04 May 2007

Heighway, Benitez, and the youth system

I didn’t really care to say anything on this, but the BBC’s headline “Heighway fumes at ‘crazy’ Benitez” is bothering me. Apologies both for centering on club drama, and for pushing the Fulham preview off the top.

I was more than happy to write “congrats and all the best” a couple of weeks back when Liverpool won the Youth Cup and Heighway publicly announced what had been rumored for 2 seasons and leave it at that.

But this “attack” in the press, even though it’s most certainly less than it’s made out to be, is uncalled for, and from afar, seems more than a little out of touch with what fans so lovingly refer to as ‘the Liverpool way.’ I know Heighway’s had a hand in Academy development for over 15 years, but really? Going to the press over disagreements and blasting the man who’s pretty much the figurehead of the entire club for what boils down to personal reasons?

Not only that, but there’s more than a bit of ego in Heighway’s quotes as well, despite his claims to the contrary, which rubs the wrong way even more and increases the whole “sour grapes” sense.
• "Rafa is a terrific manager, but I think I'm the best coach of 17 and 18-year-olds in this club.”

• "If they are not working with the best coach of young players, then what is this football club doing?”

• "It's not an ego thing, but one thing I am absolutely sure about is that the best thing for the players is to be with me.”

Obviously Spain is a bit different than England, but Heighway realizes that Rafa was a manager in various capacities for Real’s youth team, who are no slouches themselves, for almost 10 years?

It comes down to two men having two separate goals. And unfortunately for Heighway, Rafa’s is going to win out. Heighway wants to do exactly what he did this year: build a good youth team with mostly local lads and win the Youth Cup while still developing them as men off the pitch. Rafa is looking more long term; he wants to develop youth players that are able to come into the first team, full stop. Heighway’s done very well in producing a successful youth squad, but the line to the first team has dried up over the past few classes.

Since Owen, Carragher, and Gerrard, there haven’t been any youth players to make the leap. Maybe having those three, and Fowler and McManaman before them spoiled me a bit, but it has seemed the Academy should be producing more for the first team for a while now. And it’s not solely for lack of chances: Stephen Warnock, Neil Mellor (both of whom I liked, but weren’t good enough), John Welsh and Darren Potter spring immediately to mind, with Danny Guthrie and possibly Lee Peltier seemingly soon to follow in those footsteps. More need to be coming if the club is going to be competing for championships. If you groom these players from 16 on, you don’t have to spend £15m on them when they come of age. I hate to write the obvious, but it’s common sense.

Both men may agree on faults in the current reserve/youth system, but if it’s not working, something has to be done. And when Rafa and his staff run the first team, it makes sense that they’d want a hand in how their future players are going to be developed.

Unfortunately, what I think it comes down to is that Heighway has always resisted not only anyone encroaching on Academy affairs, but foreign youth as well. He’s truly tried to stick to the Academy being for local lads. And while it’s a noble sentiment, and you do have to strive for some locals in the youth setup, it’s also a thing of the past, especially for a team that considers itself among the best in the Premiership and in Europe. Maybe Welsh or Potter, just to name a couple, would have done better thrown into the first team and kept there, but it’s not going to come at Liverpool, not with the amount and importance of fixtures unless they are a 'sure thing.' Heighway says the only two sure things he’s ever had were Owen and Gerrard, but at a club of this stature, you need have a few more sure things in the pipeline. Sadly, it’s become a fact of life in the modern game.

I really was hoping Heighway would be kept on in some capacity, for all he’s done for Liverpool. He’s been a brilliant servant of the club. His name is still sung at every game, in Fields of Anfield Road, and rightfully so. But after this, I’m less certain; this is an awfully bitter way to leave one’s position. If it comes down to him or Rafa, Rafa wins every time, because of his importance at every level of the club. If Heighway can’t work within that frame, maybe it is for the best he leaves. Which makes me depressed that it’s come to this.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

My problem with Heighway's arguement about these kids, the cream of the young crop, going straight from the Academy to the first team is that it's even more of a leap than it has ever been before. With each season of progression, as Rafa takes us closer and closer to the elite (and due credit to the foundation laid by GH), the chances that a young player will actually be able to force his way into a squad of world-class talent lessens.

Obviously, we want to be churning out more lads like Carragher/Owen/McManaman/Gerrard/Fowler, but in order to truly become a squad capable of realistically competing for all honors (especially the league) year in and year out, we can't wait for the young talent hit its stride. We HAVE to spend the money that gets us up to speed NOW. We all can agree a great youth set-up saves us money down the road, but Rafa knows he can't afford to sacrifice anything in the present for the future.

I do believe, however, that steps are being taken so that the Academy can produce some consistent talent. Keep in mind, though, that we are competing with various other youth set-ups (United, Arsenal, even West Ham) for the signatures of British (and non-British too) teenagers.

I too want to thank Steve for his time of service, but I have to put my faith in Rafa. If anybody has demonstrated that he sees the big picture, it's Senor Benitez.

And, on a lighter note, just how many editors chose to use the title, "Rafa's way or the Heighway?" Sadly, probably not too many b/c 'highway' isn't a very English term. A shame, though. Easy pun for the taking.