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It's right to cast net far and wide in the search for future stars

Liverpool Echo's DAVID PRENTICE talks to Liverpool Academy Director Steve Heighway

"LIVERPOOL Football Club exists to win trophies." It was one of Bill Shankly's more enduring catchphrases, but for one of the great man's last remaining disciples at the club, the philosophy is a little different.

Liverpool kick-off another FA Youth Cup campaign at Anfield tomorrow, but for academy director Steve Heighway, the pursuit of silverware is very much of secondary importance to uncovering and polishing a prize of a more enduring nature.

And this year the Reds have broadened their search for stars like never before.  The club's work in unearthing and developing young local talent is unsurpassed. The core of last season's Champions League winning side - Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher - was honed on the playing fields of the Reds' Kirkby Academy. And they are only the latest in a spectacular production line of talent, following local heroes like Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Steve McManaman.

This summer, however, the Reds broadened the net.

The youngsters produced and nurtured by Heighway will be joined by a group of young continental players brought into Anfield by Rafael Benitez. Miki Roque, Godwin Anti and Besian Idrizaj - who train with the senior squad at Melwood - will join Academy youngsters like Charlie Barnett, Michael Nardiello and Michael Burns against Cardiff City tomorrow (kick-off 11am).

Conspiracy theorists could see the international influx as providing direct competition to the excellent local work Heighway is undertaking. Heighway, however, does not. A veteran of managerial comings and goings - he arrived at Melwood 17 years and five managers ago - he insists the move complements rather than rivals his work.

"It's not in competition, of course it's not," said Heighway.

"There's only one football club and we are the Academy of Liverpool Football Club.

"There's only the first team, and the development end. And we're the development end. It hasn't always been easy, obviously. I've gone through four or five years of French management and now there's Spanish management. There are six Spanish staff in the club now and they don't all speak great English, so just by its very nature that creates situations where we all have to be very grown up and work it all out. But I don't think if you just concentrate on the local region that will ever provide you with five first team players. It would be lovely if it did. It would be magnificent.

"I am very aware that we're not going to get five first team players out of any one year group. What we do know is that provided we get good raw material in, we will always produce good players. We always do. And we hope that we can produce one or two outstanding ones. The game of football is a global game now. It's a world game, so we would be foolish if we didn't look abroad for young talent - so I think it is right the two policies do work hand-in-hand.

"The recruitment side is obviously one co-ordinated group of people. The only issue we have to decide is when they come in here, where do they train? Do they train at the Academy or do they train at Melwood, so there is a little bit of a debate on that. Four or five boys who have been brought in are at Melwood and it would be fairly important that they are better than the boys here, if they are not that would cause friction. But every club is doing it. Arsenal have spent an awful lot of money bringing young players in, but we are very confident in what we do here. Wherever players come from we would like to get the opportunity to work with them."

Heighway was responsible for Liverpool landing the FA Youth Cup for the first time in 1996.

But of far more importance was the fact that Michael Owen, David Thompson and Jamie Carragher all came through from that team to grace the Liverpool first team. Saturday's line-up could provide more.

"There are some tremendous players here. We think this is probably one of the best crops of boys we've had for many years, but we will see," added Heighway.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see some playing senior football in two or three years.

"We have a couple of outstanding players injured who won't be able to take part - one broken leg and one who will be ready in two or three weeks - but we think we have six or seven players around 17 years of age who have an excellent chance of doing really well."

That, to Heighway, would give him as much pleasure as anything else he achieved during his Anfield career.

"I want to live on what I do tomorrow, not what I did yesterday," he declared.

"I have been here 17 years. This a fantastic place with fantastic staff. Nothing embodies the Liverpool way of doing things more than this place. To me this is the embodiment of the Liverpool way. When Rick Parry talks about what the Liverpool way is, a way of behaving and a way of conducting yourself, this place is it."

Home grown talent are the Reds' heartbeat

STEVE HEIGHWAY believes the current Liverpool team's local heartbeat was instrumental in inspiring the staggering fightback which saw the Champions League trophy land at Anfield permanently last summer.

