Sunday, 16 January 2011

Why Suso's contract is not typical of the average Liverpool trainee

The news of a Liverpool youngster signing a professional contract may have passed many fans by today. Despite the number of players signing contracts before disappearing into the lower leagues, fans may look back on today’s announcement as a very good development for the club.

News that Spanish teenager Suso has committed himself to the club until 2013 will come as welcome news to anybody that has witnessed his performances for the reserve team so far. Despite being only 16 years of age when he first played a reserve team fixture, Suso’s technical ability and vision have marked him out as a player with a very bright future.

Like Dani Pacheco before him, Suso need not worry about his progression into the professional game. Although Pacheco’s emergence as a first team player has not been as forthcoming as many had expected, there are few doubts that the Spanish youth international will play at a high level, whether it be at Anfield or elsewhere.

This is not the case for all young footballers learning their trade at Liverpool.

Although the education provided at Kirkby is of a high quality, being a good footballer is not enough. Injuries can put an end to a youngster’s hopes of being kept on and the quality of competition in their respective position can result in a player being forced to look elsewhere to break into first team football.

Liverpool have won the FA Youth Cup 3 times in the past 15 years and yet only a few of the players involved in these teams – ultimately the best young team in the country in that particular season – will be known by the majority of football fans.

Every youth team side has players who appear to have a chance of making it. Looking at the fortunes of Liverpool’s youngsters in the aftermath of a Youth Cup Final highlights the fragile nature of a career in football and the different paths that a young player’s career can take.

Whilst the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and David Thompson made significant contributions to the Liverpool first team, the vast majority of the 1996 cup winning side were less fortunate.

Although it seems hard to believe after a career of the highest quality, Carragher was not captain of this side. The skipper of the victorious team was a boy by the name of Phil Brazier. After 18 months of a professional contract under Roy Evans, Brazier moved to the less illustrious Vauxhall Motors before embarking on a career in the northern non-league.

Many will remember the names of two Liverpool strikers from the 90s who were expected to achieve great things. Whilst Jon Newby was tipped to do well, Jamie Cassidy was a player who the Liverpool staff fully expected to succeed at the club.

After being released without making a first team appearance, Cassidy briefly attempted to forge a career at both Cambridge sides before heading into an early retirement. Newby was slightly more successful, making four first team appearances before heading down the Football League. The speedy striker can now be found turning out for Colwyn Bay in the Northern Premier League.

When considering that these youngsters shared champagne with players who are now etched into Liverpool’s proud history in 1996, it is easy to see how a youth team footballer can not take anything for granted.

If we are to look at the subsequent movements of Liverpool’s 2006 and 2007 winning squads, it is clear that a glowing reputation at youth team level does not guarantee a path into first team football.

Robbie Threlfall – Highly rated full-back now at Bradford City after a series of loans.
Ryan Flynn – Falkirk after a spell at Wrexham
Craig Lindfield – Despite scoring 12 goals in 12 games for the 2007 and making England U19 appearances, the striker is part of a group of ex-Liverpool trainees at Accrington Stanley.
Ray Putterill – Also at Accrington Stanley after 7 operations ruined his chances of breaking through at Liverpool.
Jimmy Ryan – Playing in League Two with Lindfield and Putterill.
Michael Burns – On loan at Stafford Rangers having failed to break into the team at Carlisle.

Despite their apparent fall, these players are still lucky to have a career within the Football League. The captain of the 2009 side - defeated by an Arsenal team containing Jack Wilshere - was stocky central defender Joe Kennedy. Following his immediate release after the two-legged final, Kennedy has enrolled on a sports-related course and has never played football at a professional level.

Perhaps the most unfortunate of Liverpool’s young players in recent times is Ramon Calliste. Having been branded as the ‘New Beckham’ whilst at Manchester United, it was a shock when the youngster was released as United scrapped one of their reserve teams.

