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Liverpool's Academy Director Steve Heighway talks

WHEN Liverpool fans talk romantically of the days players were plucked from obscurity and transformed into superstardom, their vision is embodied in Steve Heighway. Bill Shankly was urged to recruit the Dublin-born winger from Skelmersdale Town by Bob Paisley in May 1970. At 22,and as an economic graduate, it was hardly a traditional route to Anfield, but he quickly established himself as a key component of Shankly's re-built side of the 70s.

After making his debut in September 1970, he went on to make 473 appearances over 11 years, scoring 76 goals and creating hundreds more as the archetypal left winger. His medal haul included five league titles, one FA Cup, two European Cups and two UEFA Cups. He also earned 34 Republic of Ireland caps.

After leaving Anfield in 1981, he played for Minnesota Kicks in the USA, where he also developed his coaching skills. When he returned to the UK, he was recognised as a coaching visionary and was one of the pioneers in the revamping of youth football. In 1989, Kenny Dalglish appointed Heighway to the key role of youth development officer at Anfield. The school of excellence produced among others Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Dominic Matteo, David Thompson, Jamie Carragher, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.

In 1999, Liverpool completed the first purpose-built academy in England, as Heighway embraced the youth football revolution led by then FA technical director Howard Wilkinson. In 2006, he led the Liverpool Under-18 side to their second FA Youth Cup.

Date of Birth: 25-11-1947.

Birthplace: Dublin.

Debut: 22nd Sep 1970 v Mansfield (H) in League Cup, won 3-2.

1st team games: 473.1st team goals: 76.

Other clubs: Skelmersdale United, Minnesota Kicks.

Republic of Ireland caps: 34.

Liverpool honours: First Division Championship 1972/73, 1975/76, 1976/77, 1978/79& 1979/80, FA Cup 1974, European Cup 1977 & 1978, UEFA Cup 1973 & 1976, Charity Shield 1974 & 1976, European Super Cup 1977

The truth on Euro imports

LIVERPOOL'S Academy Director Steve Heighway has been overseeing the club's youth development for almost 20 years.

Since 1989, he's nurtured some of Liverpool's greatest talents, including Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher.

However, since the Academy was built in 1999, there has been a dearth of local players making a consistent impact on the senior side.

In recent times, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez has claimed there's a `flaw' in the system, while others have questioned if Academy football is producing players of the necessary character and quality.

Heighway admits he's close to retiring from his crucial position at Anfield, but in this frank, two-part interview, he launched a passionate defence of The Academy, responding to recent criticisms to the ECHO'S Liverpool FC correspondent, Chris Bascombe.

Today, Heighway talks about his future, the relationship between the Academy and Melwood and explains why he believes it's harder than ever for local boys to make the grade.

Steve, there are rumours you're about to leave Liverpool. What's the truth?

"We all leave Liverpool eventually. I'm getting on. I'm nearly 60 now, so I won't be here forever.

"I'm not leaving today, or tomorrow, but I'm getting near to retirement age so it won't be too long."
Why have fewer Academy players established themselves in the first team recently?

"These things go in cycles. When I started here in 1989, the chief executive, Peter Robinson, said to me we haven't produced a local player for 10 years.

"We had a long run with the likes of Phil Thompson and Sammy Lee, going back to Chris Lawler and Tommy Smith in the 1960s, and then a long gap.

"It's frustrating for all of us we haven't provided a superstar for a few years. We'd all love that, but don't forget some players who weren't perceived to be that level have done a good job for us.

"I remember Neil Mellor helping us win games that took us further in the Champions League. His career didn't progress at Liverpool, but he still did it.

"We have a list of players who fell short for Liverpool, but they've good careers in the game to look forward to.

"Callum Woods left Liverpool last summer to play in the Scottish Premier League.

"That in itself is a success because over the last seven years there's been a 75 per cent decrease in the jobs available to English players within the sport.

"Academies are preparing kids better for professional football, but at the end of it there are fewer jobs for English footballers.

"Thirty years ago you'd see the best players getting a chance at 18, and by 21 they had enough experience to get a settled place in the team.

"Nowadays, it's harder for them to get the opportunity to show what they can do.

"The great finishing school for any player is not The Academy or the reserves, it's walking down the tunnel. You don't know until a boy does that if he'll take his chance.

"The managers don't have to take chances. Beyond the starting elevens, there are now eight others with international experience.

"Unless there is an injury crisis, or a lesser tournament, the manager doesn't have to go down to the Academy boys."

So you're saying it's now harder than it's ever been for a local boy to play for Liverpool?

"I'm saying it's harder for any English boy to play for a Premiership club. If you're Gerrard or Owen, you will always play. The gift is so massive. They're obvious.

"After that, you're dealing with players where you're not sure how good they'll become.

