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Rafa's English Revolution

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rafa benitez sempre es possible
When I arrived the first thing Rafa told me was that the biggest interest is to try to develop English players. I agree --the best players to defend the Barca shirt are Catalan players, the best players to defend the Liverpool shirt are English players. The rest of the players who are not English, they must be massive, massive quality. We have to fight to make English players arrive. If in two or three years one of our players does make the first team, I think he will be English.
--U18 coach Rodolfo Borrell

Christian Purslow wanted an English revolution to sweep away the Spanish one foisted on the club by Rafa Benitez. It would include the likes of Joe Cole and Paul Konchesky. It would satisfy the talking heads on Sky. It would be led by Roy Hodgson, recipient of the manager of the year award from his peers in the old boys' network. And it would use many of the foreign players brought in by Benitez as easily disposed of scapegoats, reasons to place beside the departed manager that would highlight the club having taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line, at least as Purslow, some quarters of the media, and those fans who chose to follow them saw it.

It didn't turn out the way he had hoped, of course, the managing director departing in shame as the severe under-performance of his chosen manager and his manager's chosen players served only to highlight some of Benitez' qualities that had perhaps been overlooked or taken for granted while he was still at the club. What did remain, though, even after his short-lived experiment was over, was a belief that for good or ill the club seemed to have shed itself of its Spanish revolution and would now be able to continue down a road that embraced an English one. And that on some level this remained a denouement of Rafa Benitez' time with the club, an undoing of anything he may have built or managed to achieve.

In large part this was because under the returned Kenny Dalglish, the newly revitalized academy--suddenly stocked full of local youth--finally seemed on the verge of making meaningful contributions to the club once again. However, even if this return to relevance by the Liverpool academy does signal a kind of English revolution, it is a revolution that owes its existence to the club's departed Spanish manager--not to mention a pair of integral Spaniards still with the club, former Barcelona academy gurus Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell. It was in fact Rafa's final victory in a long battle to fix the broken youth system that in the end put him in a position to lose his job, and as much as for a time the face of the club was that of Torres and Alonso, of Arbeloa and Riera, of the still with the club Pepe Reina and a cadre of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian speaking players on top of that Spanish core, this newly emerging, largely local youth movement owes just as much to his work as what existed before he left.

adam morgan liverpool
Striker prospect Adam Morgan.

Now the academy is stocked full of names, players tantalizingly close to making a difference--and some who have already begun to do so. Conor Coady, Adam Morgan, Raheem Sterling, Michael Ngoo, and Andre Wisdom are all the buzz amongst those who follow the development of Liverpool's U18 team, and they are amongst the more than thirty Liverpool youth players from various levels who were called up to national squads during the most recent international break. Many went to various levels of the English set up, though there are still some foreign players of the "massive, massive quality" spoken of by Borrell who headed further afield, players like Spain's Fernando Suso or the Portuguese Toni Silva.

Of course, too, there are the slightly older prospects such as Jonjo Shelvey and Danny Wilson, brought in at the very end of Rafa's time with the club as nearly ready prospects who would count as local under FIFA's regulations. There is also Martin Kelly, who of course got his first chances under Rafa, and Jay Spearing, another rare player who largely developed under the old system. Meanwhile, Stephen Warnock of Aston Villa is perhaps the only other name of note to have made it through in those very dry years following the emergence of Carragher, Owen, and Gerrard. Still, as the likes of John Flanagan and Jack Robinson emerge, players at the club before the changes who have nonetheless now spent two vital years under the guidance of Borrell, Segura, and McParland, one already begins to see genuine results from the revitalised academy, and hopes for the futures of all the rest only grow because of it.

Certainly all of these promising players represent a shifting identity for the club, especially being brought through to the first team as they now are by Kenny Dalglish, but they also represent Rafa's final legacy, something he fought for over the years, frustration building as Liverpool's depleted academy continued to turn out nothing of particular value save a few older prospects he could bring in nearly finished from abroad and on the cheep. Frustration building as the short-sighted owners and a managing director he could never see eye to eye with prevented what they saw as a power-hungry manager from taking control of almost every level and aspect of the club.

That battle for control came to a head towards the end of the 2008-09 season, one that saw Benitez overcome managing director Rick Parry, finally wrestling enough control to overhaul the academy he had been fighting to fix since his arrival. In doing so he used almost all of his remaining political capital at the club, but with rumours swirling that he had an open invitation to manage Madrid and the club in the strongest position it had been on the pitch in the Premier League era, he finally got his way. In the end, he also got Christian Purslow as his new managing director as part of the bargain, the man who would fire Benitez a year later with designs on his own revolution.

rafa benitez kenny dalglish mcparland
Benitez with McParland and Dalglish on their appointments.

Still, for a short time two years ago in May of 2009, Rafa Benitez had won. He always knew the only realistic way to compete over the longer term, to stand toe to toe with the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea, invovled a strong academy. It required the ability to produce top-level talent that would count as locally trained, allowing the club to then spend what money it did have going after slightly cheaper foreign players when there was a need to supplement that youth with experience and talent. He installed Frank McParland as academy director. He brought in Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, men whose previous job had been to bring the likes of Messi and Xavi and Iniesta and Pique through the Barcelona La Masia academy, to be technical director and U18 coach respectively. And he also brought Kenny Dalglish back to the club to work with the acadmey youth in an ambassadorial role, all part of a series of changes Dalglish has often talked about:

"Rafa put the structure in place over a year ago, bringing in Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, and Frank MacParland going down there for recruitment. Since then, what they have done has been brilliant."

And it has been brilliant. Or at least it appears primed to be so, and all of it only two short years after being put into place. A new academy to produce top quality local talent that obviates the need to overpay for British players from other clubs, and one that also serves to strengthen the local identity of the club and the connection of its players to it. One thing that's clear in any case is that whatever you want to call this particular revolution, this apparent shifting identity at the club, it owes its very existence to the man some still seek to vilify and marginalise. Whether it's right to call it an English revolution is as yet not entirely clear, but what is is that it's Rafa's revolution, even if it will fall to others to finish the job.

It would be no small irony, too, if one day a revitalised English national side were to find as its core a group of players who grew up in that system installed at Liverpool by Rafa Benitez, the fruits of a revolution he wanted for the club all along while he was its manager, and a revolution that he was finally able to put into place only to see it cost him his job.