Calliste was given an opportunity by Liverpool and scored prolifically for the reserve side in his spell at the club. However, as sixth choice striker, he never made a first team appearance and moved to Scunthorpe. Following a devastating ankle dislocation in a pre-season fixture, Calliste has been unable to establish himself within the professional game despite trials all over the Football League.

The stories of the youngsters from Liverpool’s past should act as a warning to the current crop of youngsters. Whilst it is easy to assume that a career in the game is inevitable following an education with a Premier League side, the reality is that even the highly rated may struggle to get a break.

Some of Liverpool’s most talented youth players in recent years have been forced to seek opportunities elsewhere due to the calibre of player they are directly in competition with.

Although Liverpool’s wingers are conspicuous by their absence, Adam Hammill and Paul Anderson were forced to move to Barnsley and Nottingham Forest respectively due to a lack of first team opportunites.

Bucking the trend of players sliding down the leagues after leaving Liverpool, both young wingers have impressed at a lower level. Whilst Anderson will seek to regain his place in the team after injury, Hammill is earning plaudits for his performances in the Championship. Although rumours of a £500,000 buy-back-clause in his departure from Anfield continue to circulate without confirmation, it is certain that Premier League clubs will make enquiries in January.

If a youngster is good enough, Hodgson must be brave enough to put them into the side in order to maintain their services. Once a youngster has left Anfield, there is the possibility that they may choose to head elsewhere if they develop sufficiently in the future. Whilst it is not accurate to suggest that Liverpool have a queue of youngsters deserving of a first team spot, Hodgson and his staff must be careful not to let any opportunities pass them by.

Despite what many will be keen to tell you about Rafa Benitez’s destruction of the youth system, the progress made under Benitez was desperately needed after the stagnation of the Academy under Houllier.

There are many talented players who are fighting to make their name at Liverpool. While you will have heard of the likes of Ecclestone, Darby, Spearing and Kelly, there are many others who are tipped as hot prospects.

Raheem Sterling – An attacking midfielder signed for an initial £300,000 from QPR. Having broken into the England U16 side at the age of 14, Sterling looks to have a great chance of making the grade at Anfield.

Toni Silva – A flamboyant Portuguese winger who has impressed at both reserve and U18 level. Although his end product can still be frustrating, he has all the key components of an exciting attacker.

Conor Coady – Having captained England’s U17 side to European Championship victory in the summer, Coady earned high praise from all involved in the national set-up. With a reputation as a natural leader, it would not be a surprise to see Coady progress to reserve team captain in the future.

Andre Wisdom – Like Coady, the athletic Wisdom can play either at centre back or in central midfield. Although a nasty injury sustained in a collision with teammate Ross Barkley (the Everton star suffered a broken leg) on international duty has sidelined the youngster, Wisdom is highly rated at Kirkby.

Michael Ngoo – With a build not dissimilar to Peter Crouch, Ngoo’s style makes him a tricky customer at both youth and reserve team level, having been promoted in pre-season. An England youth international, the striker has the physical attributes to develop into a difficult opponent at any level.

Tom Ince – As son of tenacious midfielder Paul, it is perhaps surprising that Ince is a tricky attacker blessed with considerable pace. Currently on loan at Ince Senior’s Notts County side, Ince has impressed for the reserves in recent months.

Alex Cooper – A fiercely determined Scot who can play either at full-back or in midfield. Cooper’s commitment has always impressed at reserve team level.

Although these are just a sample of the talented players coming through the youth system at Liverpool, the message to all at Kirkby is crystal clear. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding the chances of youngsters being put into the first team, these players cannot afford to let their efforts drop.

As Hammill and Anderson are showing, leaving Liverpool doesn’t always have to be a negative step.

However, a failure to maintain the expected standards could mean the difference between continued opportunities at a Premier League club or the struggle to maintain a professional career in the lower leagues.

Whilst Liverpool fans should greet the signing of Suso as a positive move for the future, it is worth remembering that not everybody is quite so fortunate. In today’s environment, the progression of any youngster into the first team is something to be celebrated.

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