtually all the time. They have friends who are not footballers. We treat them no differently."

Liverpool's academy scouting also now places more emphasis on the basic physical and technical potential rather than those already playing representative football.

It has meant that the group is more culturally diverse and, unlike some clubs, academy coaches are relaxed on allowing children to continue playing for local schools or clubs.

Curtis Jones has progressed through from U-9s, but some of his strongest early memories are climbing into the local primary school and either playing there or lifting the goal out into the street.

He describes his footballing apprenticeship as that of "a street kid". His talent was also soon evident. Stephen Warnock recalls watching him in an U-18 game and then turning to Steven Gerrard to say, "Who's the No 10? He just glides past players, making it look so effortless".

Gerrard, who posted the words "love it kid" on his Instagram, was a mentor, but another is James Milner. Curtis Jones trains regularly with the first-team and Milner's advice - to save his dribbling and creativity for the final third and work on his "defensive angles" - has been key.

Rob Jones is confident that he will retain a balance between self-belief and perspective. When signing a new contract in August, Curtis Jones outlined the importance of his family's local Toxteth roots and a desire to eventually captain Liverpool.

"He's got a great talent - he's a confident lad, but in a nice way," said Rob Jones. "He channels it perfectly. Maybe one or two times over the past five or six years that Alex had known him, if he has come over and gone too over-confident, Alex has pulled him back in. He'll take it in his stride."

Feathers were certainly ruffled last season when Liverpool launched their "'This Means More' campaign.

What was confirmed on Sunday is that there is still little in football that means more than flourishing local talent.

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