NOTHING stirs emotions like a farewell. Especially in football. David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Phil Neville, Alex Ferguson and Michael Owen all said goodbye to the game at the end of last season. Speeches, public statements, tears, laps of honour. And that was just Beckham.
Liverpool, too, closed its own chapter. Jamie Carragher’s departure, 737 games into a career that will never be forgotten, marked the end of an era at Anfield. If the term ‘legend’ has become an overused one in football, it fits perfectly here.
Yet as one door closes, others open. And the next generation of Liverpool hopefuls are knocking louder and louder.
After the progress of Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom and Suso last season, hopes are high that the time, money and energy invested in Liverpool’s Academy over the past 10 years is beginning to pay dividends.
That trio made a total of 75 appearances between them last season. All are 20 or under.
But even beyond them, the talent pool looks well stocked.
Necessity played its part, but Adam Morgan, Jerome Sinclair, Samed Yesil, Conor Coady and Jordon Ibe all made their senior debuts during the past 12 months. Lloyd Jones, a 17-year-old defender, was an unused substitute at Fulham in May.
Liverpool were, on average, the youngest team in the Premier League last season, and the emergence of such players is a welcome sight for Reds fans. Few things excite supporters like the prospect of a young talent making his way up through the ranks, free of pressure, devoid of ego, untarnished by the cynical, money-driven nature of the sport.
It is why Sterling’s debut was so eagerly anticipated, why Reds U21 and U18 games attract excellent crowds up at Kirkby, why the fast-expanding NextGen Series has proven such a success. Fans want to see the next big thing before they become the next big thing.
Liverpool have taken significant steps to ensure the club’s young players are given the best possible chance of progressing to the senior ranks. Spoilt by the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard in the 1990s, the club’s Academy endured a barren spell thereafter, but there have been green shoots of recovery in recent years. Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson, local lads, all made their debuts in the last five years; all are still at the club.
The exit of Carragher has removed one half of Liverpool’s sScouse core – Gerrard believes he has at least another three years at the top – and the club are eager to plug that gap.
Their efforts, however, will not be concentrated solely on Merseyside. The work of Academy scouts such as David Moss, Ian Barrigan and Matt Newbury ensures, or at least tries to ensure, that Liverpool are on top of any promising youngster, be they local, national or international. Hesitation is a sin when it comes to judging potential.
It was such decisive scouting which enabled them to snare the 15-year-old Sterling from Queens Park Rangers back in 2010.
The initial outlay of £600,000 raised eyebrows – and expectations – but has proven shrewd business. The £250,000 paid to Wycombe Wanderers for Ibe two years later looks likewise, while the club have high hopes for Sinclair, who was taken from West Bromwich Albion at 14, and Jones, who joined from Plymouth, aged 15, in 2011.
The likes of Joao Teixeira (Sporting Lisbon), Suso (Cadiz) and Yesil (Bayer Leverkusen), meanwhile, were scouted from further afield. The club expect to add two of La Liga’s most promising talents, Sergi Canos and Pedro Chirivella, this summer, and have also identified two British 14-year-olds, Bristol City’s Herbie Kane and West Brom’s Yan Dhanda.
With strong dialogue in place between Brendan Rodgers, Rodolfo Borrell, the head of academy coaching, and Frank McParland, the director of player development, and with highly-rated, principled coaches in charge of the U18 and U21 sides, the Reds believe a structure is now in place which will enable them to create a conveyor belt of talent.
It promises to be a busy summer at Anfield, but Reds fans will hope the club can continue to grow its own stars, as well as buying them in from elsewhere.
Then there really will be something to get excited about.