Behind the Badge: The long-term youth project at Liverpool Ladies

We only ask Phil Backhouse seven questions during a 25-minute interview.

Because in a room looking out on the Select Security Stadium, where Liverpool Ladies play their home matches, the team’s assistant manager – who oversees the youth development programme – needs little prompting as he passionately expresses his commitment to the cause.

“We’re seeing progress in all different areas,” he begins.

“Yes, we’re getting results and seeing it on league tables and stuff, but actually we’re starting to see players who are going to go through the club and play for the first team, which is ultimately what Liverpool as a club and its history has been built on – producing those players.

“We would like to try to get back to doing something like that with the women’s set-up. We’re looking at young girls from around Liverpool who have grown up in the club and understand the values and what this club’s about, and then playing for the first team.

“And hopefully with that we’ll see continued progression from the first team as we get more of those players in, because there are some really exciting, talented players in there.”

Let’s rewind.

Scouted by several clubs while representing Lincoln College, Backhouse’s ambitions of a playing career were rudely curtailed by an injury that precipitated a move into coaching.

His first steps along that alternative pathway were in the women’s game with Lincoln City, working with their U14s for a year, before achieving the UEFA B licence and opening up new possibilities in the game.

Such as a six-year stint behind the scenes at Accrington Stanley, where he started as a part-time U16s coach, became the manager of the club’s centre of excellence on a permanent basis and latterly worked for the first team.

A restructure there meant another relocation and a short spell with Rochdale preceded a return to the women’s game with senior development positions at Blackburn Rovers and subsequently Manchester City.

Phil was settled and ready to use his experience and wisdom for the benefit of City’s hopefuls. Then, in December 2015, a call came in from Merseyside.

“Scott [Rogers] phoned me up and asked me if I would come and be his assistant and oversee the programme here,” he explains.

“I joined Liverpool in January 2016 and we went through a turbulent six months because we had to restructure things. We looked at some of the staffing, we looked at the players that we had.

“I’d known Alex Inglethorpe before being here, so I had a conversation with Alex about what the plans were with the Academy. They were looking at reducing squad sizes so we discussed that and the reasons for that.

“I felt it was a strong move, so we did a similar thing; we made a decision that at the beginning of this current season, 2016-17, we would reduce our squad sizes right throughout the centre to be able to give players more time playing and a better standard of training sessions – because the best players push each other.”

Backhouse’s belief in this approach is clear throughout our conversation and, as previously mentioned, the league tables provide tangible evidence to confirm his convictions.

Liverpool Ladies’ Development Squad won 13 of their 18 matches to claim the FA WSL Northern Development League title in May, for example.

But, as the 31-year-old stressed earlier, of greater significance to the coaching staff are the signs that the methodology being implemented across the age groups is bearing fruit.

“It’s quite an attacking philosophy, with the idea that they have to cope with situations on the pitch that they’ll come up against at senior level,” says Phil.

“So we’ll quite happily leave the two centre-halves one-v-one on the halfway line and get the two full-backs to join in the attacking play, with a holding midfield player with the job to screen.

“One of the key things we did this year was, with all the age groups from nine-a-side, we’ve included the holding midfield player in the formation that they play. Rather than having an extra defender, we’ve played with that player.

“We see it as a specialist position, so something that we need the players to start to learn for a longer period of time. We’ve done that and we’ve had some great results with it.

“The wide players have had to work both as full-backs and attacking players, so they’ve had a lot more work to do. But we’ve seen them learn both sides of the game, which has been positive.

“Our centre-halves have definitely been exposed this year. But our U12s are playing in a boys’ league, and I watched a game earlier in the season where one of the centre-halves had to defend against two attackers in half a pitch on her own – two lads – and managed to defend it and get the ball out for a throw-in.

“That’s an experience that, as you go through the game, will help because you think ‘I’ve done this before’. It’s about creating those experiences for the players. That was a big part of what we wanted to do this year.”

