Throughout his tenure at Anfield, Rafa Benitez waged a behind the scenes battle for control of the Liverpool Youth Academy at Kirkby, falling out with Reds legend Steve Heighway in the process. Given Heighway’s record for producing local talent and coming off back-to-back Youth Cup triumphs, his retirement in 2007 was seen as a blow. Benitez proceeded to flood the Under 18’s & Reserve teams with youngsters from every corner of the globe; many of questionable talent; and had a reputation of not giving much of a chance to the youngsters already at the club. As a result, the crop of players from the ’06 & ’07 Youth Cup victories by in large went to waste.
However, in his final years at the club Benitez finally won the control he craved and installed his own people to run the Academy. Finding a balance between local man Frank McParland and the influence of form Barcelona youth coaches Rodolfo Borrell & Pep Segura has seen the Academy flourish. With some clever recruitment, primarily from the domestic market but also overseas, the club now boasts a large number of youth internationals & a depth of talent under the age of 21 unlike anything we have seen for many years. This article looks at some of the emerging talent at both Melwood & Kirkby on a position-by-position basis.
Although not possessing any standout performers, there are still a few promising young ‘keepers on the books. Peter Gulacsi is one of several young Hungarians to come to the Liverpool youth setup via the linkup with MTK Hungaria. Whilst the likes of Krisztian Nemeth & Andras Simon made very little impact, the 6ft 3 Gulacsi has already enjoyed a spell on loan at Tranmere earlier this season before returning to Anfield to establish himself in the reserve team & even displace summer signing Brad Jones as Kenny Dalglish’s preferred option as understudy to Pepe Reina on a number of occasions. Whilst speculation swirls regarding our Spanish custodian’s future there may yet be a chance to come for the 20 year old Gulacsi, and even though we would all hope Reina does stay it looks likely the Hungarian will at least be on Carling Cup duty next season.
Australian goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis joined Liverpool in 2007 to much hype from Rafa Benitez, who rated him as one of the world’s best prospects in his age group. Despite representing both Greece & Australia at youth level, a brief loan spell at Accrington Stanley has been the Aussie’s only significant experience so far & he is now firmly behind Gulacsi in the pecking order. Deale Chamberlain was signed from Aston Villa but has yet to make any significant impact, whilst Tyrell Belford has played for the England U-16 team and established himself as our Under-18’s No.1 this season after signing from Coventry.
In what has been a disappointing season for the 1st team, one bright spot must be the emergence of Martin Kelly as a real star of the future. After battling a back injury early in his career and missing the best part of two years, Kelly flew somewhat under the radar until a promising loan spell at Huddersfield in 2009. He came to most Red’s attentions with Champions League cameos against PSV & Lyon, and began to clock some regular appearances during Roy Hodgson’s short tenure. His eye catching performance against Chelsea convinced many fans he deserved more opportunities, especially given Glen Johnson’s struggles at right back, and since Kenny Dalglish took charge he has been an almost ever present. With excellent pace and a good delivery he has excelled at full back, yet given his size and positional sense many at Anfield still see him moving into centre back in the long term. Still yet to turn 21, the club’s Player of the Month for February is unfortunately on the sidelines again after injuring a hamstring against West Ham, and it would appear that further injury problems are the only thing that can stop Kelly becoming a fixture in our back four for years to come.
A summer signing from Rangers, Danny Wilson could cost Liverpool up to £5m. In addition to his fee, Wilson is the reigning Scottish PFA Young Player of the Year and already has Champions League & International experience, as well as playing in the Old Firm game. It’s quite a CV for a player who only turned 19 in December, and despite struggling for appearances under Hodgson he is another young player who has seen his 1st team prospects improve under Dalglish. Two promising displays in the Europa League were rewarded with a first Premier League start against West Ham, and although he had a somewhat shaky full debut his promise is clear to see. Composed beyond his years, Wilson is very comfortable on the ball & his cultured left foot has seen him shifted to left back in attempt to solve the problem position. Make no mistake though that he is another who’s future lies on in central defence, and given his preference to play on the left hand side a natural partnership with Kelly looks to be on the cards.
However as both are tall, elegant, ball playing defenders the only concern with Kelly & Wilson playing together is that they may be too similar and lack the physical presence that is necessary in all good centre back partnerships. One player who certainly does not lack that physicality is Andre Wisdom, who at 18 already has the size & stature of a fully-grown man. A natural leader, Wisdom has recently returned from injury to captain the reserve team and is eligible to play an important role in the Under-18’s push for another Youth Cup. Signed from Bradford, the Yorkshireman is also an England youth regular having scored at both ends in the U-17’s victory in the European Championships last summer and also captaining the U-19 side earlier this season.
Wisdom is one of many young players who, despite being eligible for the FA Youth Cup, spend an increasing amount of time at Melwood training with the 1st team and playing for the reserves instead of the U-18’s in league fixtures. Two more in the same category are full back tandem, John Flanagan & Jack Robinson. Both are local lads with great energy and attacking instincts, and have already started to be integrated into the 1st team squad. Left back Robinson became the club’s youngest ever player with a sub appearance against Hull on the final day of last season, and both were recently on the plane to Prague when several young players got some great experience when travelling as part of the Europa League squad.
Whilst the odds are certainly against it at this early stage, these five defenders have the potential to form a Liverpool backline for years to come with natural attacking full backs on both flanks and three complimentary centre backs. Time will tell.
The Under-18 team also boasts some promising talents at the back. Australian full back Brad Smith has stepped into Robinson’s left back berth for Academy League fixtures without much drop-off, and through his parentage recently accepted a call up to the England Under-17 squad alongside another teammate, centre back Matty Regan.
In the second part of this article, I’ll be looking at Midfielders & Forwards.