TGG Podcast #17: Alex Inglethorpe - Inside Liverpool's Academy
Written by Simon Austin AND JOSHUA SCHNEIDER-WEIILER — September 5, 2020
LIVERPOOL Academy Manager Alex Inglethorpe took us inside the club's Kirkby training centre for the latest edition of the TGG Podcast.
He explained the key principles that underpin one of the most successful youth programmes in English football.
Alex Inglethorpe: From day one, Jurgen has been fantastic. He’s trusted what we’re doing and I definitely don’t feel like we’re being micromanaged in any way. He takes a very, very healthy interest in what we do and the best compliment I can pay him is that he knows the players’ names, whether they’re in the 18s or 23s.
He’s the best youth coach in the world and has real empathy for young players and young people. I think he knows they make mistakes and has this wonderful way of handling them and understanding where they are in their lives. But at the same time he’s a very strong guide and will let them know exactly what he demands.
I feel I’m at a club where the Academy is valued. Mike Gordon plays a significant part and has a real interest in the Academy, as does the boss, Michael Edwards, everyone. That makes you feel very valued and that what you’re doing is noticed.
There are certain non-negotiables shared by the Academy and first team. We have to work hard to understand what those demands are and then make sure there are no big surprises for our 18s and 23s when they go up to Melwood. Otherwise we have failed them. I don’t want them to go up there and get their one audition and fail it because of something we’ve not prepared them for.
The Liverpool Way
I’m an outsider and I think there are people far better qualified than me to talk about the Liverpool Way, like Steve Heighway, Sir Kenny Dalglish or Steven Gerrard.
What I can say is that this is a unique club, in terms of the way people think, the demands of the supporters and the passion of the city. The Liverpool Way is probably embodied in the supporters and style of play and the demands that the city makes upon you.
We’ve tried very hard to bring in people with experience and expertise in their field, who are first and foremost outstanding human beings and have a real knowledge around whatever age group they are working with.
I’m also very fortunate to be surrounded by some outstanding staff. This is certainly not a one-man show. I’ve got so many people who help me here, whether it’s Nick Marshall or Martin Diggle or Andrew Powlesland or Tim Devine. I’ve got so many people around who are genuinely outstanding in what they do.
Nick used to be the Academy Manager at Nottingham Forest, Tim was at Everton and Steve Heighway was here. They’re all quick to tell me if I’m not going in the right direction.
Steve is 72 and is still probably our best coach. His enthusiasm to get up and work and still drive the standards is amazing and has been great for me. He works primarily with the 15s and 16s, but sometimes he cames in on a night he’s not meant to be in to work with the U10s.
I’ve always said you don’t want to live in the past but you have to respect it and learn from it. We’re very lucky that Sir Kenny Dalglish comes into the Academy and plays a prominent part. Steve McManaman, Rob Jones, Robbie Fowler. Michael Thomas has just come back in and is starting to work with some of the younger age groups as well.
The Liverpool Way
To play or work for Liverpool Football Club is a joy and a great honour. It does not matter whether you are 9, 19, 29 or 59 - the magic is the same. Football is a simple game but when talented players, gifted coaches and sensible parents are united together, they can move mountains.
Everyone in this Academy should be aware of the traditions of this club, the standards and values that the club represents, the responsibility that we all share to behave in a professional way that seeks improvement, excellence and success without sacrificing the values we hold so dear.
That is ‘The Liverpool Way’.
(These words, from Steve Heighway, appear above the entrance to the main building at Liverpool's Kirkby Academy)
It’s important that we have people around who understand the Liverpool Way and can pass on the baton, while also understanding we want to create a new history and not live in a previous one.
The one thing I can say about development is that there isn’t a blueprint. Everyone is going to need something slightly different. What is right for Rhian Brewster isn’t going to be right for Curtis Jones or Harry Wilson. We have to work really hard at working out what each individual needs.
Sometimes you have to adapt the programme as it goes. You can’t write a document for a player aged 16 and say ‘right, this is going to be his plan for the next five, six years.’ It doesn’t tend to work that way. You might have an outline in your mind, but pretty often you move in a different direction depending on the circumstances.
If you look at Mo Salah, his journey to Liverpool was via three or four clubs and it wasn’t always success, but what you can say is he always learned. He learned how to solve problems, cope, develop himself a little bit.
Then you have Trent. He didn’t need those four or five clubs. When he came into the first team he wasn’t the best right back in the world, but you can make a strong case that he is now. Part of his development was playing alongside Jordan Henderson and James Milner and being coached by the manager as well.
Every player will have a slightly different journey.
(Development coach) Vitor Matos is a fantastic resource for us. He spends a lot of time at Melwood around the first team, because there are a lot of young players there who need care and attention. Primarily, his role is around making sure that when they go to Melwood they get a games programme regularly and if there are extra sessions they need he can support them with that.
In recent times, whether it’s been a young Neco Williams or Curtis Jones or Ki-Jana Hoever or Sepp van den Berg, they often need something a little bit different to the established first-team players.
Trent: The flagbearer
Trent is an amazing young man and I’ve been very privileged to watch him mature since he’s been at the Academy. I’m very, very proud of him. When he comes back here he’s genuinely pleased to see everyone and is very respectful - and he recognises the part that the coaches played in his development.
Debuts have always been relatively easy to come by. There’s a world of difference between that and someone who can stay in the team. And then there’s a world of difference between that and someone who can win things with the club. That’s the ultimate measure.
Otherwise, why are we doing this? Why are we working ridiculous hours and doing what we’re doing, unless we believe players can go in and help the first team win trophies?
You never know about a player until they’re in that company among senior players. And then the ultimate test is playing at Anfield - they will be the ultimate judges.
