When I was a very young man in the Nineties something strange and distressing happened. I do not refer to the array of ill-advised indie-kid haircuts I sported, but rather to my beloved Reds. I had gone to bed as a contented sixteen year old on June 20th 1990, with the memory of Liverpool's most recent title win under Kenny Dalglish still thrillingly fresh. Mine had been a blessed youth. As a devoted and fanatical Red, I saw Liverpool captains raise seven league titles, three European Cups, two FA Cups and three League Cups. I got to savour, on a weekly basis, the imperious on-field majesty of Dalglish, Ian Rush, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley and then cut out their pictures and put them on my wall as I dreamed of emulating them.
The tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough remain the grim and defining moments of the Eighties for Liverpool Football Club, as their lasting consequences continue, but the resonance of their sorrowful legacy was juxtaposed with the most magical time of all on the pitch. Liverpool were the embodiment of Bill Shankly's dream -- they were the greatest team on the planet.
On the 21st of June, 1990, I awoke as a seventeen year old, blissfully unaware that the next league title was a minimum of twenty three years away -- clearly, that number is my wishful thinking for the current campaign writ large, but a man's got to dream! The Nineties were a strange and confusing era for Liverpool fans. The steady stream of trophies slowed to barely a trickle as the disastrous tenure of Graham Souness, who stepped in after his fellow Scot finally succumbed to the delayed stresses of Hillsborough, signalled one of the most shocking declines that football had yet seen. Liverpool became title also-rans overnight.
When the successful boot-room policy was rekindled with the appointment of Roy Evans, hope was briefly restored and the club flirted with a title tilt, but ultimately there was a deeper malaise amongst the playing staff, a kind of attitudinal and psychological issue that Evans could not overcome, and as the decade entered its final years he was joined by and then replaced with the urbane Gérard Houllier. The Frenchman weeded out the troublemakers and instilled much needed modernity, discipline and sophistication into the staid Anfield set-up. He would have his rewards, but they would be in the next decade.
Throughout the Ninetes, however, the club continued to produce and acquire wonderful players -- just not enough of them. In Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Rob Jones however, they had three footballers who would grace Liverpool squads of any era. Fowler is only behind Barnes and Dalglish on this scrivener's personal list of favourites, McManaman was a prodigious talent, under-appreciated by Liverpool fans, who went on to play a key role for Real Madrid as they held aloft European Cups and Jones was as classy and effective a fullback as I have ever seen in Red until injury stole his career.
In a brave and inspired initiative, Brendan Rodgers has turned to these three recent Reds legends in an effort to reconnect with the club's tradition and inspire the next generation of Liverpool's kids at the Kirkby Academy. The triumverate will be employed on a part-time basis to work with head coaches Alex Inglethorpe and Neil Critchley, with the aim of passing on to the Under 21 and Under 18 squads their particular expertise and years of acquired wisdom and experience. It is a shrewd strategy but one that requires an element of courage from Rodgers, a man clearly not threatened by the presence of such stellar Reds.
"It's great to have Robbie, Steve and Rob on board," the manager informed the Echo. "I said at the end of last season that I wanted to get more former players involved and over the off-season I spoke to a number of them about a possible role here. For me it's so important to have players like that around. These are players who the young guys look up to. The three of them have come in recently and I know they have thoroughly enjoyed having that involvement working with the kids. We're starting with the older Academy kids as they are the ones they can really affect at this moment."
There is a clear structure in place here. It's not like Fowler will simply rock up with a whistle and take training. In an interesting twist, one gets the impression that the three ex-players, all of whom seem to covet a return to the club in some capacity, are as much on trial as the kids fighting for contracts.
"It's both coaching and mentoring and Alex Inglethorpe is managing that process," Rodgers elucidated. "At the moment it's about individual work with the players. Steve McManaman is working with the wingers and attacking players, Rob Jones is doing some work with the full-backs and defenders and Robbie Fowler is obviously working with the strikers. They are giving them little pointers and passing on experiences from their own careers to help the youngsters. What we are doing is providing an opportunity for the former players. Then further down the line we will see what their interests are in that field."
Many of us have said for years now that Liverpool should be exploiting its own rich history for the betterment of the club. This does not have to be solely restricted to cynical marketing and money-making. To have a Champions League winner, a goal-scoring legend or a celebrated international defender offer you advice and mentoring could be a defining moment for any kid. Having men of such caliber and affiliation walking the halls at Kirkby and Melwood can only be beneficial to Liverpool Football Club, ahem, going forward. Perhaps this will ultimately be seen as one of the better decisions of the Rodgers era.