Heighway was an influential star of Liverpool's first two European and UEFA Cup winning sides - line-ups which included local heroes like Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case, Phil Thompson and David Fairclough.

And he believes locally produced talent may have an indefinable edge over 'acquired' footballers.

"The top players all have a cause," explained Heighway. "That cause could be money - they could be playing to feed their families. But the lads who come from here have an extra cause. The very top players at the top of the game are not that much different from each other - the top teams aren't that much different - what makes the one per cent difference is if they are playing for their club. That pride, that passion.

"These boys represent Liverpool, they represent Merseyside, they represent their football club, their Academy - and you hope that that makes a difference when it comes to key moments . . . like when you're playing AC Milan perhaps, and you have your heartbeat of your club who are playing for something other than the win. For most players professionalism will be enough, but it's just that little bit which makes that bit of difference at the magic moments.

"Perhaps it's the moment when the travelling player, as I call him, who finds himself 3-0 down in Istanbul, thinks that he can't win. The player who has the Liverpool heartbeat, however, is thinking 'what's it going to be like when I get back to the city, with my mates and my family?' Those players are aware of the make-up of the 20,000 fans. To the boy whose been brought in, it's just 20,000 fans. To Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher it's 20,000 from Huyton or Bootle, so it has to make a slight difference."

STEVE HEIGHWAY believes the current Liverpool team's local heartbeat was instrumental in inspiring the staggering fightback which saw the Champions League trophy land at Anfield permanently last summer. Heighway was an influential star of Liverpool's first two European and UEFA Cup winning sides - line-ups which included local heroes like Tommy Smith, Jimmy Case, Phil Thompson and David Fairclough. And he believes locally produced talent may have an indefinable edge over 'acquired' footballers.

"The top players all have a cause," explained Heighway. "That cause could be money - they could be playing to feed their families. But the lads who come from here have an extra cause. The very top players at the top of the game are not that much different from each other - the top teams aren't that much different - what makes the one per cent difference is if they are playing for their club. That pride, that passion.

"These boys represent Liverpool, they represent Merseyside, they represent their football club, their Academy - and you hope that that makes a difference when it comes to key moments . . . like when you're playing AC Milan perhaps, and you have your heartbeat of your club who are playing for something other than the win. For most players professionalism will be enough, but it's just that little bit which makes that bit of difference at the magic moments. "Perhaps it's the moment when the travelling player, as I call him, who finds himself 3-0 down in Istanbul, thinks that he can't win. The player who has the Liverpool heartbeat, however, is thinking 'what's it going to be like when I get back to the city, with my mates and my family?' Those players are aware of the make-up of the 20,000 fans. To the boy whose been brought in, it's just 20,000 fans. To Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher it's 20,000 from Huyton or Bootle, so it has to make a slight difference."

Competition so tough in race for signatures

LIVERPOOL'S recruitment policy isn't perfect.

But Heighway admits he doesn't have many regrets after 17 years of cherry picking the best talent from the local region.

"We have been in for lots and lots of players over the years," he explained. "Darren Fletcher was quite close to coming here. He looked a good prospect but in the end he made a choice.

"The difficulty now is that when you are looking at a young prospect you can be pretty sure Chelsea will be interested, and so will Arsenal and Man United. If the decision the boy takes is purely on which club he feels most comfortable at we have a great chance. But financially, who is going to compete with Chelsea?

"It's the same at the younger levels as it is at the top level. If Chelsea want a 17-year-old they will probably get him - unless the boy is someone like Scott Carson who looks at that club and says no. It's not dispiriting. In our job you have to say you win some, you lose some.

"There are 40 Academies and we have something like 20 professional football clubs within an hour of here, which is our catchment area because there are very strict rules now as to how far you can cast the net.

"So it's not easy to find a world star. The place is full of terrific footballers from the age of nine right through to 19.  We've done pretty well, but there are still Scousers playing for other football clubs . . . Bolton and Blackburn for example. So they do sometimes escape the net.

"We may see somebody at 12 or 13 who we are not sure about, who maybe has some talent but not quite what we are looking for. They may go to Blackburn or Bolton and then 10 years later you suddenly find have developed into top players, so it can happen but by and large we have always got a tremendous number of talented boys."

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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