The Kids Are Alright
If you ask any Liverpool supporter if they have heard of Jordan Ibe or Jerome Sinclair they might nod awkwardly or honestly tell you they haven’t a clue who they are. Why?
The reason is quite simple – Liverpool do not really have a great track record for developing their youths from a few great performances in FA Youth Cups or even from the reserve leagues into seasoned senior professionals, racking up appearance after appearance in the Premier League and European football.
It has been a problem at the club for a number of years, and something that ex-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez fought so hard to try and implement. Benitez had tried to gain full control of the academy, but even he had problems bringing through youths into the first team. Envious eyes were always cast towards teams like Arsenal who seem to have a never-ending production line of talent or a new name getting game time week in week out. Arsene Wenger and his policy on youth is probably the best in world football at the moment as he truly instils belief in his younger players that they deserve to be playing against the likes of Wayne Rooney and John Terry on a weekly basis.
The only other league where youth is currently showcased so heavily is the Bundesliga. Managers like Jurgen Klopp of Borussia Dortmund pick up bargains or unearth top young players for next to nothing. Take Shinji Kagawa for example, a measly £300,000 signing from Cerezo Osaka, Kagawa helped Dortmund to back to back Bundesliga titles and beat fierce rivals Bayern Munich in the German cup final to secure a double where he then finds himself off to one of the biggest clubs in the world, Manchester United.
Usually a few League Cup games or an odd FA Cup game would be enough for the likes of Danny Guthrie or Zak Whitbread but the thought of either ever becoming a mainstay in the Liverpool team never really became reality. Both players now find themselves at Reading and Norwich respectively, both playing semi-regularly but still never really good enough to hold down a long term place in a Liverpool shirt.
A youth academy that produced arguably the club’s greatest ever player in Steven Gerrard, as well as cult club legend Jamie Carragher and pantomime villain Michael Owen, has not produced a first team regular over the past few years, let alone an actual star in the making. Yet there are signs that that may change – especially under new manager Brendan Rodgers whose ethos seems to be ‘if they’re good enough they’re old enough’; music to most LFC fan’s ears.
There are considerable amounts of talent swarming in and around the club, players like Raheem Sterling, Suso, Jonjo Shelvey and Jack Robinson to name a few and whilst Shelvey and Robinson are no strangers to the first team, they would be hoping to push for further chances to shine in a red shirt in the coming season, with the club competing in four competitions.
Sterling and Suso may be the more excitable talents to the seasoned Red, but there are a few gems who could also be unearthed and thrown into the spotlight should a chance present itself. Andre Wisdom, Stephen Sana, Adam Morgan, Jordan Ibe and Jerome Sinclair could all get some game time next season. Wisdom, Morgan and Sana have all been heavily featured in the three pre-season games under Rodgers so far.
Raheem Sterling burst onto the scene last year in an FA Youth Cup tie against Southend United where the pacey left forward managed to bag himself an astonishing five goals in one game, alerting fans and staff alike to just how exciting a talent he was. Manager Kenny Dalglish saw enough in Sterling to give him his Premier League début at home to Wigan Athletic and in the brief cameo, where he was warmly applauded onto the field, his pace and trickery created a few chances as well as announcing himself to the Anfield faithful. Sterling featured again against Fulham and Chelsea towards the end of the season. There is a real hope that under Rodgers, Sterling could really flourish and be the Scott Sinclair or Nathan Dyer of the Liverpool team. The sky is the limit for Sterling.
Jesús Joaquín Fernández Sáez de la Torre, or Suso to you and I, is another young talent waiting to be given a chance for Liverpool. Suso has recently just won the Under-19 European Championships with Spain, starting every game and getting rave reviews in the process. Many a Liverpool fan will treat Suso with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as compatriot Dani Pacheco kicks his heels still waiting for his chance despite showing brief glimpses of talent and impressing on loan at Norwich, as well as Rayo Vallecano (via Atletico Madrid). However, Suso is a different talent, a confident, tricky left footer who has a great eye for a pass and a mean shot on him. Suso again could flourish in Rodgers’ system, complimenting Suarez, Sterling or Borini from midfield playing the lovely short passing Swansea were lauded for last season under Rodgers. Patience is the key for this young man, a loan deal could very well establish him as a Liverpool regular for years to come.
There has been talk of Sterling and Shelvey being loaned out, as their talents seem too good to get the odd game here and there and if they were to be playing week in and week out for a Premier League team then their stock, skills and experience would definitely rise.
Teams like Arsenal and Manchester United have sent the likes of Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley out on loan before coming back and marching straight into their team’s starting line ups. Man City sending Joe Hart on loan to Birmingham gave him the confidence to be the number one at City, winning a title last season and cementing his place as number one for England. If a player is playing week in week out in the cut and thrust business of the Premier League, they will learn far more than the odd game against lower league opposition in a cup game and history suggests a season on loan elsewhere in the Premier League will be enough to make a player challenge for a first team spot the following season.
Whatever happens, the future looks bright for younger players in a system that will showcase their talents and highlighting their strengths whilst working on their weaknesses and with a man like Rodgers making his players believe in themselves, Liverpool fans seemingly can look forwards and be proud again of a team looking to play attractive, attacking football. Lord knows we could do with it.