"We've always had the players here, but the frustration is you don't know how good they can be if they haven't got the opportunity.

"We won the youth cup last season with some terrific kids such as Lindfield, Spearing, Darby and Threlfall.

"How far they get is not only down to how good they are, but how many opportunities they get. I'm not sure if even I'd get through with things how they are now, and we were speaking to Jamie Carragher recently and he made the same point.

"When I made my debut, 40,000 Liverpool fans were asking who's he? When they threw me in they must have been sitting in the bootroom thinking they only had the kid from Skelmersdale left to play. They could never have known I'd be a player."

Do you feel you're a victim of your early success producing the likes of Fowler, McManaman, Gerrard, Owen and Carragher?

"We're not victims in any way. We've created a fantastic environment for those who are good enough. There are two processes in how someone becomes a top player.

"One is because they're naturally gifted, like a Gerrard. Another is like a Carragher who, when given the opportunity, learns the game once he's in and gets better and better.

"I'd put my own career into that category. Nowadays, it's not only harder to find the gem, but harder to give the opportunity to the boy who might make it.

"English football has to take a long hard look at this. Football isn't about the Rooneys and Owens. It's about the group just below that who become top players."

It seems from this you're in favour of limiting foreign imports into English football?

"There is no-one in the English game other than the managers who wouldn't be in favour of that.

"Equally, there is no one who believes it can happen, so it's hardly worth looking down that road.

"You can't change European community law. But ask anyone in my job, they'll say any way of giving more opportunities to local players is preferable.

"The trouble with English football is no-one tells the truth. If someone is asked this question on Sky TV, they'll say of course foreign players have been good for the English game, but everyone knows that's not necessarily the truth.

"That's why I've done so few interviews over the years. I speak my mind, and sometimes that's not what people want to hear.

"Pundits are earning money by promoting the game, not by telling the truth.

"Even UEFA are asking what effect foreign players are having on the development of young players in each country. They've discussed quotas, but know how difficult it is to impose."

How has your relationships with the first team manager changed since 1989?

"Kenny Dalglish was incredibly interested in every aspect of our work. He'd want to know who the best nine-year-old was. But managers don't have time to run youth departments.

"If you speak to all the other clubs, you'll find the Academy directors are trusted to get on with the job.

"What they want to know is who around the 16 or 17-year-old mark is close to being ready. I've always had to be careful because I worked with a French manager here who had some very strange views of the game, didn't like anyone disagreeing with him, who bought 14 French players who all had to be sold when a new man came in.

"It has been a difficult time, there's no escaping that, and my instinct has always been to tell it the way it is."

Do you think the switch of the youth set-up from Melwood has worked?

"It couldn't have been done in any other way. In an ideal world it would be great if the first team were based in this state-of-the-art facility.

"It's easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. Nine years ago the youth department was crippled by being at Melwood and having constant calls for players to switch from the youth sessions to the reserves.

"Look around this facility. Of course it's better for the boys to be based here, and we work with the staff at Melwood, even if we're not in the same building. Now, we have better planning and programming.

"Under-18 coach John Owens and reserve manager Gary Ablett talk most days, so if Gary needs our players at Melwood we liaise."

Is there any friction between The Academy and Melwood?

"Not at all. Rafa and I chat all the time. The crux of it is there is nothing stopping the better players becoming what they can be.

"At most top clubs there will always be friction somewhere because the first team is all that matters. In some ways it's good we can keep out from under their feet. The manager doesn't have to worry what's going on here. He just needs to know there will be some good players to choose from."

How do you police...

IN recent weeks it's been suggested Liverpool are losing talented players from the region by discouraging their Academy boys from playing schoolboy football.

It's been argued the Academy games lack the same competitive spirit often seen in schoolboy football.

In part two of an exclusive ECHO interview, Academy Director Steve Heighway responds to this, and explains the policies of recruitment and coaching he believes are essential if English football is to progress. CHRIS BASCOMBE reports...

ARE Liverpool's Academy players being discouraged from playing schoolboy football?

"The Academies were set up to take the best kids out of the schools and Sunday League environment and create something else. There are some good people working in schools football, and talented youngsters, but the two systems don't mix.

"To suggest we should hand players back to the schools and Sunday leagues is ridiculous, and I was disappointed credence was given to this argument by your newspaper. If that's the answer, I'll be the first to say let's do it.

"But I can't believe it is. That system was all about fierce competition, rubbish facilities, massive overplay and generally unruly atmospheres at games. That was perceived to be the problem with English football. I can't believe that's the future.

"At under-15 level, particularly with the FA Schools trophy, we have always said to the boys, if you want to play for Liverpool schoolboys, you can play.

"But if on the same night we're playing Manchester United, Liverpool schoolboys are playing in a match they'll win 10-0, ask yourself what's really best for the boy?

