Jim White

Rodgers showing admirable faith in youth

Jim White

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Brendan Rodgers got a little sidetracked this week. The new Liverpool manager rang Mike Riley, the chief referee, to complain that Liverpool were being hard done-by.

He couldn't understand why decisions were not going their way, why players were being booked for making decent challenges, while opponents were not even being cautioned for assaults. He was perplexed that penalties had not been awarded, but had been given against his team.

It was almost as if nothing had changed at Anfield. As if Kenny Dalglish were still in charge and the assumption that the world was set against them was still presiding.

And yet things are changing at Liverpool very fast indeed. As the graffiti which appeared at Liverpool John Lennon airport this week implied, it may not yet be having any impression on their league performance. Under the line "Above us only sky" someone had added "and below us only QPR and Reading". But there is no doubt Rodgers's revolution is rolling. No more obviously than in the new manager's attitude to the products of the club's academy.

For years, Liverpool found an abundance of gems in its home ranks. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen: it might appear to the outsider that their own backyard was the best place to search for talent. Yet, apart from Martin Kelly and the occasional appearance by Jay Spearing, precious little has emerged from the juniors this century. Or rather, precious few have been given a chance by the incumbent of the manager's office.

Rafael Benitez, for instance, seemed completely blind to the possibilities on his own doorstep. He preferred a Spanish accent to any Mersey twang. Under his tenure, Anfield was adrift in Eurotrash. Godwin Anti, Emmanuel Mendy: were they really more likely to succeed at Liverpool than someone who had come through the ranks? And that is without even mentioning Alberto Aquilani.

As for Dalglish's transfer splurge, the first thing Rodgers was obliged to do on taking control was remove the deadwood from Newcastle and Blackpool the Scot had lumbered on the operation.

Unlike his predecessors, Rodgers has been prepared to look inwards. He did not know Rahem Sterling before he arrived on Merseyside, but has given him his opportunity. On Wednesday night he gave a run out to Jerome Sinclair, the youngest ever player to slip on a first team shirt. It is hard to imagine Benitez trusting someone like that. After all, he was born in Birmingham not Valencia.

Of course, there are reasons for Rodgers's sudden enthusiasm for youth. Not least the failure of his superiors to land some of the players he had targeted before the transfer window closed, an oversight which has left him alarmingly short.

And indeed in such circumstances, it would seem bizarre not to look at what you have immediately to hand. After all, what is the point of paying out vast sums to staff an academy when all you are doing is providing future personnel for Fleetwood and Tranmere?

But there is another reason Rodgers may be right to keep his talent search local. Coming through as graduates now are youngsters who have benefitted from the most enlightened coaching ever seen in this country. The skills and technique deficit that so prejudiced people like Benitez against young English players led to a sea-change in approaches in academies.

Players like Sterling and Sinclair have benefitted from such coaching throughout their time at Anfield: they are of the first generation who have been educated solely in the more enlightened methodology. Frankly, they have been as well taught as anybody. As well as anybody at Madrid, Munich or Marseille. Maybe even at Barcelona.

The reason Rodgers is so sympathetic to what is going on in our academies is that it is a quiet revolution of which he was a part. His time at Chelsea working with youngsters coincided with the introduction of a curriculum likely to produce more adept players. He understands what might well be coming through.

At Manchester United, for instance, the excitement at what is on the way is significant. United have always been a club that have valued their own output (there has not been a single first team put out by United since the war which has not featured at least one home-developed player). But what they have been doing at Carrington these past few years is soon to come to fruition. And you only have to look at the wonderful solo goal scored by their Demetre Mitchell in the opening Victory Shield Under-16 international of the season to see what it could mean. As they say on Sky TV, if that had been scored by a young Brazilian…

Sure, there is no guarantee that providing the best of educational possibilities will eventually produce top players. There is a huge gap between twinkling in the juniors and having the mental resolve to make it in the first team.

But what Rodgers is doing at Liverpool is recognising that the only proper way to discover if someone has the wherewithal to succeed is to give them a chance. It is a logic that seemed beyond several of his predecessors.

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