All of the above makes perfect sense to those in the profession, though perhaps not always the parents of the aspiring youngsters.

It is only human nature to become concerned by any run of negative results, even at youth level – which is why Backhouse and his team regularly reiterate the long-term vision at play.

He notes: “We’ve had plenty of games this year where they haven’t won but their performances have been what we’re asking for.

“They have stuck true to the philosophy that we set, of playing with two centre-halves in half a pitch and letting the attacking players go and enjoy doing what they do.

“We have more players in the international programme now at U14s and U16s than we had 12 to 18 months ago. We’re getting more than just results.

“That’s been a real positive and something we’re all excited about. We now look back through the age groups and because of our decision to go with smaller squads we can really start to identify next year’s group and the potential that’s in there. We can see that right back.

“One of the things everyone is excited about is that you can see probably the next four of five years’ worth of players that are there.

“If they continue to develop at the rate they’re at, we have the option here to produce first-team players for the foreseeable future really and definitely into the development squad, which again is an outstanding squad of players who have predominantly come through the club programme.”

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Patience is certainly a virtue in this field.

In the current system, the Development Squad is the only connecting team for players between graduating from the centre of excellence and featuring in Rogers’ senior side.

The club is trying to counteract that issue by co-ordinating with Rainhill High School and John Moores University on an education programme that would see prospects mix A-Level and degree studies with training sessions.

That gives Backhouse and co up to five years to work on a player’s potential at an appropriate speed, at such an important juncture.

“I think we’ve got a real structure there that will see young players sustain the first team, where actually we’re playing with players who support the club, players who love the club and love the area,” he says.

“That will build the support as well. The women’s team is still relatively young, and to almost build that affiliation with the local area because a kid who used to live down the road is now playing for the first team, people get that feeling of what the club is trying to do. And I think that will build the support as well.

“It’s a long-term project.

“We’re seeing bits of short-term success at the moment, but with a long-term idea of actually how this looks and how this progresses to the first team and beyond. We’re excited about what’s there at the moment.”

As with tactical strategies, the philosophy filters down through every team.

“We’re almost looking to build a structure now where we’re giving players two years to actually develop and see how they fit and whether or not they’re going to progress through to the next level,” Phil says of the younger age groups.

“To actually map them is very difficult because you can have an 11-year-old girl who is in primary school playing against a Year 7 boy from secondary school. And the difference physically, as well as technically and tactically, is huge.

“It’s trying to give those players time and trying to give them opportunities to develop and give them fair chance.

“If we think the environment is really not right for them then we’ll make that decision and then we look to bring in other players. But where possible, we want to try to give our players time to develop.”

By now you’ll understand the dedication Backhouse has for his job – and he’s not alone.

Where he helps set the agenda to be followed, it falls to a team of equally enthusiastic coaches to deploy those principles and spread the message on the training pitch.

And that, more than anything else, is what puts a smile on his face at the end of each day.

He concludes: “The success of the young teams is great and to see our coaches giving up so much of their own time – they work so much outside of what they’re paid for – and to see those people willing to commit to a vision that you’re trying to get across to people, and actually seeing people buy into that, and also being able to see the results of that for young players actually getting opportunities to progress, is probably the greatest moment you can get in football.

“Winning games and winning trophies is brilliant but, actually, watching a young player develop and progress through a system and through a club is fantastic.

“To have a group of staff like I have that work in the centre, who give so much time and have really bought in to what we’re trying to do, that’s probably the most satisfaction.”

‘Behind the Badge’ is a regular feature on Liverpoolfc.com which aims to tell the individual stories of the numerous men and women who work tirelessly away from the spotlight in an attempt to make Liverpool FC successful.

We speak to various members of staff across the first-team, Academy and Ladies set-ups who dedicate their lives to the club each and every day, covering a variety of different roles that make a vital contribution in preparing the Reds for action.