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No phones, no egos, no flash cars: Jamie Carragher interviews the brains behind Liverpool's talent factory

Jamie Carragher at Liverpool's training ground next to a picture of seven home-grown youngsters from the 90s, which includes himself
Jamie Carragher next to a picture of Liverpool's home-grown youngsters from the 90s, which includes himself - Jon Super

There are obvious qualities a young footballer needs to impress an elite coach like Jurgen Klopp.

No one can play regularly for a Premier League club such as Liverpool without talent, temperament, courage and athleticism.

But during an in-depth discussion with Liverpool’s academy director, Alex Inglethorpe, he emphasises a crucial asset which explains why the club’s quadruple bid is being assisted by a golden era of youth development.

“Character,” he says.

“What makes me especially proud is that no one during Jurgen’s time here has failed because of their character.”

I ask Inglethorpe to elaborate.

“You work 10 years here to earn an audition in front of the first-team manager,” he explains.

“If you are going to fail to impress, make it because you are not quite at the level on the football pitch. It would be foolish to fail because of bad decisions made about the car you drive, the watch you wear, the training shoes.

“Jurgen is switched on to everything. If a kid turned up to first-team training with a 10k watch, he would see it. So would the senior players. You tell me, what would you think?”

“If the senior players think you are a big-time Charlie, the first thing they will do is give you a whack in training to teach you a lesson!” I suggest.

Inglethorpe nods.

Alex Inglethorpe (left) chats with Jurgen Klopp (right) at Liverpool's academy
Alex Inglethorpe chats with Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool's academy - Getty Images/Nick Taylor

At Liverpool, this character test has gone beyond advice. Inglethorpe informs me that in addition to a £50,000-a-year academy wage cap, under his directorship – now in its 10th year – a ‘car clause’ has been introduced limiting engine sizes to 1.3 litres, a warning of the dangers of too much, too soon.

“It is a safety thing as much as anything,” he says.

“I don’t want boys who have just passed their test with these big chunks of metal, but I was also fed up seeing a car park full of Range Rovers. If anyone turns up with one of them, they are parking it next door.

“We have a pay structure which is fairly old-fashioned. We give them jobs to do. We tell them to hand their phone over at 8.30am and give them back before they go home.

“You have been a senior player. You know how it is when a young player comes into the dressing room. You want respect for the pathway. They have to earn what comes their way first. All the other stuff is fine later. To get there you have to do it on the pitch.”

Alex Inglethorpe passes on instructions to Liverpool academy player Ranel Young
Inglethorpe passes on instructions to academy player Ranel Young - Getty Images/Nick Taylor

Alex is speaking my language, evoking memories of the legendary bootroom coach Ronnie Moran welcoming newcomers to first-team training at Melwood with the message, ‘we do not want any big heads here’.

“Trent [Alexander-Arnold] is a really good example,” says Inglethorpe.

“When you get to the senior squad, the best thing you can do is have senior players who become your advocates. There was no flash watch with Trent. I remember how he drove the same car for years. He’d wear the same tracksuit. As soon as he made the step up, Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and James Milner invested time and effort to help him. It was the same for Curtis [Jones].

“Now that baton has been passed on with Trent the vice-captain ensuring the next along the line display the same characteristics.”

Jurgen Klopp puts his arm around Trent Alexander-Arnold
Trent Alexander-Arnold has risen through the ranks to become vice-captain - Getty Images/Andrew Powell

More academy graduates are passing the ‘auditions’, critical to Klopp’s latest trophy quest which continues against Chelsea at Wembley in Sunday’s League Cup final

There is an image decorating one of the walls at the youth training centre in Kirkby that gives me as much pride as any of my footballing achievements.

In 1999, the club commissioned a photograph of the seven home-grown youngsters who were fully established first-team players; myself, Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen, Steve McManaman, Dominic Matteo, David Thompson and recent debutant Steven Gerrard.

(Top row, left to right): Steve McManaman Jamie Carragher, Dominic Matteo and Steven Gerrard. (Bottom row, left to right): Michael Owen, David Thompson and Robbie Fowler
(Top row, left to right): Steve McManaman, Jamie Carragher, Dominic Matteo and Steven Gerrard. (Bottom row, left to right): Michael Owen, David Thompson and Robbie Fowler - Jon Super

Between us we won 31 major trophies for the club. I hear the club hopes to replicate that picture for the class of the 2020s; Alexander-Arnold, Jones, Caoimhin Kelleher, Jarell Quansah and Conor Bradley the stand-outs.

