27th March 2013, by Mike Kennedy
The wind is howling across the exposed training fields of Liverpool’s youth academy. Seriously, it’s bloody freezing.
But despite the weather I’m thrilled to be here along with 9 other bloggers/websites that have been invited to the club’s academy to meet the directors and senior management of Liverpool’s youth system.
I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of speaking with today’s interviewees: Frank McParland (Academy Director), Rodolfo Borrell (Technical Director and Head of Coaching) and Alex Inglethorpe (U21s manager).
It’s a rare opportunity to glimpse behind the curtain and learn more about an important element in the club’s future.
The Academy makes a favourable first impression both in terms of the quality of its facilities and the sheer scale of the site.
It covers 56 acres, has four full-size grass pitches, one with a Polytan surface (I haven’t a clue what that is but it sounds snazzy) and there’s also seven smaller pitches along with an indoor arena. It’s a big place.
The Academy site.
And of course, everything is in the kind of tip-top minty fresh condition that you would expect at an elite sports facility.
Perfectly manicured, vivid green fields are framed with meticulous white lines. I’ve always been a sucker for a sexy football pitch so I’m entirely seduced.
I resist the urge to put my boots on and charge onto the pitch and instead head for reception, eager to meet with Liverpool’s press officer and the other lads so we can begin today’s session.
After a brief confab in the Academy canteen, we’re ushered through to a spacious briefing room where we await the arrival of McParland, Borrell and Inglethorpe.
Inglethorpe joined Liverpool in late 2012 but McParland and Borrell (along with the now-departed Pep Segura) were Rafa Benitez’s key appointments in his major restructuring of the Academy in 2009.
No Liverpool manager polarised opinion as much as Benitez, but even the Spaniard’s most vehement critics agree that his work in reshaping the club’s youth academy was both necessary and successful.
Borrell strides into the room. He’s an imposing man, large and gruff. It soon becomes clear why Rafa chose him to be such an important cog in the Academy machine; he’s intelligent and authoritative with a deep understanding of the game.
And of course he has the Barca Connection.
Borrell worked at Barcelona for 13 years and having coached at all levels from U11s to U17s he helped to develop players including Fabregas, Messi & Pique. He’s Rafa’s chief necromancer, employed to seed Catalonian black magic into the womb of Liverpool FC.
Rodolfo Borrell (Technical Director / Head of Coaching)
McParland and Inglethorpe arrive and we kick the session off promptly. Jim Boardman from Anfield Road gets things started by asking the trio how they measure success.
McParland: “The ultimate one for us is getting players into the first team. If they’re not good enough for the first team then we want to get some value out of them.
The three of us always discuss it and it’s whatever is best for the lad himself. If we can’t get any more from them we want to get them a club elsewhere. That’s really important to us. There was a time when a lot of kids dropped out of football but we work hard to keep them in the game.”
This is something that McParland is keen to stress and I’ve heard him mention this several times prior to today. It’s to be applauded that they try to find clubs for rejected players as 98% of football’s youth academy prospects won’t play for their club’s senior XI.
Being let go from a club can be a traumatic experience and an alarming proportion of these young lads go off the rails and even turn to crime.
Andy Heaton from the Anfield Wrap asks how much of a focus is placed on attaining silverware versus player development and wonders how the Academy management balance the two priorities.
Inglethorpe: ”The cups and the trophies are important, there’s great pride attached if you win the Next Gen series or the FA Youth Cup and to a degree they’re a benchmark of how good the team is, but the underlying point is we’d happily sacrifice that in the right circumstances, we’d be happy to be bottom of every league if it meant we could find the next Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen or Robbie Fowler because ultimately that’s how we’ll be judged.
There’s plenty of former players with FA Youth Cup medals who are now walking round doing other (non-football) jobs.
The purpose of doing well in those competitions is to see which players can do well in higher pressure situations, as the crowds get bigger, the TV coverage increases, they’re playing in front of the manager etc.”
It’s our first opportunity to hear Inglethorpe speak today and this is the first in a series of articulate and thoughtful answers from him.
Rob Gutmann is representing Well Red magazine (in Gareth Roberts‘ absence) and asks: “With young players you often hear the phrase ‘if they’re good enough they’re old enough’. We’ve seen players come into the team this year who’ve stepped up their level of performance from how they were playing last year. From your perspective, do you feel it’s part of your job to get them into the first team faster, to encourage that process, to speed their development up, get them into the first team and see how they do?”
Rodolfo Borrell responds (with a subtle Molbyesque Scouse twang to his accent):
“It depends on the individual player’s maturity and knowledge. It’s different for everyone. Some players might be ready for this challenge at an early stage.
Our job is to make sure that when they get that chance, they are ready to face that challenge. It doesn’t depend on the age, it depends on the maturity.
