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Benitez foreign policy casts shadow over Academy role

Benitez foreign policy casts shadow over Academy role

Jun 30 2007

Blood Red

by Tony Barrett, Liverpool Echo

IF anyone had any doubts about just how unhappy Rafa Benitez has been with the quality of players emerging from the Liverpool youth system then the club’s early summer transfer activity should have removed them.

As the bulk of Liverpool's fans wait impatiently for the big name signings they hope will turn the first team squad into genuine title challengers, Benitez has been busily assembling a shadow squad of players who hardly anyone outside of the Anfield scouting department has ever heard of.

The cast of unknowns includes Hungarian duo Simon Andras and Kristizan Nemeth, Spanish defender Mikel San Jose Dominguez, Swedish winger Alexander Kacaniklic, Scottish starlet Gary Mackay Steven and Bulgarian keeper Nikolay Mihaylov.

Significantly, all are teenagers.

This is not a new policy at Anfield, however. Ever since Benitez took charge and recognised that he would not be able to rely on a steady supply of quality youngsters from the Academy he has looked to bolster his ranks by signing teenagers with potential from wherever he can find them.

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In the last 12 months teenagers Astrit Ajdarevic, Martin Hansen, Emiliano Insua, Nabir El Zhar, Jordy Brouwer, Francisco Duran and Ronald Huth have all joined the club.

More than a dozen teenagers have been signed. If ever there was a damning indictment of the malfunctioning academy it is this statistic.

Benitez’s current youth policy is the footballing equivalent of Ford buying a fleet of Seat Ibizas and BMWs because the standard of car coming off their production line simply isn’t good enough for the job intended.

But it is a policy which is entirely necessary as long as the hugely expensive Academy continues to fail to deliver on its promise to produce a steady stream of players who are ready to challenge for a first team place.

And this is the size of the challenge facing new Academy technical manager Piet Hamberg, because the harsh truth is the majority of homegrown players who have come through Liverpool’s academy system in recent years have lacked technique, tactical know- how, strength and physique.

There are those who could still buck the trend, of course. Youth team captain Jay Spearing was recently promoted to Melwood and he certainly has the technical ability and mental toughness needed to make an impact at the highest level.

The one thing holding Spearing back is a lack of height and his career prospects may not have been done any favours by being played mainly at centre back through the ranks.

But it could just be that the diminutive Spearing may be able to reinvent himself as either a holding midfielder or a right back – positions he has filled with distinction at youth and reserve levels.

Should Spearing or fellow Academy graduates Craig Lindfield, Robbie Threlfall or Ray Putterill succeed in beating the odds it would represent a glimmer of success for the Liverpool youth set-up in a period which has been blighted by failure.

Until Benitez can look forward to his first team squad being regularly bolstered by emerging talents from the Academy, Liverpool fans will have to get used to seeing unknown youngsters arriving from around the world.

The only problem is such a policy is unlikely to prove sustainable in the long term. At present, a vital part of Liverpool’s business is failing and is being propped up by expensive signings (by youth standards) from abroad. The longer this goes on the more people inside and outside the club will question the value of the Academy.

Ideally, Liverpool would be cherry picking the best foreign players to compliment the supply of players from the Academy, rather than signing more than a dozen teenagers from overseas, some of whom are hopeful of making it into the first team squad. But others are doing little more than papering over the yawning cracks in the youth set-up.

Hamberg will be fully aware of the challenge facing him. He will know that the Academy has to start producing to justify its own existence and he will be hopeful the raw material is there for him to work with.

A new direction could be just what is needed.

The new man has got his work cut out but he can at least be comforted by the knowledge that no-one wants the Academy to be a success more than Benitez does.

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