Liverpool aiming to bring through next generation of talent
Jurgen Klopp heavily invested in future of the club
Liverpool’s current generation of footballers might be inspiring dreams of a first league title since 1990, but the club’s hopes for future domination are being built in a manner that belies the “spend big” nature of the English Premier League.
While the team’s US owners have backed manager Jurgen Klopp and his predecessor Brendan Rodgers with substantial transfer funds, behind the scenes there is a very different player culture developing.
At the club’s academy training ground in Kirkby, a 20-minute drive from its fabled Anfield stadium, Alex Inglethorpe is planning for the next generation of talent.
His strategy has Klopp’s full support with Liverpool’s German manager having already used youngsters Ben Woodburn (aged 17), Trent Alexander-Arnold (18) and Ovie Ejaria (19) in cup games and as substitutes in league matches this season.
Inglethorpe is the man entrusted with making sure Liverpool brings through players to follow in the footsteps of Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher. Gerrard himself has been reportedly linked with a return to Liverpool in a youth coaching role since his retirement in November.
But for every kid who makes it to the top, thousands of others fall by the wayside.
“The biggest problem is that you can have too much, too soon,” Inglethorpe tells CNN when asked about the dangers facing young players.
“We are in a very privileged position and you can exist in something of a bubble. Young players have to try hard and be humble. They have to understand that the man on the street who watches the first team play is different to them.
“It’s really important to for them to understand what it’s like to play for those supporters who turn up every week and what that badge represents to the fans here and across the world.
“It can be daunting and it takes a special kind of character to play for a club like this and handle that level of expectation. You can’t hide that.”
Inglethorpe is under no illusions as to the hurdles and pitfalls which face his young players both as aspiring professional footballers and as people.
Liverpool revealed in October that it would not allow any of its players aged 17 or younger to earn in excess of £40,000 ($50,000.)
Any increase in wages would have to come as a direct result of progress and achievement, whether it be on loan to clubs in the lower leagues or with the first team.
“The young players have to earn their money,” Inglethorpe says. “I think that if they carry on and progress they will become very well paid.
“The message is that your rewards should be linked to your achievements. This is a club that believes you have to earn it.”
Inglethorpe certainly had to earn it – his path through the world of professional football was far less glamorous than that enjoyed by those at Liverpool’s famed academy.
As a player he spent much of his time in the lower leagues with clubs such as Leyton Orient and Exeter City, both currently floundering at the foot of England’s basement division.
As manager of Exeter, he was forced into becoming what he called a “glorified Under-18 coach” with the club struggling for cash.
He even led his side to a famous 0-0 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in 2005 before moving on.
He joined Tottenham in 2006 to work with the youth set-up and spent six years there before arriving on Merseyside in 2012.
“I see myself as a developer of talent, not as a coach,” the 45-year-old says. “What I’ve learned is that you’re only as good as the staff you surround yourself with.
“You need to understand the kids, you need to have inspirational characters who want to improve themselves and have the best interests of the club at heart.”
Outside the bubble
At a time where English elite clubs are pumping more and more money into youth development and infrastructure, Inglethorpe is wary of young players being ensconced in a sterile environment, mollycoddled, and kept an arm’s length away from reality.
“With that money comes opportunity for improvement but it can become too corporate and the environment can become too safe.
“There’s a lot to be taken from old-fashioned values – they’ve stuck around for so long because they’re true. It’s about hard work and being dedicated.”
Inglethorpe talks with pride about the work the young players do with the local homeless shelters, working with the city’s nuns and learning from those in the Royal Air Force.
He is proud of the fact his players visited Auschwitz during a recent tournament in Poland, while they have also met with Holocaust survivor Renee Salt, a Pole who escaped Nazi death camps and ended up in Britain.
Everything is geared up at ensuring each individual leaves the academy as well-rounded as possible both on and off the field.
With that in mind, Liverpool slashed the number of youth players by 15% last year in order to concentrate on quality over quantity.
“We want to give each boy the maximum amount of time and the pathway to succeed,” Inglethorpe says.
“It’s a long journey from when you walk into the academy all the way through (to the senior ranks) and you have to make sure that the flutter in your heart that you get when you first start never disappears.
“At 14, you can fall out of love with the game. We want to make sure that when you become a full-time professional you still have that enthusiasm.”
That enthusiasm should not be difficult to hold onto given Liverpool’s improvement under Klopp, who replaced Rodgers in October 2015. Liverpool play city rivals Everton Monday in a key league game as the Anfield club attempts to stay in touch with leaders Chelsea.
Inglethorpe enjoys a close relationship with Klopp and says the German is fastidious in his studies of the younger players.
He cites first-team captain Jordan Henderson as a role model for aspiring professionals, and the environment at the club as the perfect place for youngsters to progress.
“With the manager and the owners, we can offer something fairly unique,” Inglethorpe says.
“The manager and staff are all exceptional at making us feel part of everything that is going on.”
His academy players will hope they become an integral part of Liverpool’s plans for many years to come.