We work with the players day in and day out, the coaches, the technical director, the director, we are always assessing the players. There are many opinions but the manager’s is the ultimate one. He decides who will make the jump.”
McParland: “Everything we do here is to support the manager and the first team. I’d love to win every trophy and every game in the Next Gen and Youth Cup, but it’s primarily about us supporting the manager and the first team.
And we don’t need to flag players to the manager because he actually knows them all by name, he’ll ask us “How’s Jack Dunn doing? How’s Jerome doing?” He knows there’s a flow of players who are going to come through.”
Frank McParland (Academy Director)
Karl Matchett from the Liverpool Word asks how long McParland thinks it will be before he can attain his aim of having 50% of the first team squad come from the academy and also whether McParland thinks that’s sustainable over time.
McParland: “We’re really happy with the staff we have at the Academy and the coaching programme that we have but it’s the scouting that the key.
Our job every year is to give the reserves 5,6 or 7 players. [Note: The reserves is now the U21s, they are one and the same thing.] Then it’s Alex’s job to get 2-3 or just 1 into the first team squad. We think we’re on the right lines, we’re really pleased with the coaching programme and we’re always trying to refine what we’re doing here.”
The inference here is that McParland and his team can only work with the players they have. It’s down to the scouting team to find gems for the Academy team to polish.
Let’s hope that Dave Fallows and his team can deliver the goods this summer following last year’s scouting restructure.
Paul Machin from Redmen TV asks Inglethorpe: “Obviously Sterling, Suso and Wisdom have drawn plaudits this season, but in the last couple of weeks the most exciting player for your team has been Joao Teixeira. How excited are you to have him back fit & available?”
Inglethorpe: ”He’s eye catching isn’t he? He’s certainly a talent. He’s a really interesting character, he’s come from Sporting Lisbon, they produce some good players and have a great tradition (Figo, Nani, Ronaldo) there’s a lot of history there, so it was a big decision for him to leave.
He came in with an injury, he’s taken time to adapt to the culture, the weather, he’s a young kid who has come over here without family, without friends, he doesn’t speak the language.
He’s over that initial period now and is now training consistently and his qualities are obvious. The manager likes him but also knows there’s still a way to go. He needs to refine some elements of his game and he’ll be more effective.
Those types of players are great to watch, Xavi, Modric, etc, because they connect everyone in the team. They’re like a spider in the middle of a web. Joao needs to be more effective in terms of goals, assists, key passes, he knows this. He’s certainly the most eye catching of the group.
But the ones who got injured in recent weeks, young Brad, the local boy, he’s a tremendous talent, like Samed Yeşil & Marc Pelosi. We need the ones who got injured to get back sooner rather than later.”
Michael Sweeting from This Is Anfield asks: ”From the outside, it looks like recruitment at the academy has slowed down. Has that been a policy to keep the group small? Or is it due to all the changes that happened in the summer?”
Frank McParland initially responds by saying “nothing has changed in terms of recruitment” but then seems to contradict this….
McParland: “In the past we used to sign a lot of people that we brought in just to look at but now we don’t always sign them. We’re looking for top players now. In the past we sometimes signed players that would help the other ones.”
That sounds to me like something has changed. In the past the club would sign some youth players that they felt would help the development of the other star performers (even if they weren’t good enough to make the grade in their own right).
This sounds a bit mercenary, but the logic is sound. If you need to sign a few water-carriers to help a special talent fulfil his potential, then that seems like an easy judgment call to make. But it now appears the club are only interested in signing special talents.
I ask Rodolfo Borrell: “What are the main challenges that you face in trying to develop Scouse and English kids compared to Spanish ones? Technically and physically on the field, but also off the field, mentally and socially?”
Borrell: “Well I just think the football is really different here. How the game is played in general. Each country is different and has its own characteristics. What’s really important is to implement some things that can make the British players better.
The profile of players is different here. The play is Spain is more technical and tactical, especially more technical. Here the play is more physical, but you cannot change this. Many things in England are great, it’s not right to try and change everything. This (the Premier League) is the best league in the world.
In terms of social background it’s similar, lots of players from different backgrounds. The best players to represent us are first, Scouse, second English and third, foreign. But I would say if we are going to bring a foreign player over here, he has to be a lot better than we already have.”
(This is exactly what McParland told Sachin Nakrani of the Guardian last year: “If there are two players worth looking at, one is English and one is foreign, and they’re at exactly the same level, we’d always take the English player. If one is English and one is Scouse, and they’re at exactly the same level, we would 100% always take the Scouse one, because our club’s identity has always been about having local kids coming through and we’re desperate to carry that on.”)
I ask McParland what percentage of players at the Academy are Scouse, British & foreign.
