Thursday, May 26, 2011

Liverpool Dive Into Northern Ireland Pool Of Talent

Take a walk along a corridor at Liverpool FC's Academy and on the walls you are surrounded by lines of framed pictures of kids who have come through the ranks to break into the first team.

A baby faced Steven Gerrard is there. So too a mischievous looking Jamie Carragher. And Jay Spearing, with wonderment in his eyes. They may have to extend the corridor soon because more than at any time in recent years, youngsters are progressing from the Academy to senior status.

This season alone Liverpool fans have been excited to witness the progress of Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson.

More will follow with high hopes for gifted young winger Raheem Sterling, who made a name for himself earlier this season scoring FIVE goals in an FA Youth Cup fixture.

Earlier in the season, with Roy Hodgson in charge and defeats and dreadful displays becoming the rule rather than the exception, there was a sense of doom and gloom enveloping Liverpool.

But on a visit, just before Liverpool’s season ended, to the Academy and Melwood, where the first team players train, it was clear to see the mood had changed.

Smiles lit up the faces of big name footballers and staff, the atmosphere was relaxed rather than tense and hearts were filled with hope once more. It's evident that a feelgood factor is oozing through the club.

Kenny Dalglish is the manager again, results improved in the second half of the campaign and talented kids emerged thanks to the outstanding efforts of Academy Director Frank McParland and his team.

There is a genuine belief amongst the fans that Liverpool could become a force once more in England and beyond.

For all the Kopites, including thousands in Northern Ireland, they’ll feel that’s not before time having had to put up with stick from their Manchester United loving friends and colleagues, whose favourite number is now 19.

United, of course, have a rich history of players from this part of the world making an impact at Old Trafford.

George Best will forever be regarded as the greatest of them all, but others like Harry Gregg, Jackie Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside would all be considered big heroes at the club, while in the present day Jonny Evans is maintaining the tradition.

It's amazing to note Liverpool have not had a Northern Ireland international in their first team for almost 80 years.

Aghadowey native Sam English was the last. In fact the club has only had three men in total who have represented the Irish FA. Billy Lacey and the great Elisha Scott came before English.

There is a desire amongst the many Liverpool fans here who travel to Anfield every fortnight and indeed within the Merseyside club itself, that will change in the not too distant future.

Northern Ireland under-17 defender Ryan McLaughlin recently signed a three year deal for the Anfield outfit.

And more could follow him thanks to a series of Liverpool FC Soccer Schools being organized all over the country, with the kids coached by McParland’s Academy coaches.

In association with the recently formed charity Happy Children, youngsters here have already enjoyed coaching courses at Jordanstown and Magee College in Londonderry taught in “the Liverpool Way'.

In weeks and months to come the Academy coaches will impart their knowledge and expertise around the province.

It’s a move designed not just to find stars of the future, but to promote the Liverpool FC brand in Northern Ireland and more simply for boys and girls to enjoy themselves.

Academy Director McParland, who works closely with Anfield boss Dalglish, believes it is an important step for the club.

He says: “The Soccer Schools are great for us. It gives us a chance to see youngsters and also provides possibilities for the top players to have a trial and maybe even get signed.

“We are looking all around the world for bright young talent and that includes Northern Ireland.

“I should say that the Soccer Schools aren’t just about finding a brilliant young player. It’s our chance to give something back to people in Northern Ireland, where we have a great support, and for kids to come and enjoy themselves and learn about football the Liverpool Way.”

And if they get to the Academy, there is always the chance of playing with the King himself.

“Kenny has had a massive influence on the Academy,” adds McParland.

“He is very supportive and very knowledgeable about the youngsters. He knows every player involved in the reserves, under-18s and under-16s by name and a lot of the younger ones as well.

“The boss still comes down at least once a week. If the first team has a day off he comes down to watch training and wants to join in. With everything he has achieved in the game it’s amazing for the lads.”

Meanwhile, Ryan McLaughlin is considered one of the brightest prospects to come out of Northern Ireland in some time, according to Frank McParland, who will oversee his progress at Liverpool over the next three years.

Liverpool FC Academy Director McParland is full of praise for the 16-year-old defender who will leave home in the summer in a bid to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

The St Mary's CBGS pupil showed why Liverpool regard him so highly when he starred for his school in their 4-3 victory over Boys Model in the Maxol Schools Cup final in March.

That match at Ballyskeagh may have been marred by fighting on the terraces, but anyone interested in the football could see that McLaughlin was a player with a touch of class.

He scored two penalties in the game, including a late winner from the spot when the pressure was on.

McLaughlin, who like many gifted young players from the province learnt much playing for Lisburn Youth, recently signed a three-year deal to join Liverpool.

