Liverpool drink from game's refreshing fountain of youth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 April, 2011, 12:00am


If only Arsenal's fragile youngsters had the steeliness of the whizz-kids on Liverpool's books, the Gunners might have a realistic chance of stopping Manchester United swooping on a record-breaking 19th top-flight English title.

Like a 'tut-tutting' schoolteacher, manager Arsene Wenger has winced and whined as his charges have repeatedly lost concentration in the classroom. Just one of their previous six games produced a victory and their last two matches saw four precious points dropped after leads were blown.

When Arsenal gave up a two-goal cushion at Tottenham mid-week, Wenger blamed it on exhaustion because his squad were playing the second of two games in four days. But the reality is they came up short again in the toughness department.

As former captain Patrick Vieira put it, most of the pampered squad wouldn't dare plant their feet where fearless former stars used to put their heads. That kind of courage is the difference between winning silverware - as the likes of Vieira, Tony Adams and Ray Parlour did - and being perennial bridesmaids.

The unfashionable teenagers on Liverpool's books probably have only a fraction of the technical ability of the likes of Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Yet, on the evidence of recent fighting displays - including their trip to the Emirates Stadium last Sunday - they might be the kind of people you'd prefer to have around in a crisis.

Teenage fullbacks John Flanagan and Jack Robinson, 19-year-old Jonjo Shelvey and fellow midfielder Jay Spearing, 22, have all caught the eye. Utility back Martin Kelly, 20, is another youngster who made an impression, even playing in the Europa League before being sidelined by a hamstring injury.

Having worked with the Reds' academy, manager Kenny Dalglish has plumped for the youngsters ahead of some underperforming senior players. He marvelled this week that once again the wheels are turning smoothly within Liverpool's junior production line.

'Too many clubs just want to buy and replace players and are not willing to give youth a chance, so I think Kenny is doing a great job in going back to Liverpool's youth system,' said Tim Bredbury, the former Hong Kong international and Liverpool squad player.

'Having been involved with the academy players for a number of years he knows what he has in terms of players. The ones he put into the Arsenal game are comfortable around him and know him, so they have confidence with him.'

More than three decades ago, Bredbury was one of the youngsters on Liverpool's books, hoping to crack the big time. Born in Hong Kong and educated at King George V School, he headed to Merseyside for a trial as a 16-year-old striker after his father wrote to the club.

After two years as an apprentice, he signed as a full-time professional for the 1981-82 season at the height of Liverpool's golden era. But with forwards in front of him like David Fairclough, Ian Rush and Dalglish, Bredbury never got close to a first-team appearance, although he did make the reserve team squad.

'There was no academy set-up and no real development plan in place,' he said. 'Players were signed on pure talent and then put into their system, which was all about passing and movement with no technical coaching like today.'

With Dalglish the common thread between that era and today, Bredbury sees similarities when it comes to blooding emerging talent.

'The secret to the club back then was they could replace any player with another and not affect the team performance,' he said. 'We are going back to the old ways as the new players know the system and it was just a case of slotting in and taking your chance, which they did against Arsenal.'

In the 1990s, Liverpool's glamorous squad of internationals were known as the Spice Boys, since style often won over substance. The low point was the 1996 FA Cup final against Manchester United, when they paraded around Wembley Stadium in cream Emporio Armani suits before suffering a 1-0 defeat to Manchester United. There is little of this Old Spice at Anfield. Many of the class of 2011 have no-frills hairstyles and are unlikely to follow 1990s favourites David James, Jamie Redknapp and Steve McManaman into modelling or media careers.

When Spearing was interviewed after accepting his man-of-the-match award at the Emirates Stadium, some Asian viewers may have benefited from subtitles to decipher his thick Scouse accent.

The verdict is out on whether the likes of Spearing, Shelvey, Flanagan and Robinson will help usher in a bright, new chapter or simply turn into professional journeymen. Certainly having a solid foundation of English or locally reared players does seem to help when it comes to team spirit.

'The club under Kenny will get back to a strong British foundation, with players who are used to playing a full EPL season and youngsters given a chance - but with some foreign flair as and when required,' Bredbury said.

'I would like to see some quick wide players like Matthew Etherington and Ashley Young signed along with a creative midfield player and dominant centre halves who can win balls and score from set pieces.'

Certainly the depth of Liverpool's squad isn't what it used to be. And with Dalglish needing to clear out a few additions signed by previous managers who haven't performed, there is likely to be more significant signings to join Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez on Merseyside.

In the meantime, Liverpool will drink from the fountain of youth and continue to be surprised by how refreshing it tastes.