ADVENT CALENDAR DAY 24: CREATING PATHWAYS TO THE FIRST TEAM

ADVENT CALENDAR DAY 24: CREATING PATHWAYS TO THE FIRST TEAM

Alex Inglethorpe, the U21s manager, gave some time out of his busy schedule to write a piece on how Liverpool deal with youth loans, his day-to-day job and the interesting insights Fowler, Macca and Jones have added to the training pitch.

He explains how it’s odd being a development coach, as you are always trying to get rid of your best players.

Loan deals are becoming more prevalent within youth football, and it is something that a few of our younger players have experienced this season. Without the ability to have a feeder club in this country, the final step of development is rarely the 21s league, but rather to amass a number of appearances at various other levels of football.

When a player goes out, the decision of where and for how long is a collective one that will involve Brendan, the coaching staff at both Melwood and Kirkby as well as the scouting department. Together we consider what is in the players best interests and then do our best to try and make it happen. Since arriving a year ago I have been trying to create pathways and opportunities for the players in The Academy. To do this, it important to recognise potential in both your own group of players as well as the groups below as the decisions made often have a knock on effect lower down.

The main difference between being a development coach as opposed to a First team manager is that I’m trying to get my best players out of my team rather than keep them in it! If they are with me too long then it can occasionally mean that they aren’t progressing or have reached a ceiling in their development. Of course, by them leaving it can make the team a little weaker but at this stage it is about the player and not the team. This season we have been bold in playing the likes of Lloyd Jones, Cameron Brannagan, Jordan Rossiter, Joe Maguire and Connor Randall. On paper the side may look less experienced and probably physically weaker but they have all applied themselves really well and benefited hugely from the challenge that has been offered to them.

It is my belief that this methodology not only benefits the younger players currently playing in the 21s but also the boys who go on loan; if they don’t get the vital new experience that they crave they can almost over-ripen in the reserve team. They are so ready to play men’s football, play for three points, and in front of a crowd that if you don’t give it to them at the correct time then they can become disillusioned and regress in their development. We try to win every game we play in the 21s, and perhaps winning the league might be easier if we kept a lot of the older boys back at the Club, but as a group of staff we recognise that the only result at the club that’s important is the first team one on the Saturday. We all know it’s the one that matters, my job is to get the right players to them at the right time and to make sure they are ready to take their opportunity.

Every now and again there is a Raheem Sterling; someone ready to jump into the first team straight from the youth setup. It’s terrific when it happens (be it very rarely) and it’s the easiest pathway for a coach as the whole process is contained within your own Club. More often than not the journey isn’t so simple. If, for example, you have a young centre forward then it’s highly unlikely that he is going to be able to replace Luis Suarez – most strikers in world football can’t even do that.

Some players need a career before their Liverpool career.

Luis Suarez is actually a really good example of how this works, as the 18 year old Suarez wouldn’t have been able to compete with the 26 year old Suarez. The Liverpool number seven played at Nacional in Uruguay, moved to Gronigen in Holland, then Ajax and finally found his way to Liverpool having gained nearly 170 games worth of experience. In that time he would have made mistakes, experimented and learnt his trade. I want to give our young players the same exposure to first team football and football’s overriding journey. Football should be fun, but you have to feel a sense of progress from time to time otherwise you can become stale.

If it is your first loan then the players need to appreciate that they are not in a position to be too fussy, because at this stage the fact of the matter is that you need to go where someone wants you. When starting out the young player might have have little or no credibility as a player capable of surviving in adult football. That comes with time and performance… and then in turn more managers might be willing to trust you with their jobs by giving you a starting place in their team. With the first loan you often have to take what you can, someone has seen something in you and the opportunity is there for the taking. It gives the player something to prove, to show identity.

Ideally we want our players to be at a club where they play good football that’s similar in style to how we play at Liverpool Football Club. However, that’s dependent on position – if you’re a goalkeeper for example you might get sent out to a club to improve certain elements of your game. At a lower level of football you encounter more crosses, through balls and perhaps more set-pieces, so sometimes as a ‘keeper or centre half a loan to a lower league actually gives you more to work on as a player.

Krizstian Adorjan has gone on loan abroad. He’s at Groningen in the Eredivise in Holland where the type of football played suits his style and will hopefully give him the best chance of progressing.

Conor Coady’s experience has been a varied one with Sheffield United as he has already had to adapt to different managers, different styles and different tactics. This will stand him in good stead for the future.

Having spoken with the players on loan I know that they view the experience of working somewhere other than Liverpool (which is a very privileged club to be at) has broadened both their minds and horizons as well as sharpening their ambitions.

The likes of Jon Flanagan and Raheem Sterling are sending out a terrific message to all of the players whether on loan or at The Academy.

I think that we are one of only a few clubs that can say that we have a manager in charge who judges a player on ability first and experience second. If you train well, show personality and have talent then he’s brave enough to play you. A young player currently trying to break in to The Premiership can’t ask for more than that.

Martin Kelly and Jon Flanagan have asked to play for the U21s this season to keep themselves ready should they be needed with the first team. It’s a great attitude to have as sometimes you may have to endure months of remaining physically ready, and mentally focused in the hope that your name makes it on to the team sheet. Fortunately for Flano that has happened a fair bit of late and all players and staff at the Academy are made up for him.

Flano is someone who works hard off the pitch but when we travel abroad it’s great to see that all the senior players adopt our team ethos straight away. They help with rest of the boys by taking in the kits from the plane, loading them onto the bus. It’s so important that we learn to contribute off the pitch as well as on it. I think it’s important to remain humble and I don’t like seeing players swan off with their wash bag and wait for everyone else to get their luggage for them – no, that’s not how it is, you earn the right for that to happen. We are trying to become first team players and need to realise that we aren’t there yet!

On a final note, the impact of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Rob Jones has been huge for staff and players since they have been brought into the Academy. They have all been terrific – first and foremost they are genuine people with a sense of humility and secondly they have experienced what’s it’s like to play at the highest level the game has to offer.

They are all very good at having quiet, well thought out positive words with the boys to give them encouragement in what they are doing. Any matches they miss we send them recordings of, and they study them so that they can help the group with little insights and things they see. All three have sat on benches at games, joined in with training and come abroad with us. It’s also worth mentioning that when they did travel abroad with us they weren’t swanning off with their wash bags either – they helped with the kits and the training gear: it’s a mark of how grounded they are and how humble they remain.

They also have great empathy for the players that are trying to make it in the same way as they all did and that’s so important to have when working with the U21s group as it can be a frustrating time for a player. That empathy extends to the difficulty the players face in breaking through in to the Premier League as it is now only 23% English– making it even tougher for our local lads to emulate the success of Robbie, Steve and Rob.

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