“At the end of that contract I want to have done well enough to earn a new one,” says Ryan, a determined young man.

McParland, installed as the Academy Director two years ago by ex-Reds manager Rafael Benitez, says: “We scouted Ryan over the last two years and a lot of clubs were interested in him. In fact I'd say all the top clubs in the Premier League wanted him. We worked very hard to get him.

“We've looked after him and when he comes over in July he’ll be in nice digs which his parents are really pleased with.

“He's a good player and we're very excited by the prospect of him coming to us. He will definitely learn quickly because he's an intelligent young lad.

“He's been playing above his age level for Northern Ireland and when he's been over here at the Academy for training and matches he has done exceptionally well.”

Frank, whose Scouse wit is as sharp as his eye in spotting future stars, added that Reds boss Kenny Dalglish and Director of Football Damien Comolli have already watched Ryan and been impressed with what they saw.

McParland stated: “The manager and Damien have both seen him play and they are really impressed by the level he has reached so far. We're really looking forward to seeing him develop because when he's with us full-time and playing and training here every day he'll progress even quicker.

“He's coming over in July after finishing his schoolwork which is important. His parents were keen for him to finish his schooling.

“Once he's over here with us we feel he can go through the ranks quickly. We think we have got one of the best young players to come out of Northern Ireland in the last few years.”

The man tasked with feeding the next generation of Liverpool superstars is from Crumlin in Co Antrim.

Marty McMahon moved to Merseyside from Northern Ireland five years ago and is now the head chef at the Liverpool Academy.

Starting his career at Quincys Bar and Grill in Lisburn, he worked in restaurants in Londonderry before becoming the head chef at Altnagelvin Hospital.

Now he enjoys the banter of gifted young footballers, all hoping to make their way in the game, sticking to the strict food guidelines set out by the club.

He says: “There are guidelines that you have to work with — it's a high protein, high carb diet for the boys.

“You must have a fish option on a daily basis and chicken and pasta is essential every day, post-match and pre-match, and then there will be another meat option within the guidelines coming from the nutritionist at Melwood.

“The players aren't allowed anything fried or chips, though I'm asked every day in life for chips. They are teenagers at heart and the craic is good.

“I love working at the Academy. I'm a Liverpool fan which helps. You just want to see all the lads go on and do well.”

Charlie Adam's Liverpool Dream Could Be Over

Blackpool has activated a clause in Charlie Adam's contract which, in theory, gives him another year at the club.

However, the 25-year-old Scot is still likely to leave the Seasiders after coming close to joining both Liverpool and Spurs in January.

‘I just want to keep playing and obviously the Premier League was the top of the tree and obviously I want to play there but for me the focus now is Sunday (for Scotland),’ said Adam, who is determined not to dwell on the decision.

‘I need to keep performing well, then once Sunday’s out of the way, get a holiday and take things after that, but the important thing for me was that the performance tonight was terrific and hopefully we can move on to Sunday, then the friendly in August.’

Twelve-month options have also been taken up on Ian Evatt and Gary Taylor-Fletcher, while goalkeeper Matt Gilks is among those offered a new deal.

Newcastle Reject Liverpool Approach For Enrique

Liverpool has been rebuffed in their first move for Spanish defender Jose Enrique.

However, his club, Newcastle, is resigned to losing the highly-rated full-back, after he indicated he will not sign a new contract and wants a move from St James' Park.

Reds boss Kenny Dalglish is a big admirer of Enrique, who has made a huge impression on the Premier League this season.

The Anfield outfit is thought to be prepared to offer in the region of £4million for the 25-year-old, and have made an informal approach for his services.

Newcastle are not interested in doing business at that price, and have made clear to all potential suitors they value the Spaniard in the region of £15m.

But the left-back has just one year left on his contract and is refusing to talk about a new deal. Magpies boss Alan Pardew admits the player has his sights on a move.

Speaking this week, Pardew conceded Enrique may be allowed to leave:

"There’s no point keeping a player who has set his sights on a club he has perceived is bigger," he said. "You can’t keep a player that’s unmotivated.”

The £15m asking price is clearly unrealistic given the amount of time remaining on the deal Enrique signed when he joined Newcastle from Villarreal in 2007.

Liverpool believes £4m is a fair offer, as it would allow the Magpies to recoup most of the fee they paid for the Spain Under-21 international.

Negotiations will now begin in earnest, with Pardew determined to push the fee up as high as possible.

There is a sense of anger at St James' Park, with the suspicion that Enrique has already decided on a move to Anfield.

The player will make clear over the coming weeks that he wants to further his career by moving to a club with genuine Champions League aspirations, and Liverpool clearly fit the bill.