McParland: “About 75% of our players are from within a hour away.”
Borrell: “The local players know what it means to play for Liverpool. They’ve sat at Anfield since they were small. If you know what it means to the people of Liverpool, you will represent yourself better.”
McParland: “You always get it when you have foreign players or someone who has moved to the city; no-one can believe it when they go to Anfield and hear the fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Borrell: “The first thing I say to a foreign player when they come here is “I’m a foreigner too, we may have talent or something to benefit Liverpool, but it’s us who has to adapt to here, not the other way around”. We have to adapt to this society.”
Lewis Dunwoody from the Bib Theorists asks: “How much of an icon is Jamie Carragher to the kids here? And how much of an example does he set to them?”
Inglethorpe: ”You could write a thesis watching Jamie Carragher train. I was watching him at Melwood this morning playing with some of the younger lads. The enthusiasm he has, knowing he’s about to retire, playing in a game with young lads, my god he plays like it’s a world cup final.
When we play five-a-side the group splits up and the coaches each referee a game. No-one wants to be chosen to be the referee for the match that includes Carragher’s team because he contests every decision, the stick you get from him is terrible. He is a incredible competitor.
If ever there was an example to a young kid of someone with talent, who made the absolute best of the talent they were given, through sheer desire and willpower it’s Carragher. It’s incredible when you see him train.”
McParland: “His boy is here and he comes here 3-4 times a week. With his Dad. He watches every game. The kids all know his name.”
Inglethorpe: ”And he knows all the kids’ names.”
McParland: “We won’t realise how much we’ll miss him properly until he leaves.”
I ask Frank if he thinks Carragher will remain at the club, in some capacity.
McParland: “We’d love him to be involved. If he wanted to do something with us, we’d find something. We’d love that, but I think the manager has plans. I don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’ll have lots of offers I’m sure. Whatever he does he’ll have Liverpool in his heart.”
Interesting comment there from Frank: ‘I think the manager has plans’. Intriguing. Carragher is apparently signed up to be a Sky Sports pundit next season, presumably alongside Nerdgasm Neville. Wonder how that will pan out?
Borrell: “I’ve said many times, Carragher represents everything that Liverpool is about. His focus, determination, he has the club in his heart. He has been a great servant.
It’s a pity (he’s leaving) because nowadays it’s difficult to find this. The lads now have everything too easy, they lack hunger because they have everything. In the past, the children had less, so they wanted more. And they spent more time in the park playing with their mates.”
Dan Kennett is here on behalf of the Tomkins Times and asks what success looks like for the Academy and if they believe ‘burnout’ is a real thing or just a media label.
McParland: “The ultimate success for us is when they play 100 games. We’ve done well seeing players get early debuts and starts, but that’s a little bit superficial in some respects.
We’d love to see our players get 100-200 games, that would be the ultimate success.
There is burnout. The sports scientists get a lot of stick, but for the modern game they are imperitive.
When I came back, 3 and a half years ago, there was one sports scientist here, he worked with 5 players. I said ‘why are you only covering 5 players?’ and he said ‘well these are the 5 best ones’. None of those 5 have come through. All of his time was spent with 5 players and there was only 1 man looking at this.
Now we have a department of 7 or 8 sports scientists and the kids are wearing GPS trackers and heart monitors, the physios are talking every morning, there’s daily briefings, it’s a very professional and technological game now.”
This is an interesting insight into life before Rafa’s bloodletting at the Academy in 2009. For the club to have only 1 sports scientist in the modern environment of European football is staggering. This oversight is compounded by the fact he was only working with 5 players. (The academy has around 200 signed players on the books at any one time.) For a club with elite aspirations this was clearly unacceptable.
For the record, the staff roster at the Academy has burgeoned in recent years to reflect the increased focus on youth development.
Inglethorpe: “There’s different types of burnout. A lot of the time for young players it’s mental more than physical. For a youth team player going to Melwood to train with the first team for a week, the first 1 or 2 days can be great, but it can get harder.
We need to recognise different types in the academy. People are born at different points in the same age bracket, in the year, this affects relative age and maturation.
The big thing for me is what the player is going to look like when he’s 22. Not what he’s like when he’s 18. You can have the best U18s team in the world, but their potential might end there.
Sometimes players haven’t had their testosterone kick, so looking at them in a group of others who have isn’t fair because they’re playing in a different body to every one else.
We’re fortunate at the moment in that we have a manager who knows the process of youth development, he has a belief in youth and an understanding of the process involved.
The manager is unique in the Premier League, he knows all the youth players’ names. He watches every game. We’re very lucky in that regard.”
