Liverpool rebuild from within

The present is tense, the future may be perfect.
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The Independent Online

As Liverpool's jubilant young squad left the White Hart Lane pitch on Wednesday evening after ejecting a much more experienced Tottenham side from the League Cup, the most tumultuous applause in the main stand came from a florid-faced, grey-haired figure who may have been wondering how many more times he will be cheerleading from the chairman's seat.

As Liverpool's jubilant young squad left the White Hart Lane pitch on Wednesday evening after ejecting a much more experienced Tottenham side from the League Cup, the most tumultuous applause in the main stand came from a florid-faced, grey-haired figure who may have been wondering how many more times he will be cheerleading from the chairman's seat.

David Moores' delight at this confirmation of the club's youthful talent was tempered by the knowledge that the following night's annual meeting could well be his last in charge. In the event, he resisted the temptation to resign on the spot, but appeared to have accepted that he cannot hang on for much longer in the face of the various takeover bids being prepared, hostile and otherwise.

The longest-running and most popular of those is from the local property millionaire Steve Morgan, who in a straw poll conducted by the two local newspapers was by Friday night running comfortably ahead of Moores and other more nebulous interest from Thailand, New England and one inevitable "mystery bidder". Meanwhile, the man responsible for producing so many of the bright young things who had given Moores reason to be cheering on Wednesday was also indicating his preference for backing local lads.

Steve Heighway, once a flying Liverpool winger and now the club's academy director, has eschewed the recruiting policies that have seen Arsenal and Manchester United accused of worldwide cradle-snatching. While Liverpool's first team may be as cosmopolitan as most, under the influence of a Spanish manager preceded by a Frenchman, no fewer than nine of the 16 players on duty at Tottenham were British or Irish passport-holders who had passed through Heighway's hands.

Never a controversialist, he pointedly refuses to debate Gérard Houllier's misgivings over the academy's productivity rate and also stops short of directly criticising Liverpool's chief rivals, while making it clear that he hopes the notion of clubs truly representing their communities may not be dead. "We haven't actively gone in like United and Arsenal for the best young European players round the world," he says, "because we believe that Merseyside is a distinct area with its own culture and we wanted to prioritise the opportunity for local kids."

To that extent he would be in favour of proposed legislation by Uefa stipulating a minimum number of players in a squad who come through a club's youth teams: "Anything that encourages clubs to give boys who grow up loving their club an opportunity to play for that club is good. There are thousands of kids who grow up in this city dreaming of playing for Liverpool, and to prioritise that chance makes sense. But at the same time, I'm also in favour of top-quality football and top-quality players."

Sir Alex Ferguson is on record as saying that the system of academies instigated by the Football Association under Howard Wilkinson in the Nineties is too restrictive in only allowing clubs to recruit from within one hour's travelling time for under-14s and 90 minutes for older age groups. Heighway, however, describes the system as "a national treasure", adding: "Somebody has to say what's best for the good of the game and the English game. There have to be rules when you're dealing with child-protection issues. There are people who break the rules, but we tend to run an ethical policy here and follow the Premier League line. Some clubs just have a more aggressive recruitment policy, with people all over the world leaving no stone unturned. Some clubs are out there and some are looking closer to home."

A look down the team list at White Hart Lane illustrated that the latter policy is bearing fruit. The full-backs David Raven and Stephen Warnock, and midfielders Darren Potter, John Welsh and Mark Smyth, are all Merseysiders; Neil Mellor, the goalscoring hero against Arsenal last Sunday, was born in Manchester, while Richie Partridge was brought over from Dublin and Robbie Foy hails from Edinburgh; most have been at the club since a very young age.

"Some have been here long enough to be entitled to a testimonial before they got in the first team," Heighway jokes. Even Zak Whitbread, the strapping blond defender whose name hints at more exotic origins, has a strong Liverpool connection: although born in Houston, he is the son of Barry Whitbread, who played with Heighway in the British Universities team before moving to the United States and then returning to work at the club, where he is now head of recruitment.

Rafael Benitez said after the Tottenham game: "I'm very, very proud of the young players." Their future is now in his hands, while Heighway turns to the next crop: "We've a very, very talented group aged 15 and 16," he enthuses. "Exciting times." Even if David Moores feels he is condemned to live in them.

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