Dalglish has had a left-back high on his list of priorities since returning to the club in January.

He has also kept a close watch on Celtic's Emilio Izaguirre and Maynor Figueroa of Wigan.

Honduras international Izaguirre is aware of the Anfield interest.

Voted player of the year in Scotland this season after a series of outstanding performances, he admitted he would be interested in a move south of the border.

“This is flattering to any player, that Liverpool shows an interest in your services. I still do not know anything - I have left everything in the hands of my agent and club officials,” he said.

Dalglish will try to pursue a deal with Newcastle over Enrique, but it is increasingly obvious he will turn to Izaguirre if the Geordies continue to be unrealistic in their valuation of the Spaniard.

Fee Agreed For Left-Back

According to reports in Correio da Manha, Liverpool has agreed a fee of £25m for Benfica left back Fabio Coentrao.

Kenny Dalglish is set to move for the 23-year old full back who has been linked with a string of high profile clubs across Europe, including Premiership rivals Chelsea and Man City.

Liverpool has made a left back their top priority in the summer and have been linked with Everton's Leighton Baines, Arsenal's Gael Clichy and Newcastle's Jose Enrique.

Izaguirre Flattered By Liverpool

Celtic star Emilio Izaguirre has admitted he is 'flattered' by Liverpool's reported interest in him.

The Honduran left sider had a wonderful maiden campaign in Scotland, and was voted SPL Player of the Year, Players' Player of the Year and Football Writers' Footballer of the Year.

Neil Lennon insists he has no plans to sell, but now a number of English clubs are being strongly linked with a move for the 25-year-old.

Manchester United, Arsenal, Aston Villa and Liverpool have all been credited with an interest with the latter reported to be in pole position.

The Reds are seemingly in the market for a new left-back and, in recent months, have been linked with the likes of Jose Enrique, Fabio Coentrao and Stephen Warnock, as well as Izaguirre.

And the Honduran, who jetted back to his homeland ahead of next month's Gold Cup, admitted he had heard about Liverpool.

"It is flattering for any player of course, when somebody like Liverpool shows an interest in your services," he told La Tribuna.

"I still do now know anything, I leave this in the hands of my agent and club officials."

Izaguirre insisted he was looking forward to playing for Honduras in the Gold Cup.

"I am happy to be back home, it is always good to be back and thank God it comes after a great season.

"Now my aim is the national team and I am happy to be selected, I will have a few days off and then I will be ready for Honduras."

Steven Gerrard Hoping For 'A Few Top Quality Signings' This Summer

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard hopes new signings over the summer will ensure that the team can once again compete at the top of the Premier League.

After failing to qualify for the Champions League last season, the Reds have now been unable to reach the Europa League following their sixth-placed finish this term.

But Gerrard believes his side, who have had a resurgence under the guidance of manager Kenny Dalglish since January and following the additions of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, could become a dominant force again.

"It makes me feel very enthusiastic about next season. If we can maintain the form we've had recently, get our injured players back fit and playing, and bring a few top quality signings through the door, you never know what might happen," Gerrard said, according to The Mirror.

"With the belief we have running through the squad, and with the outstanding players we already have, we know we can approach every game with a great chance of coming out on top."

For now, however, Gerrard remains cautiously optimistic of the club's recent form under Dalglish, insisting that a lot of work still needs to be done.

He added: "When you are playing good football, it gives you confidence to have the bottle to press high up and win the ball back, and that has been the key for us. The danger of course, is becoming complacent.

"We can't believe we are suddenly fantastic, because even though we have improved, there is an awful lot of work ahead if we are to genuinely mix it with the teams at the top. But with top quality signings, who knows what we can do."

Aquilani's Future To Be Decided

Alberto Aquilani's agent believes the Liverpool midfielder's future will be decided next week.

The Italian midfielder has spent this season on loan at Juventus, but the Turin giants failed to exercise their first buy-out option to sign the 26-year-old on a permanent basis, which expired last weekend.

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has admitted he is open to the possibility of Aquilani returning to Anfield next season.

However, Aquilani's agent Franco Zavaglia, is optimistic a deal will be agreed between Juventus and Liverpool to see the former Roma man return to Italy on a permanent basis.

"The percentage that Aquilani will remain at Juve is above 50 per cent," Zavaglia told Gazzetta dello Sport.

"He has three years left on his contract with Liverpool.

"I believe that in a couple of days the two clubs will reach an agreement."

Juve, who have failed to qualify for European football next season after finishing seventh in Serie A, had refused to pay the asking price of £16million demanded by the Reds for the player's permanent signature.

