Liverpool legend Ian Rush feels the club’s first football academy outside Merseyside can prevent the cream of Northern Ireland talent slipping through the Anfield net — like George Best managed to do in the 1960s.
The Liverpool FC Football Academy was launched yesterday in Belfast by Rush and will kick-off early next year.
“Unfortunately the best player to come out of Northern Ireland, George Best, ended up at Manchester United — we have to make sure that doesn’t happen again, but it shows that football is in the blood in Northern Ireland,” said Rush, a Liverpool great who left the club in 1996 after scoring a record 229 goals in 469 appearances.
“There are a lot of Manchester United supporters in Northern Ireland and there have been a few Northern Ireland players at United recently. Hopefully our football schools will see more kids from here go to Liverpool.”
The Welshman also acknowledged the huge support Liverpool have in Northern Ireland, with thousands travelling to Anfield on a regular basis.
“There’s a great fan base of Liverpool supporters in Northern Ireland and the Liverpool Football Academy will help connect the supporters with the club even further,” he said.
“Liverpool and Manchester United are, for me, the two best supported clubs in the world. And it’s great to see so many supporters of both clubs here in Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland has great footballing tradition, but it’s all about the kids enjoying themselves. It’s always great to see kids enjoying what they are doing.
“The Liverpool Football Academy is not about finding the next superstar. It’s all about kids enjoying their football.
“It’s about good coaching and then kids going away to practice what they have been taught.
“Kids can then move up from one level to the next.”
And Rush pointed out that the Irish League could benefit from the Liverpool Academy.
“Some kids will end up at Liverpool and hopefully plenty more will end up playing for local clubs,” he said.
“If that happens then the Irish League will be better for it. In Wales, the Welsh League will be better for it and so on.”
And Rush stressed that it is possible to make it to the top from a smaller club, though he accepted it is more difficult to do so now than when he was a teenage goalscoring sensation in the lower divisions 30 years ago.
“I started out at Chester City and they aren’t in the Football League any more,” said Rush, who admitted he was saddened to see Chester’s financial struggles as they slipped down the football hierarchy.
“Local communities have got to try and help their clubs as best they can, particularly in these difficult times.”
With so many football clubs in financial difficulties, Rush’s emergence at minnows Chester illustrates the important role smaller clubs have to play.
Rush went from Chester to Liverpool, serving the club in two separate stints, with a spell at Juventus sandwiched in between.
And for a man who experienced the excitement of the footballing heights, his current role with the Liverpool Academy is one he is clearly relishing.
Thousands of youngsters here will be coached in the legendary Liverpool way by Anfield staff coaches.
There are already plans in place to open Academies around the world, with Northern Ireland — in association with the charity Happy Children — first up in early 2011, followed by Norway and Greece, with the aim of being able to give budding young stars the best environment in which to hone and develop their skills in a fun environment, but with carefully structured coaching sessions.
The primary school kids who attended yesterday’s launch will not remember Rush the player. Different playing style, but in terms of modern day superstardom Rush was the Fernando Torres of his day.
Rush was a great player in a great Liverpool team.
Football is all about finding the net and there were few, if any, better at that than Ian Rush.