"We want players here to coach them, not to have them coached here to play for Liverpool Schoolboys one day, a Sunday league team the next, and then be too tired or injured when we play an Academy game. Something will give. Since 1999, the injury record at this level has declined unbelievably."

Is Academy football as competitive as schoolboy football?

"Competition? You should come here to watch our under-12s. It's Liverpool v Manchester United, or Liverpool v Everton, or Bolton. You're telling me that's not competitive? That's one of the most bizarre things I've heard.

"Maybe there are no trophies at the end of the games, but to suggest it's not competitive is ridiculous.

"Maybe it's not a nasty atmosphere with coaches or parents behaving badly on the touchline, but no-one here likes losing games. Do you think I'm happy if I see players in a Liverpool shirt who aren't competitive? I'd jump straight onto the coaches and ask them what's going on? They have to be, and they are."

Liverpool have always stuck by a policy of sticking to recruiting local boys rather than following clubs like Manchester United who, as an example, moved David Beckham's family from London to sign him as a youngster. Has the club missed out on players because of this?

"We would be reluctant to uproot a family in this way, unless, as in that case, it was a certainty he'd make it. That's rare. So when asking this question, Beckham isn't the right example. He would have made it had he stayed in the East End or not.

"You've got to remember in the majority of cases you're not 100 per cent sure if a player will make it.

"Why would you uproot a family from down south when you might have to send them back two years later? Think about the impact on his schooling and every other aspect of his family's life.

"You either have an ethical approach to this or you don't. There's a 90-minute rule regarding which areas you recruit from [clubs are not allowed to bring in players who live more than a 90-minute drive away] and we've abided by that.

"We know the values of this football club. We're not naive. I've never been asked to bend the rules here, going back to the days of Bill Shankly, it's been drummed into us here not to cheat.

"Having said that there's a massive review of the rules taking place at this moment, assessing where The Academies are, and this is one of the areas. Maybe there is some tinkering to be done."

But has the arrival of Malcolm Elias, new head of youth recruitment, led to an alteration in policy where youngsters from other Academies are now Liverpool targets?

"We wanted to headhunt someone with a proven track record, who had a network in place and knew exactly where the best players around the country are. We think Malcolm makes us better at what we were already doing.

"There's a legal process by which, if there's a boy outside our area who is 15 or 16, can be brought here for a fair level of compensation. He can't come until he's 16, but Malcolm knows where the most talented boys are, has a wealth of experience and makes us even stronger in this area of recruitment."

Do you find it demoralising that so many foreign players have been signed for Liverpool?

"A top club has to have a locally based youth policy and must also be prepared to look further afield. It must also buy players for the first team. They're the three aspects of a successful club and we focus on our responsibilities here."

Have social changes impacted on the character of players coming through the ranks. How can you nurture the right characters to become footballers?

"This is important because we're only as good as the players we recruit. It worries me the raw material of athletic capability is in decline.

"As clubs, there is discussion about expanding our role even further. We are geared up to working with youngsters from eight upwards, but sometimes find children have little physical activity at schools.

"Clubs are exploring whether they can take control of the athletic development of all youngsters in our area and expanding our community programmes. We're already going into schools once or twice a week. Our team works in primary schools for free every single day, and I can see a time in five years time when the professional clubs have responsibility for all football activity within their community.

"In ten years time, each club may have 100 community coaches each."

What improvements are needed within The Academy system?

"You could ask are there too many Academies? We've ten on our doorstep, all recruiting from the same area. Both ourselves and Everton would double our intake from the city if the other wasn't around. Other cities don't have this competition. You're always looking to improve, but I can tell you there's nothing wrong with the work that's done here.

"This place is held as the model by the FA, who send us delegations from other countries all the time. Those who are taking the FIFA pro-licence come here to see what we do. Our coaches are teachers themselves, and the kids, all from this area, are awesome in the way they conduct themselves and they compete.

"I'd like to give credit to every boy who comes here. They come here because they want to, they love it, and they have a dream. There's no pressure put on them, and the people who work here deserve support, not criticism.

"They're not sold the Liverpool dream, they come through the doors embracing it.

"We don't tell them they might play for the first team at Liverpool. We're more likely to tell them they may not be here next season, because there's a lot of realism."

Do you think Liverpool fans will ever see a 'team of Carraghers'?

"The fans are interested in seeing a successful team. Do you think Arsenal fans see their team, with no English players, and wish it was any different?

"The game has changed beyond all recognition. I know the work we do here will always produce good players. It always has and it always will. It can't not do. The question is simply how good, and will they get an opportunity?

"It's getting tougher. We're not a club where the manager can ask the Academy director if there's someone who can be thrown into the team. We're Liverpool and it's a different level.

"That hope of eleven local players in the first team has gone, but it never was the dream. We're waiting for the next breakthrough. If there's a good player to be found, this system will find him."

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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