LIVERPOOL – Below the hubbub of Mohammed Salah’s impending move from Roma to Liverpool, the news of Steven Gerrard announcing his back-up team as manager of the Under-18 academy slipped under the radar.
It contained no-one famous but it was a reminder of Gerrard’s continued importance to the club. His years as Liverpool’s best player need no regurgitation, other than to emphasise the club’s failure to find a successor.
The decision to appoint him at academy level was more than good publicity. It highlighted the need to address another of Liverpool’s recruitment shortcomings: Salah’s move already shines a light on the Reds’ failures in the transfer market over recent years as he could have joined in 2013 for a much lower fee.
Liverpool have had at least one superstar come through the ranks each decade, often prolific goalscorers. They were all players who were unknown until they pulled on the red shirt.
The 1960s saw Roger Hunt, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan serve the club superbly. In the 1970s things changed slightly as Kevin Keegan, Steve Heighway and Jimmy Case were bought from small clubs for such nominal sums they barely registered as fees.
Counting Ian Rush as a youth graduate is certainly pushing it, but Chester was still an unlikely source of greatness and he was still only 19 when he signed. Liverpool returned to their own academy for goals in the 1990s and 2000s via Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen.
Since Raheem Sterling left before the term superstar was fully warranted, Gerrard is the last player to follow such a path to the top, brought through by Heighway in his later role as youth development officer.
Manchester United’s Class of 1992 will continue to seize the historical plaudits, largely because of the silverware they helped win, but Liverpool’s own youth quintet of the period wasn’t too shabby: Fowler, Owen and Gerrard along with Steve McManaman and Jamie Carragher.
That was clearly a golden age of young players for English football’s two giants, and expecting Gerrard to reinvent that supply line of talent is a tall order, but it’s a challenge he appears to have accepted with relish.
Heighway was also immersed in the Liverpool way, having also won the European Cup – and a lot more besides – with the Reds as a player. He knew exactly what the club was looking for, in terms of skill and arguably more importantly character.
The modern era makes the job of such men much harder. The potential financial rewards for youngsters these days are breathtaking, with the big clubs recruiting players and sending them here there and everywhere on loan in almost nonchalant fashion.
Chelsea’s Nathan Ake, for example, has scored goals against Liverpool for two different teams, Watford and Bournemouth, and has returned to base in order to pursue his career at Stamford Bridge.
Goalkeeper Danny Ward has played Championship football for Huddersfield, helping them to the English Premier League after winning two penalty shoot-outs in the playoffs.
Time will tell whether Ward can return to play in goal for Liverpool. Had he stayed he still wouldn’t have played the four or five cup games which were given to the likes of Kevin Stewart, Sheyi Ojo and Ben Woodburn.
This has always seemed unfair. Such players rarely get to play in a proper first-choice team. What they have to contribute can’t genuinely be measured in a midweek league cup match considered surplus to requirements and surrounded by Jurgen Klopp’s second-string players.
There may be a “sink or swim” determination being made here, but a player like Trent Alexander-Arnold showed what he had to offer in a proper English Premier League match against Manchester United back in January.
Gerrard’s new role will see him push for young players to get more chances. It is obvious he will show as much determination as manager of the Under-18s as he did as a player, especially since the more players who get a chance the better it reflects on him, if he has ambitions to manage at a higher level.
Liverpool’s modern woes stem almost entirely from failures in recruitment. At the expensive end of the market, they’ve made some poor errors of judgment, which have been catalogued on these pages far too often. – ESPN.