In news that never will have troubled the headline writers, Ben Woodburn has been sent on loan to Sheffield United, while Harry Wilson will also spend a year at Championship level with Derby County. It’s been a while now since both youngsters were first touted as Liverpool’s next big thing and almost two years since Woodburn scored his one and only first-team goal, becoming their youngest ever goalscorer.
Loan deals smack of the shop window, not very auspicious when it comes to a player’s long-term prospects at a club. It doesn’t seem likely now that either player will become stars at Anfield. Was this down to them lacking talent or a paucity of opportunities?
It’s an old story at Anfield, harking back to the days of Bill Shankly and the old Second Division. Young players like Roger Hunt and Ian Callaghan got a good run of games because Liverpool were frankly in a bit of a mess. There was nothing to lose in taking risks with youth. Later in the 1990’s, once Liverpool were struggling again, managers like Graeme Souness and Roy Evans began taking chances again with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.
It’s easy to say the talents mentioned above would still have thrived had the Reds been in finer fettle at the time but equally, it’s almost impossible to disprove. These were talismanic, game-changing stars. Liverpool still manage to get youngsters into their first XI but obviously, club fortunes won’t rise or fall because of the contribution of Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.
A lot of supporters don’t even care. With a current forward line capable of blowing most opponents away, whoever’s sitting on the bench or playing at U-18 or U-23 level is academic, pardon the pun.
Jurgen Klopp has however claimed that coming from Liverpool would always give a player the advantage over a similarly-talented player. CEO Peter Moore continues to say Liverpool has “a local heartbeat and a global pulse,” whatever that means. Is all this a genuine intention to retain, or even forge, a stronger local identity? Or is it just snappy, one-liner placatory nonsense?
When supporters claim they just want success however it comes, it usually means via spending, and it’s measured by how many zeros are added to the club’s transfer expenditure. But this isn’t just about local players, since the likes of Hunt, Owen and latterly Raheem Sterling weren’t from these parts. Woodburn and Wilson are Welsh.
There’s just something immensely satisfying about bucking football’s trend of buying success, and necessary too. If it’s a given the Manchester clubs can always outspend Liverpool, then having another viable way to compete is clearly vital. Ingenuity in transfers certainly helps, and Klopp has done well there so far. But something different is also needed to realistically stay on the heels of a rampant City, certainly if the Reds are to overtake them.
The next test for Klopp will be with Rhian Brewster. Like Fowler and Owen, Brewster’s been a big success on the England scene before even making his debut for the Reds. Fans are excited by the prospect of Brewster continuing that tradition but with Liverpool now in a challenging position, can Klopp afford to experiment even a little?
The likes of Woodburn played in league cup games when Klopp dropped almost all of his first team. Wilson is a left-footed forward who plays on the right. Could he have been given games whenever Mohamed Salah was rested? He seemed a suitable back-up, yet the club went out to get Xherdan Shaqiri and slammed that particular door shut. With his experience and quality, the Switzerland international seemed, on the surface at least, an ideal and almost guaranteed solution to the challenges ahead.
Supporters can adopt a sink-or-swim attitude to youngsters but does being selected for a makeshift XI of no-hopers really count as an opportunity?
Sterling was given his debut in 2012, when Kenny Dalglish’s team was floundering quite badly in the league. He kept getting games during the early days of Brendan Rodgers’ reign and by the time things began to turn Rodgers’ way, Sterling was a first-team regular. Like many before him, he’d got his chance with Liverpool largely as a result of players ahead of him being hugely disappointing.
Therefore, Liverpool’s recent good form does not bode well for the likes of Brewster or Dominic Solanke. Youth must however remain an intrinsic part of Klopp’s plan.
When Alex Ferguson took over Manchester United, he was quick to reinstate a greater focus on upcoming players as well as improving transfer policy. It paid off after his initial league success in the early 1990s, with gifted youngsters taking their place in a settled side rather than a struggling one.
While Liverpool fans generally revelled in this summer’s “megabucks” activity, they can’t lose sight of another decisive factor in Liverpool’s future resurgence. Maybe Woodburn and Wilson weren’t good enough to help the Reds towards the next level but Liverpool must always keep searching and perhaps review the number of opportunities such players get.