This can only be a good thing for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers has spoken many times about fostering a ‘one club mentality’ and how he wants the youth players to approach the game in a similar style to the senior team. Integrating the club from bottom to top seems like a no-brainer. Even so, it’s heartening to hear that the manager is so involved.
Andy Richardson from Live4Liverpool asks: “What characteristics do you look for in a Youth Player and can any deficiencies be developed?”
Inglethorpe: “I think integrity is important. The best and most successful players I’ve worked with have that.
And their ability to self-analyse is second to none. Having an ability to critique their own performance and do something about it. That’s elite. That’s an elite trait.
If there’s a weakness with a player, under fatigue and pressure that will come out.”
McParland: “I always look for the ones with a big heart. We always say ‘the quality is the quality’, but top players have got something else, they have something deep down. And that’s not something that can be taught. If I look at our players at age 9 and then again when they’re 13, it’s the same ones who have got something special, I look for that winning mentality.”
Inglethorpe: “I’ve got a real thing for the ‘silver medalist’. Players who can spot a problem, overcome it and succeed. Top players can adapt.”
Our time with the trio is drawing to a close and we’re reminded that there’s only a few minutes left. Andy Heaton asks Alex Inglethorpe if there’s any difference in attitude between the kids in Liverpool and London (Inglethorpe joined Liverpool from Spurs).
Inglethorpe: “Kids are kids everywhere, but the accents change. There’s a real resilience in the local boys here at the Academy. They are mentally tough and there’s a definite steel about them. You hear about it in times gone by and you look at the characteristics of when Carragher plays, Gerrard plays, Rooney plays, there is a knowledge of how to win, it’s a real inner steel. You might get the odd kid in London who has that, but by and large it would be more unusual to see a kid here who doesn’t have that.”
I ask a final question: “I’ve always thought it would better if the club was on one site, rather than being split between Melwood and Kirkby. What are your thoughts on that and is this likely to change?”
McParland: “The manager wants it. The owners would like it. It would be great for our kids to be close to the first team. It would be fantastic for us to do it. Everyone would like it to happen. The manager has spoken about it a lot.
That said, there’s a really good relationship in place as it is. We’ve been at Melwood for the last 3 days and the dialogue with the manager is the best it’s ever been so there’s a clear thread between both sites.”
And with that the briefing draws to a close.
We say our ‘thank you’s’ and there’s plenty of handshakes before we slowly file out of the room chatting amongst ourselves and sharing our impressions, keen to linger and to delay our return to the cutting winds outside.
Prior to the briefing I was eagerly anticipating meeting Rodolfo Borrell and I certainly wasn’t disappointed, he spoke intelligently and with conviction.
But the star of the show, for me, was Alex Inglethorpe. It’s obvious why the club were so eager to poach him from Spurs. Intelligent, articulate and insightful, he’s a very modern, forward-thinking and well-rounded football man who clearly has a big future ahead of him.
Sachin Nakrani described Frank McParland as “modest, warm and funny” and I couldn’t put it better. Frank is a lifelong Kopite, who has worked at the club in some capacity for over 20 years and it shows.
It’s good to know that someone who clearly lives and breathes Liverpool FC is at the helm.
We’re 4 years into McParland’s directorship at the Academy and after a long drought several youngsters have broken into the senior squad recently. While dyed-in-the-wool cynics would be right to point to the paucity of the senior squad as a contributing factor, it’s clear that several of the current crop of youngsters possess the x-factor that’s needed to establish themselves as top flight footballers.
Having a fruitful and productive youth system in place has always been important in football, but with the introduction of Financial Fair Play, the emphasis on homegrown players and an ownership regime in place who put such a focus on youth development it’s fair to say that -along with Brendan Rodgers- these three men are fundamental to the future success of Liverpool FC.
As a fan, it’s reassuring to know that this important element of our club is in such safe hands and I’m genuinely excited to see the fruits of their labours over the coming years.
-Mike Kennedy (You can follow me on Twitter here.)
Further reading/resources on Liverpool’s Academy/Youth system
The ever-diligent Andy Heaton from the The Anfield Wrap recorded the full session, you can find the audio here.
Paul Machin from Redmen TV recorded plenty of video too, you can find it here.
Sachin Nakrani, Guardian journalist (and Liverpool fan) did a superb interview with Frank McParland in late 2012 which remains relevant and is well worth a read. It goes into detail on the specifics of the Academy’s setup, aims for the future and Rafa’s impact in shaping youth development at Liverpool. Sachin’s Guardian article is here but it’s heavily edited – all the juicy detail is in the full transcript of the interview itself which Sachin later posted on TAW, here.
In January 2013 two excellent articles on Liverpool’s youth setup were published in the Daily Mail (of all places), the first is here and the second is here.
You can learn more about all of the Academy staff and current playing roster here.