A few years ago, Liverpool’s official website ran a feature named “100 Days that Shook the Kop”, featuring numerous highlights and lowlights from the club’s history — glory nights in Europe, memorable victories closer to home and the shock resignation of Bill Shankly — before finishing, poignantly, on the tragedies that engulfed the club at Heysel and Hillsborough in the 1980s.
Nothing, not even the dramatic Champions League triumph in Istanbul in 2005, will begin to match those dark days in terms of significance or raw emotion, but on Tuesday evening the Kop experienced another seismic movement.
Arsenal’s 6-3 triumph in the Carling Cup quarter-finals will be written off in some quarters as a freak result, but it was one that had the feel of a turning point — both in terms of the direction of the Rafael Benítez regime and the club’s outlook at a time when the winds of change are blowing through Anfield as Dubai International Capital looks to finalise its £450 million takeover.
The defeat prompted an astonishing rant from Benítez against the club’s board, whom he accused of failing to back him in the transfer market and of dithering in the pursuit of young players. That, he implied, was the difference between Liverpool and Arsenal — voicing his frustration at being outbid in the race to sign players such as Abou Diaby, Denilson and Theo Walcott — although, given that he has been backed to the tune of £80 million during 2¾ years of financial hardship, the board is entitled to accuse him of ingratitude.
Benítez is not about to walk out on Liverpool, as he did Valencia, but, ungrateful or not, he has raised a debate that has been taking place behind the scenes at Anfield for some time. Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup last season, but the stream of home-grown talent that produced Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and others has dried up to a trickle.
Run by Steve Heighway, the Liverpool academy is highly regarded within the game, but not by Benítez or his predecessor, Gérard Houllier. Both arrived at Anfield as experts in youth development, only to be told that they should not interfere with the academy. Relations are better than they were between Heighway and Houllier, but there are differences between Melwood and Kirkby, headquarters of the first-team squad and youth academy respectively, over the precise role of the latter.
Several academy directors voiced concerns in The Times last week about where the next generation of English footballers is coming from. Benítez and Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, do not worry about that; their priority is to find the next generation of players for their first team. Increasingly, the answer lies not on the back streets of Toxteth or Lambeth, but overseas, hence the scramble that is taking place between Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United to sign up the most promising 16-year-olds in the world.
Arsenal are the pioneers of this movement, as was illustrated when their youngsters put Liverpool to the sword on Tuesday. Julio Baptista, on loan from Real Madrid, scored four times, but it was less an individual triumph than a collective endorsement of Wenger’s vision, which was evident in the performances of Kolo Touré, Johan Djourou, Francesc Fàbregas, Denilson and Jérémie Aliadière, all imported to hone their skills at England’s finest finishing school.
Benítez argued recently that this is chequebook management of a sort. He says that his scouts travel to the same matches and tournaments as their Arsenal counterparts but that, when it comes to snapping up the best players, Wenger’s vision is backed but his own is not.
“There is a lesson in this,” Benítez said on Tuesday night. “If you want to compete at the top level, you must be able to spend a lot of money not only on your first team, but on the young players and reserves. Arsenal spent £4 million on Diaby, £4 million on Denilson, £8 million on Walcott. My scouting department has done an excellent job, but sometimes we go too slow to make signings we need. And when we do there is not a lot of money.”
Does Benítez have a point? Not when necessity dictates that most of his budget goes on a first-team squad that still lacks quality and not when the youngsters he has signed so far — Gabriel Paletta, Godwin Antwi, Miki Roque, Besian Idrizaj, Jack Hobbs, Paul Anderson and Nabil El Zhar — have made little or no impression.
Not that the bona fide academy graduates look any better. Lee Peltier and Danny Guthrie looked out of their depth against Arsenal’s youngsters and, while it is unfair to point the finger at them, it is safe to assume that Benítez will as he attempts to persuade his board of the significance of another night when the Kop was shaken to its foundations.
The rise and fall of the Anfield academy
The Liverpool production line appears to have dried up after its peak in the late 1990s. Homegrown players are being given less and less playing time
(Premiership appearances of academy graduates - including as substitute)
1992-93: McManaman 31
1993-94: Fowler 28, McManaman 30
1994-95: Fowler 42, McManaman 40
1995-96: Fowler 38, McManaman 38, Matteo 5
1996-97: Carragher 2, Fowler 32, Matteo 26, McManaman 37, Owen 2, Thompson 2
1997-98: Carragher 20, Fowler 20, Matteo 26, McManaman 36, Owen 36, Thompson 5
1998-99: Carragher 34, Fowler 25, Gerrard 12, Matteo 20, McManaman 28, Owen 30, Thompson 14
1999-2000: Carragher 36, Fowler 14, Gerrard 29, Matteo 32, Newby 1, Owen 27, Thompson 27
2000-01: Carragher 34, Fowler 27, Gerrard 33, Owen 28,
2001-02: Carragher 33, Fowler 10, Gerrard 28,
Owen 29, Wright 12
2002-03: Carragher 35, Gerrard 34, Mellor 3
2003-04: Carragher 22, Gerrard 34, Otsemobor 4,
Owen 29, Welsh 1
2004-05: Carragher 38, Gerrard 30, Mellor 9, Potter 2,
Raven 1, Warnock 19, Welsh 3
2005-06: Carragher 36, Fowler 14, Gerrard 32, Warnock 20
2006-07: Carragher 21, Fowler 8, Gerrard 22,
Guthrie 2, Warnock 1