Liverpool dive into Northern Ireland pool of talent
Take a walk along a corridor at Liverpool FC's Academy and on the walls you are surrounded by lines of framed pictures of kids who have come through the ranks to break into the first team.
A baby faced Steven Gerrard is there.
So too a mischievous looking Jamie Carragher.
And Jay Spearing, with wonderment in his eyes.
They may have to extend the corridor soon because more than at any time in recent years, youngsters are progressing from the Academy to senior status.
This season alone Liverpool fans have been excited to witness the progress of Martin Kelly, John Flanagan and Jack Robinson.
More will follow with high hopes for gifted young winger Raheem Sterling, who made a name for himself earlier this season scoring FIVE goals in an FA Youth Cup fixture.
Earlier in the season, with Roy Hodgson in charge and defeats and dreadful displays becoming the rule rather than the exception, there was a sense of doom and gloom enveloping Liverpool.
But on a visit, just before Liverpool’s season ended, to the Academy and Melwood, where the first team players train, it was clear to see the mood had changed.
Smiles lit up the faces of big name footballers and staff, the atmosphere was relaxed rather than tense and hearts were filled with hope once more. It's evident that a feelgood factor is oozing through the club.
Kenny Dalglish is the manager again, results improved in the second half of the campaign and talented kids emerged thanks to the outstanding efforts of Academy Director Frank McParland and his team.
There is a genuine belief amongst the fans that Liverpool could become a force once more in England and beyond.
For all the Kopites, including thousands in Northern Ireland, they’ll feel that’s not before time having had to put up with stick from their Manchester United loving friends and colleagues, whose favourite number is now 19.
United, of course, have a rich history of players from this part of the world making an impact at Old Trafford.
George Best will forever be regarded as the greatest of them all, but others like Harry Gregg, Jackie Blanchflower, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside would all be considered big heroes at the club, while in the present day Jonny Evans is maintaining the tradition.
It's amazing to note Liverpool have not had a Northern Ireland international in their first team for almost 80 years.
Aghadowey native Sam English was the last. In fact the club has only had three men in total who have represented the Irish FA. Billy Lacey and the great Elisha Scott came before English.
There is a desire amongst the many Liverpool fans here who travel to Anfield every fortnight and indeed within the Mersey
side club itself, that will change in the not too distant future.
Northern Ireland under-17 defender Ryan McLaughlin recently signed a three year deal for the Anfield outfit.
And more could follow him thanks to a series of Liverpool FC Soccer Schools being organised all over the country, with the kids coached by McParland’s Academy coaches.
In association with the recently formed charity Happy Children, youngsters here have already enjoyed coaching courses at Jordanstown and Magee College in Londonderry taught in “the Liverpool Way'.
In weeks and months to come the Academy coaches will impart their knowledge and expertise around the province.
It’s a move designed not just to find stars of the future, but to promote the Liverpool FC brand in Nortthern Ireland and more simply for boys and girls to enjoy themselves.
Acaemy Director McParland, who works closely with Anfield boss Dalglish, believes it is an important step for the club.
He says: “The Soccer Schools are great for us. It gives us a chance to see youngsters and also provides possibilities for the top players to have a trial and maybe even get signed.
“We are looking all around the world for bright young talent and that includes Northern Ireland.
“I should say that the Soccer Schools aren’t just about finding a brilliant young player. It’s our chance to give something back to people in Northern Ireland, where we have a great support, and for kids to come and enjoy themselves and learn about football the Liverpool Way.”
And if they get to the Academy, there is always the chance of playing with the King himself.
“Kenny has had a massive influence on the Academy,” adds McParland.
“He is very supportive and very knowledgeable about the youngsters. He knows every player involved in the reserves, under-18s and under-16s by name and a lot of the younger ones as well.
“The boss still comes down at least once a week. If the first team have a day off he comes down to watch training and wants to join in. With everything he has achieved in the game it’s amazing for the lads.”
- Charity Happy Children has signed an agreement to bring Liverpool FC Football academy/soccer schools to Northern Ireland.
A spokesman for the charity said: “We believe this is a vehicle that clearly addresses the aims of the charity, bringing children from different backgrounds together. Our aim will also be to create a fund which will be used to develop talents, nurture skills and enhance the life quality of children.
“We will work in partnership with Liverpool FC to create Liverpool FC Soccer Schools which will provide unique training and coaching programmes in an environment where everyone will be given the opportunity to play football to the best of their ability, with encouragement and training to develop the skills necessary to enjoy the game at whatever level they wish or are able to play.”
Kop kid Ryan already a hit with Dalglish
Ryan McLaughlin is considered one of the brightest prospects to come out of Northern Ireland in some time, according to Frank McParland, who will oversee his progress at Liverpool over the next three years.
Liverpool FC Academy Director McParland is full of praise for the 16-year-old defender who will leave home in the summer in a bid to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
The St Mary's CBGS pupil showed why Liverpool regard him so highly when he starred for his school in their 4-3 victory over Boys Model in the Maxol Schools Cup final in March.
That match at Ballyskeagh may have been marred by fighting on the terraces, but anyone interested in the football could see that McLaughlin was a player with a touch of class.
He scored two penalties in the game, including a late winner from the spot when the pressure was on.
McLaughlin, who like many gifted young players from the province learnt much playing for Lisburn Youth, recently signed a three-year deal to join Liverpool.
“At the end of that contract I want to have done well enough to earn a new one,” says Ryan, a determined young man.
McParland, installed as the Academy Director two years ago by ex-Reds manager Rafael Benitez, says: “We scouted Ryan over the last two years and a lot of clubs were interested in him. In fact I'd say all the top clubs in the Premier League wanted him. We worked very hard to get him.
“We've looked after him and when he comes over in July he’ll be in nice digs which his parents are really pleased with.
“He's a good player and we're very excited by the prospect of him coming to us. He will definitely learn quickly because he's an intelligent young lad.
“He's been playing above his age level for Northern Ireland and when he's been over here at the Academy for training and matches he has done exceptionally well.”
Frank, whose Scouse wit is as sharp as his eye in spotting future stars, added that Reds boss Kenny Dalglish and Director of Football Damien Comolli have already watched Ryan and been impressed with what they saw.
McParland stated: “The manager and Damien have both seen him play and they are really impressed by the level he has reached so far. We're really looking forward to seeing him develop because when he's with us full-time and playing and training here every day he'll progress even quicker.
“He's coming over in July after finishing his schoolwork which is important. His parents were keen for him to finish his schooling.
“Once he's over here with us we feel he can go through the ranks quickly. We think we have got one of the best young players to come out of Northern Ireland in the last few years.”
Crumlin man is chef for future stars
The man tasked with feeding the next generation of Liverpool superstars is from Crumlin in Co Antrim.
Marty McMahon moved to Merseyside from Northern Ireland five years ago and is now the head chef at the Liverpool Academy.
Starting his career at Quincys Bar and Grill in Lisburn, he worked in restaurants in Londonderry before becoming the head chef at Altnagelvin Hospital.
Now he enjoys the banter of gifted young footballers, all hoping to make their way in the game, sticking to the strict food guidelines set out by the club.
He says: “There are guidelines that you have to work with — it's a high protein, high carb diet for the boys.
“You must have a fish option on a daily basis and chicken and pasta is essential every day, post-match and pre-match, and then there will be another meat option within the guidelines coming from the nutritionist at Melwood.
“The players aren't allowed anything fried or chips, though I'm asked every day in life for chips. They are teenagers at heart and the craic is good.
“I love working at the Academy. I'm a Liverpool fan which helps. You just want to see all the lads go on and do well.”