The summer of 2009 was seen by many reds as the most promising summer of our recent history, and recent developments suggest that whilst the optimism was misplaced and short sighted, it was also very appropriate.
Our league position at the end of the previous season was 2nd, with a record of P38, W28, D11, L2. Our points total was 86. The 2011 Barclays Premier League champions will probably achieve 78-82 points, showing just how good a season we had in 2009.
Liverpool supporters were rightly optimistic during that cold, wet summer of 2009. Yes, we had lost three giants from the 2009 season in Alonso, Arbeloa and Hyypia, but we had brought in players to replace them in Aquilani, Johnson and Kyrgiakos. At the time, there was a consensus of opinion that Alonso was a massive loss, but he wanted to leave so let him go. Liverpool FC focuses on the here and now, nothing else. A new banner for Aquilani, “Il Principino”, was erected in the corner of The Kop. The mood was very much one of “onwards and upwards”.
The bookmakers made Liverpool 11-4 second favourites for the league before the opening game of the 2009/10 season with Spurs. We lost that game 2-1 and from then on things started to crumble. The turmoil off the field was reflected on it. From October onwards, we never climbed higher than 4th place and ended the season 7th.
Rafael Benitez refused to sign a contract in January 2009. A reported pay rise to £4m per year and full control over the transfer budget were agreed, but Benitez held out for one last concession: to take control of the academy from John Owens.
Speaking to the Liverpool Echo, Benitez said “I believe the academy is a very important part of the future of the club. The length of the contract was already agreed and this showed my long term commitment to the club. I know the academies of Ajax, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Valencia and they are producing players regularly. The way the system works there means the manager has an input into development and I think this could be the way forward here and we would hope that this would help us make better use of local talent.”
Victories over Manchester United and Real Madrid within a week gave Benitez the perfect opportunity to strike his desired deal and the Liverpool board gave the green light for Benitez to implement a radical overhaul of the academy. The future of Liverpool FC was finally alongside its present in the hands of Benitez.
They say that from small acorns giant oak trees grow, and Benitez had just been granted the freedom to start fertilising Kirkby.
Benitez brought in José Segura and Rodolfo Borrell from the Nou Camp to head up a team that would use the Barcelona blueprint for academy success. Segura and Borrell coached both Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi during their time at Barcelona's La Masia academy, developing a first team that many people are now calling the best ever assembled.
Less than two years since the seeds of our future success were sown by Benitez, a vibrant young youth team is starting to make its mark on the world. This season has seen both the U18 and U16 teams really start to blossom. The U18 team are unbeaten since October and have been the subject of much media hype since the 9-0 demolition of Southend. They followed this up with a 4-1 win against Stoke in which Sterling hit a brace and Conor Coady smashed in a Gerrardesque volley. All eyes will be on them next Saturday as they face Manchester United in the Sixth Round of the FA Youth Cup.
There is also much to get excited about within our U16 set up (some of whom also play for the U18s). In the latest England U16 & U17 squad, there are a total of 7 Liverpool players who are eligible to play for the U16s, comfortably the most of any club in England. The next best youth set up in terms of England call-ups is Man City with 5, who Liverpool beat 2-1 earlier this month thanks to goals from two of our England starlets, Sterling and Morgan.
Here are our U16 England starlets:
England U16 Players
England U17 Players Eligible for U16 Squad
A look at the England Youth Squad competing in the 2002 European Championships tells its own story about what the future may (or may not) bring for these players. David Raven, David Mannix and Mark Smyth represented Liverpool in that competition alongside a certain Wayne Rooney of Everton. Smyth actually scored in the opening game against Finland. If you are wondering what happened to Smyth, he was released by Liverpool at the end of the 2004/2005 season, signed by Accrington Stanley and most recently played for Bangor City in the Welsh Premier.
For me, this sums up our prospects at the Academy. There will be a Smyth amongst the starlets but there just might be another Steven Gerrard in there as well.
The acorns planted by Benitez in Kirkby in 2009 are coming along very nicely at the moment, but they need plenty of TLC and some will inevitably fall by the wayside. For everybody connected with Liverpool Football Club, we are watching and hoping for the giant oak trees to grow.