On Wednesday night against Luton Town, six former or current academy players aged 21 or under played their part.

“It’s fair to say without them, Liverpool would not be in this weekend’s Carabao Cup final or going for four trophies,” I suggest.

“Credit to them all, but Jurgen is the difference,” says Inglethorpe.

Harvey Elliott celebrates scoring Liverpool's fourth goal with Jayden Danns
Six former or current Liverpool academy players took on Luton - Reuters/Molly Darlington

“There are a lot of good academies out there, but not all clubs have a manager with the courage to play youngsters at big moments. He does not just give 10 minutes here and there with the team 4-0 up. There are so many examples when he has played virtually complete academy teams. There are times when I have looked at the starting XI and thought, ‘Wow, I’m not sure even I would do that’.

“Jurgen has not just talked about developing youth, he has actually done it. Caoimhin (Kelleher) playing in the 2022 League Cup final is the prime example. It would have been so easy to pick Alisson in the final. He believes in these players.

“There is a proud tradition of the academy providing first-team players at Liverpool – obviously you are part of that. But I have always said that it has to be more than about making a debut. That can happen for a lot of players, especially with the schedule and so many fixtures nowadays. What I want is the academy to play its part in winning the club trophies and fighting on all fronts.”

In addition to the more established first teamers, Klopp’s youth policy has seen Ben Doak, Bobby Clark and James McConnell regularly feature during this campaign. Like Harvey Elliott, they joined Liverpool’s youth set-up having started their careers elsewhere, academy policies across the country evolving to look beyond city boundaries.

“I wanted to win the battle in our own backyard first, getting the best from Merseyside – and then look further afield,” says Inglethorpe.

“There was a period when there were too many white, middle-class boys at the academy. We had 10 per cent diversity at one point and had to work to improve that. Now, we have players of different cultures and backgrounds and we are better for it.”

Alex Inglethorpe leads the Liverpool academy players out for the 25th Hillsborough Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield on April 15, 2014
Inglethorpe leads the Liverpool academy players out for the 25th Hillsborough Anniversary Memorial Service at Anfield in 2014 - Getty Images

Liverpool’s union between the first team and youth set-up solidified when the training sites amalgamated two years ago. The rewards on and off the pitch are self-evident.

“We are aligned in that the under-21s and under-18s will try to do a fairly good [tactical] impression of the first team – taking on the non-negotiables. From the under-16s down we will prioritise different skills at different age groups, with more technical work,” says Inglethorpe.

“There is always a lot of understandable emphasis on the number of appearances by academy players, but from a purely business perspective, no one talks about the spending.

“There are some academies spending £40 million a year. We are nearer £13 million. If you think of £130 million over 10 years, what is the return on that investment? We have sold about £160 million worth of academy talent.

“We’ve been studying it and we estimate there is about £300 million of academy talent in this building. That can fluctuate, of course, but if you look at Jarell [Quansah], he is our fourth-choice centre-back this season. He ensured the club did not have to sign another centre-back last summer. What value do you put on that?

“A Premier League squad player is between £15 million–£25 million, and the average Premier League wage is £60,000 a week. So if you have three academy boys on the bench it could save somewhere in the region of £70 million a year.”

Liverpool's Jarell Quansah and Burnley's Wilson Odobert battle for the ball
Big things are expected of Jarell Quansah - PA/Peter Byrne

As well as players, Inglethorpe takes pride from the conveyor belt of coaching talent; Wolves’ Gary O’Neil and Tim Jenkins and Blackpool’s Neil Critchley are former staff. Michael Beale may have endured a tough spell, but there is expectation he will enjoy a long coaching career, as well as Steven Gerrard.

But the greatest pride is always seeing players who arrived as schoolchildren being on the threshold of becoming superstars.

“Watching them is like watching your own son. You only see their mistakes,” Inglethorpe admits.

“Some players are gold medallists – you know immediately they are going to make it. I am told Michael Owen was like that when he was here.”

“There was another called Carragher like that,” I interrupt.

“I heard he wasn’t on the podium and came through much later,” Inglethorpe laughs.

“I have tended to work with the silver or bronze medallists who come down the rails later. Even Harry Kane, who I worked with as a youth coach at Tottenham, was like that. Maybe I have a blind spot for the gold medallists.

“There are different ways to get there. Some players take the elevator, others take the stairs.”

Win or lose, many of the latest academy class are guaranteed to be going up the Wembley steps this weekend.

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