Merseyside giants Liverpool are having a tough season. The 18 times champions of England currently sit mired in lower mid-table, well behind fierce rivals and Premier League title challengers Manchester United. The Reds’ current manager, Brendan Rodgers, has already stressed several times since his appointment in the summer that the famous club are a long way off adding to their championship tally, with the Northern Irishman most recently saying that improving on last season’s 8th place finish would be “fantastic” for the club.
However, while the present season may hold little in terms of expectations, the future for Liverpool, at least, looks bright, with a promising group of young players having recently made the step up from the youth team to the senior squad. Credit must go to the incumbent manager, as well as his last two predecessors, England boss Roy Hodgson and, more recently, Kenny Dalglish, the man replaced by Rodgers, for recognising the potential of the club’s younger players and giving the tender Reds their chance in the first team.
However, the emergence of such a talented batch of graduates from the youth set-up in Kirkby also owes a great debt of gratitude to former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez, whose redevelopment of the academy is finally bearing the fruits of his labour.
Benitez arrived at Liverpool in June 2004 having just left Spanish outfit Valencia, where the Madrid-born manager won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup in three seasons in charge. At Anfield, the Spaniard continued to build on his reputation as one of the shrewdest managers in football by leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in his first season in at the helm, masterminding famous victories over Juventus and Chelsea along the way, as well as inspiring the Reds to overturn a three-goal half-time deficit against AC Milan in the final in Istanbul.
In the subsequent two years, Benitez added a European Super Cup, an FA Cup and a Community Shield to the trophy collection at Anfield, while also reaching a second Champions League final in the 2006/07 season and guiding the team to a second place finish in the Premier League in 2008/09; it was Liverpool’s highest league finish since Gerard Houllier had led the club to the same position seven years earlier.
The Spaniard also did much to integrate into Liverpool culture, supporting the Hillsborough Family Support Group and purchasing a permanent residence in the city, garnering huge respect from club’s fanbase as result.
However, in contrast to the current group of players now coming through the youth team at Anfield, one criticism that was sometimes levelled at Benitez during his time at the Merseyside club was a perceived failure to blood academy players, while those who did appear to be making the grade were sold off. Zak Whitbread, Neil Mellor, Stephen Warnock and Danny Guthrie were just some of the Kirky graduates who left Liverpool during the Spaniard’s tenure.
Throughout his career, Benitez has relied on the rounded talents and physical maturity of senior players; however, it would be extremely unreasonable to say that the former Real Madrid Under-19 manager neglected the interests of the youth team while in charge at Liverpool.
During his reign at the club, Benitez instigated and oversaw a complete redevelopment of the Anfield academy. It was a move that saw Liverpool’s youth set-up transform into something more akin to the productive systems seen in his native Spain, than those prevalent in the Premier League.
The restructuring started with a typically pragmatic and single minded move by Benitez: the departure of long serving head coach at Kirkby, Steve Heighway, who had won five league titles as player with the club during the 1970s.
The former Liverpool winger had been at the youth academy since 1989, overseeing the emergence of several successful Kirkby graduates, including Michael Owen, current vice-captain Jamie Carragher and current skipper Steven Gerrard. However, Gerrard, who made his debut in November 1998, was the last of Heighway’s charges to become a first team regular, prompting Benitez to seek a change in how the academy was run.
With Heighway gone, Frank McParland came in as academy director. Also drafted in were Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, two key components of La Masia, the youth academy at Barcelona that has unearthed the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas. Benitez also brought Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish back to the club, 18 years after he had left, to oversee development of youth players.
Another key appointment was Stuart Webber, hired by Benitez as head of recruitment, a pivotal role that brought together all the elements of the youth set-up. Webber, now at Queens Park Rangers, organised scouting assignments and liaised with local youth teams, creating networks throughout the city, as well as working as a link between the staff at the academy and those in positions with the senior squad.
Rather than sending scouts to games to run the rule over the young players on show, as had had happened under the previous regime, the new system saw the Liverpool academy actively initiate the scouting process, inviting teams to open sessions where the staff at Kirkby could identify potential targets, thereby increasing the pool of players who could be assessed at one time.
Benitez’s revamped system gave the youth academy structure, strategy and direction, the efficacy of which is in evidence today. Several of the players brought in under Benitez, including exciting winger Raheem Sterling, defenders Martin Kelly and Andre Wisdom, and Spanish schemer Suso, are all now making their mark at senior level, with the likes of Conor Coady (defender), Jon Flanagan (right-back), Jack Robinson (left-back) and Adam Morgan (striker) all also appearing to have futures at Anfield.
Following several seasons of discontent under the now former owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who had bought majority shares in the club in 2007, Benitez left Liverpool in acrimonious circumstances in June 2010. The Spaniard’s departure meant that, having laid the groundwork, he failed to fully benefit from the effects of his overhaul of the Reds’ youth system.
However, while Benitez may not be there first hand to see his project in progress, it is fitting that, for a man who re-established the Reds as a continental force, and who put so much into Liverpool professionally and emotionally, his legacy at Anfield will long outlive the memories of a bitter split with the club just over two years ago.