However, Zavaglia is confident an agreement will be reached, adding: "Juve should have paid 16million for the buy-out clause but I don't think there will be any problems regarding the financial aspects.

"I believe within the next week everything will be resolved."

Alonso Explains Reds Exit

Former Liverpool star Xabi Alonso has lifted the lid on his reasons for leaving Anfield for Real Madrid.

Alonso quit Liverpool for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009 after a difficult final year at Anfield.

The Spaniard's future was the subject of constant speculation 12 months prior to his departure after then Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez confirmed his interest in bringing Gareth Barry to the club as Alonso's replacement.

The Barry move failed to materialize and Alonso stayed on for the 2008/09 season, but the 29-year-old admits Liverpool's pursuit of Barry made it too uncomfortable for him to stay on Merseyside.

"At the end of that season, speaking to Rafa, he told me the situation and that he wanted to sign other players and I could be one of the replacements," Alonso told Liverpool's official website.

"If an offer would have come, probably I would have been sold. That's when I told myself that the situation had changed - from being a very important player to being one of those who can be sold to get funds to sign other players.

"I accepted it because I am a professional but you have to realize what your situation is. At the end nothing happened because there was no agreement and we started my last season in Liverpool, but knowing what had happened.

"I didn't know what would happen but at the end of the season, knowing what had happened, I felt if another option was to come I needed to take another step in my career.

"It was very difficult to take that decision, but it was probably for the best for me because I was not comfortable with that situation and if I had stayed another season it would have been uncomfortable for me.

"I was really happy with the team and my team-mates and felt that we could do great things. I was happy on that side but within a club you have to see the big picture and another season would have been too much for me.

"As soon as the season finished I talked to the manager. I knew that maybe Madrid were coming and I said if the terms were good then I wanted to leave."

Derby Defeat For Reds Legends

A team of Liverpool legends slipped to a narrow 1-0 defeat against the Everton Legends at a star-studded charity event at Goodison Park on Wednesday night.

Stuart Barlow's first-half goal was enough to give the Blues a victory, despite the Reds dominating possession throughout.

However, with all proceeds raised going towards local charities Radio City's Cash For Kids and the Teenage Cancer Trust, as well as the Everton Former Players Foundation, the result mattered little as the two teams united for good causes.

The Reds legends included some of the most iconic names in the club's illustrious history as the likes of Ian Rush, Robbie Fowler, John Aldridge, John Barnes, Alan Kennedy and Phil Neal turned back the clock to don the famous jersey and do battle with the old enemy once more under the tutelage of gaffer for the night Jan Molby.

They were joined by boxing brothers the Smiths, MP Steve Rotheram and Peter Hooton.

Howard Kendall was the man tasked with managing the Blues, who had ex-Toffees stars such as Barlow, Graham Stuart, Iain Jenkins, Joe Royle, Steve Simonsen and Joe Parkinson, who were supplemented by politician Andy Burnham and former Barcelona star Eusabio Sacristan.

There was certainly a slow-paced opening to the contest, but the passion emanating from Goodison's Main Stand was typically fervent for derby day.

Everton had the first opportunity, with Michael Thomas's mis-control of a long ball forward allowing Graham Stuart a clear run on goal, but goalkeeper Eric Nixon was able to repel at close quarters.

They didn't have to wait long for the opener, however, with Stuart Barlow converting having bamboozled his way past Thomas inside the box.

Liverpool almost fired an instant riposte, but Aldridge headed Jason McAteer's centre straight into the hands of Simonsen.

The visitors were bossing possession, and after John Durnin saw a strong penalty appeal waved away, Rush should have perhaps done better when sent into space inside the box, but his cross was too high for Fowler and Aldridge in the centre.

Aldridge then struck straight at Simonsen and McAteer lashed wildly over as Liverpool threatened an equalizer - though they should have been punished when Stuart somehow contrived to sky wildly over when unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box.

Bury striker and LFC TV regular Ryan Lowe was introduced as a half-time substitute for the Reds as they endeavoured to turn possession into goals, but Barlow should have doubled Everton's advantage when he went clear on Nixon's goal from Iron's ball over the top only to clip wide.

But Lowe thought he had claimed the goal he has dreamed about since childhood when he met McAteer's cross with a powerful downward header from yards out, only to see the sprawling Simonsen turn it around the base of the post.

It was Durnin's turn to go close next, though his strike was blocked after he'd successfully swapped passes with boxer Callum Smith, before Simonsen denied Lowe again moments later.

With time ticking away, Fowler's turn and shot from the edge of box almost resulted in a leveller but the ball shaved the outside of the upright and Everton were able to clinch the win.