It doesn’t immediately strike you as the obvious site for one of Europe’s finest football academies. It isn’t sprawling luxuriously across the foothills of the Catalonian Mountains, nor is it the picturesque city base of De Toekomst in Amsterdam. Instead the next generation of Liverpool players are emerging on the edge of the city, in a disused industrial estate just off the M57.
Even in its very location the Academy embodies the working class spirit the club are desperate to drill into each and every player to pull on a Liverpool shirt.
The impression of the Kirkby Academy as a run-down facility is, to be honest, unfair of me. While the area around is not the most aesthetically pleasing, the Academy itself is actually one of the most modern in the country. The long driveway leads up to the flagship Pitch 1 where the U21s and U18 teams are broadcast live on a weekly basis. Head right from there and you find yourself walking towards the iconic main building; all of a sudden you realise you have entered a rather special place.
A couple of U10s run past on the stairs, then Ryan McLaughlin strolls through the main entrance, stopping to say hello to the youngsters before he shouts over to Jordon Ibe and Lloyd Jones who move away with him to the canteen. The U10s don’t stand in awe of their superiors, they see them every day and talk to them every day, in fact they tell a joke to the receptionist and scamper off to the changing rooms.
It is this normalisation of the experience of being around big names and famous faces that has got the owners, the Academy staff and in particular Brendan Rodgers desperate to get the whole club onto the one training base. The Kirkby Academy, which has the ability to expand into the wasteland surrounding it, would be that base.
“The manager wants it. That’s for sure. The owners would like it.”
“It would be great for our kids to be close with the first team… it would be fantastic for us to do it”
“We’re not going to do it tomorrow, that’s for sure, but I know everyone would like it to happen.”
“In a perfect world, we would love it”
Academy director Frank McParland is speaking at a so-called ‘Fans Briefing’. Liverpool invite representatives from Liverpool’s major supporters websites to come in and ask questions to the club staff. It’s another sign of the increasingly positive relationship between supporter and club. Far from being dismissive of supporter opinions we were given an hour and allowed to ask at least one question each. These were answered with enthusiasm and surprising openness by one of either Frank McParland, Rodolfo Borrell or Alex Inglethorpe. Youth team football is usually difficult to find information on so to hear such discussion was not only rare but extremely reassuring and refreshing. There is nothing to hide here, these three men are proud of the job they are doing.
When I brought up a subject that had been nagging away at me for a while, McParland hesitated before giving an assured answer. I wanted to know why signings at youth team level had slowed this season; whether it was a policy to keep the group small or if the number of changes over the summer had delayed potential deals.
“The recruitment has pretty much stayed the same at the Academy” answered Frank McParland.
“I’d say it’s actually harder signing players now. When we first came, virtually every player we brought on trial we wanted to sign them. The level has really improved a lot now”
“We’ll bring people in and we won’t always sign them now”
“We are looking for top players now and I think in the past, while we haven’t been signing players to fulfil fixtures, we’ve never done that, but we have signed ones who would help the other ones.”
“We feel as if the groups are good and they only need tinkering with”
“We just signed a Hungarian schoolboy [Kristof Polgar] who came in on trial and he did really well.”
It was good to hear that the structure and idea of the youth recruitment hadn’t changed but I still believe there is more to the question. Funding levels don’t appear to have been cut by any significant amount, but Liverpool have now started to look again at new signings with Daniel Carr coming in on trial and the club reusing the MTK links to bring in Hungarian youngster Kristof Polgar. A signing confirmed by McParland at the Bloggers Briefing.
Encouragingly, all three men spoke glowingly about several players and revealed that Rodgers regularly asks about the progress of Jack Dunn and Jerome Sinclair in particular. Inglethorpe was clearly impressed with how Teixeira has progressed and developed; interestingly highlighting some of the major problems foreign footballers have when they come to the country that perhaps fans sometimes don’t appreciate.
“He’s a really interesting character… it was a big decision for him to leave [Sporting Lisbon].”
“For a young kid to come over; not speak the language and adapt to food without family, without friends – and the weather… you can understand how hard it’s going to be” said Inglethorpe.
“The manager likes him… in recent weeks he’s the most eye-catching”.
Borrell, who has overcome the problems of being a foreigner in England and now considers Merseyside his home, gave a firm position on how players such as Teixeira must approach the challenge of living in a new country.
“The first thing I say to a foreign player when is coming, is the same that I try to apply for myself. That is… it is us who are coming here. It is us who need to adapt here.”
“Yeah we have talent or things that might be good for here but we have to adapt to a country, we have to adapt to this type of society.”
Interestingly, Alex Inglethorpe revealed that some of the injured players were entering the thinking of first team manager Brendan Rodgers just before they suffered long term injuries.
“The ones who got injured, ironically, as well like young Brad [Smith]… just when he got injured was at the time when you’d earmark him as a real potential talent. Same with Samed Yesil and Marc Pelosi”
One question brought up Jamie Carragher, and his potential future role. Disappointingly it didn’t sound like he had discussed an Academy role but there were hints he could have plans in first team coaching or even coaching away from the club.
“You won’t miss him until he’s gone… He’s been a magnificent servant to the club”
“We’d love him to be involved. If he wanted to do something with us, we would find something”
“I think maybe the manager’s got plans or whatever. I don’t know what he’s going to do”
The hour was up and Borrell, Inglethorpe and McParland all took a moment to come round the room and shake everyone’s hand. By this point the three of them had got themselves so animated in talking about the Academy that they couldn’t help but have another quick chat.
I’ve been to press days at Anfield. They are amazing; heard Sami Hyypia and Brendan Rodgers speak, walked past Jamie Carragher in the corridors but the Academy was the first place I’ve been to that has felt truly like it carries to spirit of Liverpool. Perhaps morbid reality of our league position has set in at first team level, or the influx of billionaires and businessmen has damaged the overall spirit but the Kirkby Academy was the first place I’ve been to and first time I’ve felt a distinguishable ‘This is Liverpool’ atmosphere. It buzzes with enthusiasm, friendliness and respect.
The heart of Liverpool Football Club is no longer at Melwood or Anfield; it is in Kirkby. The sooner the first team is there too, the better.