When Trent first started playing for the club, you watch through your fingers a little bit. Then it's about their ability to adapt. It’s not about playing well in one game but three days later and for 50 games a season.You have days and doubts where you see a session that didn’t go quite so well or a trait in them that you think 'I’m not sure about that.'
It’s a really big jump to the first team. Some can make it straight away and some might need to come away and go back. Now there’s a little bit more understanding that people might need a little bit more time to come back through.
I know we’ve got players here now that will be good enough to play for the club. Out of 180 boys, it would be unfair of me to pick out one or two, , but there are boys who I would be very disappointed if they didn’t run it very close.
Layton Stewart is certainly on the right path at the moment, but he's got a lot of work to do. He’s got the get in the 23s before we can talk about whether he can go to Melwood. Like all the boys, he’s got so much to do before he can even think about challenging for the number nine shirt at Liverpool.
Along the way they’re going to need their share of luck, need to be patient and realise that there’s a lot of hard work to be done. But they will have our support all the time they’re here.
I actually did my stint in the pre-Academy a few years ago and I can tell you it’s the hardest session. When you’re taking six and seven-year-olds you earn your money. I’ve got some coaches here doing that job who I think are outstanding.
I’ve also been fortunate to experience the Academy system via my son and have been pleasantly surprised by how good it is. He’s now in the U12s and probably has a harder time of it than anyone else - he has to work twice as hard to earn the right to stay here.
The pre-Academy is very much based around fun and enjoyment and not wanting to kill their spirit for the game. We don’t over-professionalise it, because they’re babies.
It’s very much based on 3v3, 4v4 games, and just letting them play and encouraging them and making sure they feel very free to explore the game. For me, it’s not rocket science, it’s led by the wants of the players
If you look at us - Trent, Harry Wilson, Curtis, Neco, they’ve all been with us since the age of six. And some of the ones that aren’t with us any more, like Ryan Kent, were with us in pre-Academy. It has to be the lifeblood of what you do. The mainstay of the group are in the building at a very young age.
We have to be very careful at 9, 10, 11, not to kill their enthusiasm for the game. We want them to win the ball back, but we also want them to stay on the ball and enjoy it, so there are different priorities at different ages.
I’ve always thought it starts getting more serious around the age of 14. That’s when you can maybe a conversation with a parent and say ‘this might end up as a job for your son.’ Until then it’s a pastime, it’s a hobby.
Key Performance Indicators
We’re not a charity, so I don’t expect the club to keep giving us money every year and us not pay it back. We’ve got to be a self-sustaining business and contribute and pay our way.
We can do that in a variety of ways. The most linear is to get someone straight into our first team, so thank you Trent for that. Another way might be for someone who doesn’t quite make the first team to be sold and generate some money. That’s people like Rafa Camacho or Ryan Kent or Brad Smith or Jordan Ibe.
I'm just as proud watching Matty Virtue play for Blackpool as I am watching Trent playing for Liverpool.
I love reading the names on the team sheet and seeing the boys who were with us. I’m proud that they’re in a job they love and that we maybe played a part in them doing that.
The final KPI would be making sure our graduates are happy and fulfilled, even if they’re not involved in football any more. Hopefully they’ll be able to look back and see that the Academy played an important part in their life and that we gave them some values and taught them some things they were able to take with them.
Keeping fit, testing yourself, playing with and against some of the best players in the North West, visiting different countries, learning about really good habits - I think those things can add to a boy’s life.
I also think there’s a greater understanding at Academies now about the development of children and what they need. There’s a better understanding of all four corners, including the psychological one, and I think the after care is better now.
Earn your rewards
The club are Premier League champions and won the Champions League two seasons ago, but I feel that is very much the first team’s success. As an Academy, we have to be careful not to become complacent or bask in that reflected light, because it’s not ours.
I’m a little bit old fashioned - I believe you should build a career and that gratification should be deferred. It should be something you work towards. As you improve and gain more experience, you’re rewarded accordingly. But you have to earn the right for that.
Of course, I recognise that if someone is doing ever so well and is about to go into the first team at 16, then of course they have to be paid according to where they are. But, by and large, for every player signing their first contract it’s the same (a maximum salary of £40k).
When you speak to most people and ask whether they could they have handled vast amounts of money when they were 17, I’m pretty sure most would say no. If it affects them even a little bit, then it could be enough to turn a promising career into something else.
I’d love to think that if you want to sign for Liverpool it's because it's one of the best clubs in the world, not because you saw it as an early pay cheque.
You have to earn it. That’s how life should be.
I speak a lot about gold medallists. When you see the gold medallists in the group, you worry about the first time they’re going to have to overcome a difficulty.
If the first time is later, you worry about how they’re going to deal with it. It’s often the silver and bronze medalists who constantly have to overcome problems and they’re the ones that tend to come through.
Sometimes within society we’re keen to solve every problem that comes along. It worries me. I heard a great analogy the other day about problems in the playground. They used to be solved by the dinner lady, she would be the arbiter.
Now, the moment that there’s a problem there’s a group of adults around a child trying to solve the problem for them. It’s normal for a child to encounter hurdles during their development and it’s healthy for them to solve the problem themselves.
I feel very very lucky that my own early experiences as a coach were at Lewisham College, Leatherhead and Leyton Orient youth team, where there wasn’t the money in the budget, where there wasn’t the support around you. You didn’t have sports science or a goalkeeping coach or a physio and you had to learn these things and be very creative around solving problems.
You focused more on what you had than what you didn’t have.
That’s what we’ve tried really hard for here. Whilst I recognise it’s a wonderful environment for the kids to be in, I don’t want them to feel they’re living in excess or that they’ve already arrived. They have to feel grounded and that they have something to aspire to. I don’t want them thinking they live in Disneyworld.