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Spearing steeled by school of hard knocks

It is a common misconception that modern footballers have no back story, that academies and youth schemes can roll out capable, identikit players but not the characters of old. Liverpool's Jay Spearing, set to play in the FA Cup final against Chelsea after finally establishing himself in the first team at the ripe old age of 23, exists to disprove it.

Spearing actually has several stories to tell. This is the 5ft 6in player who initially made a name for himself as a centre-half.

"I knew I was a bit on the short side," he says with a shrug, "but my dad was a centre-half so that was how I started out." This is the player who made his Anfield debut in a 4-0 defeat of Real Madrid in the Champions League in 2009, then found himself playing for the reserves at Warrington a day later. "We beat Manchester United 2-1," he recalls. "I think it was Rafa Benitez's way of keeping my feet on the ground and making sure I concentrated on my football."

More than anyone else at the club Spearing came to symbolise the tension that existed between Steve Heighway, who was running Liverpool's academy, and Benitez, who thought it was in need of an overhaul. Heighway lost that battle and departed, but not before publicly stating that Benitez should be giving local products such as Spearing more of a chance.

"I feel loyalty to both of them," Spearing admits. "Steve brought me through, Rafa gave me my debut. I know they didn't always see eye to eye but I wouldn't say I was caught up in the politics at the club. It was just a bad time to come through, but I always felt confident I would make it."

Captain of the Liverpool Under-18s who won the FA Youth Cup in 2007, Spearing's first career setback was a broken leg that left him on the sidelines as other academy players moved onwards. "It was such a clean break of the tibia the only thing they could do to fix it was put a metal rod in it," he says. "It's still in there actually but the injury has cleared up. That cost me a bit of time, though. I could see the other lads getting their chances while I had to prove myself all over again."

After being sent out to Leicester on loan to gain first-team experience and grow up a little, to use his own expression, Spearing began to make more regular Liverpool appearances last season but still had to watch from the sidelines as Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing arrived at considerable expense to make competition for Liverpool places even more intense. Adam even took Spearing's shirt number.

"He did ask me first," Spearing says. "I didn't have too much of a problem with that. Charlie's son was born on the 26th and that was the number he had worn at Blackpool, so it was no big deal. And although I knew all those players would be competing with me for a limited number of places, I also knew that is the way a club like Liverpool works. This is the club where I have always wanted to grow up and to be a part of, but a club of this size will always be associated with big players and big players are always going to want to come here.

"That's the challenge you accept as a local lad [Spearing was born in Wallasey]. There's no point complaining about it and no question of moving on to somewhere else. It's not easy holding down a first-team place at Liverpool and nor should it be, but I've already played alongside people like Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard and where else are you going to get an education like that?"

Spearing is still playing alongside Gerrard and that has not been easy either. "I grew up idolising him," he says. "It was my absolute dream to play in the same team as him, so it took me a year or two just to say hello.

"I could hardly look at him, let alone speak, and I think he could tell I was struggling, so he took me to one side and told me not to worry, just to be myself and play my normal game. Now I look at him as an idol and a good friend as well, and I can talk to him normally.

"I wouldn't say I'd be able to give him a rollicking, but I'll have a word if there's something we could be doing better on the pitch. I feel I have that confidence now. I feel I have shown my capabilities but just because I'm a local lad doesn't mean I'm going to be the next Steven Gerrard. He's a one-off, like Wayne Rooney, a special sort of player that comes along once or twice in a generation. I'd be happy with half the career he's had."


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