NewsAcademy column: 'Stefan Bajcetic's progress inspires us every day'
In our latest Academy column, U18s boss Marc Bridge-Wilkinson tells us about his role in developing players and why the displays of Stefan Bajcetic have been an inspiration to the club's youngsters.
Our main objective at U18 level is to develop players so they are ready to make the next step to the U21s and then one day, hopefully, the first team.
We have seen a few of the boys make that transition this season, with Stefan and Ben Doak getting their opportunities, and that is absolutely fantastic for them and everybody at the Academy.
Stefan came into the club at Christmas time in his U16 year and when he started getting up to speed with the group he came into our U18s team. We have worked with Stefan for probably 15 or 16 months, and he played for us as a centre-back first.
You can’t dismiss the quality that he shows, his understanding of the game is very good, his technical ability with the ball and also the way he defends as well, it was a really interesting addition Stefan coming in.
He took to Liverpool really quickly, which was fantastic, and he deserves an awful lot of credit for the way he settled in because it’s not easy coming over to a new country and speaking English as your second language – albeit he did speak English when he came, but he understood it and he picked up the language so quickly.
His game is fantastic and he came in and hit the ground running, so he deserves a lot of credit for that.
All of the boys who come through the Academy and end up in the first-team squad, these are players all of our young players look up to.
We have seen the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Caoimhin Kelleher, Curtis Jones, Rhys Williams, Nat Phillips come through, all on different journeys.
We had Neco Williams before that and Harry Wilson, all of these players have had different journeys to get to that point, and obviously some are still with us, some have moved on, but within each of those journeys our Academy players can look at it and say, ‘I want to be like Trent’, which is brilliant.
We can’t forget that Stefan could still play in the U18 group that I look after. He is an inspiration for the group on a daily basis.
Look at what you can do if you get things right, if you continue to work hard every day on the training pitch to make yourself better in everything that you do.
Can you build on the game you have now and the game you are going to need to get up to that highest level?
It’s not easy to do what Stefan has done and not every player will do it, they will have their own journey and timescale, but it does show that it can happen, and we have a manager in Jürgen Klopp who will give young players an opportunity if they continue to work hard and improve.
Ben Doak obviously started the season with us and quickly made the step up to U21 level and then the first team came calling. There’s been a few boys who started the season with us and then moved up, and that is part of our job.
When boys show they are ready to move up to the next level hopefully they get the opportunity to move up to the U21s.
I want to give a special mention to Jay Spearing, who came in to join the staff at the start of this season. Jay is brilliant, he is fantastic. Firstly, he is a great person and a great guy to have around the place.
Obviously his experience, his knowledge, his know-how, it’s fantastic in the details and the little things he can give the boys, the little intricate moments when he joins in and still plays in the session.
Jay shows them how it’s done in certain moments of the game, he manages the game in training from within so it’s outstanding to have him with us and we are really lucky.
Of course, in terms of coaching, it’s almost like a bit of a cheat for me because I have got someone on the training pitch who is basically making the players do what I want them to do.
He is commanding the boys and it’s almost like having a captain because he is organising the team and making sure the standards are right. He has been exceptional and I love working with him.
We have great staff here, of course with the U18s group we have the Academy legend Taff [Neil Edwards], our goalkeeping coach, who does a fantastic job. Scott Mason is back with us after working under Steven Gerrard at Rangers and Aston Villa; we have Jacob Dunne-Simon, Conah Gillett, Kyle Taylor our fitness coaches, Phil Bolland and Greg Blundell our physios, they are all an absolute pleasure to work with.
Another young player who has impressed this season for us is Lewis Koumas, who has certainly shown he has an eye for goal and is doing well.
Firstly, it wasn’t just me who made the call to play him as an out and out No.9, we spoke about it as staff and it was a discussion we had in pre-season about whether the position would suit him best.
He is good at running, he is full of energy and enthusiasm and his running off the ball is really intelligent; he can also finish.
We just thought let’s give him a go there and felt it was something he might enjoy, which he certainly is. He was scoring goals, getting chances and ultimately playing consistently well.
It was a real shame Lewis picked up the injury and missed all of our games in the FA Youth Cup – we missed him, that’s for sure, because he was doing really well at the start of the season. He certainly would have been a nice addition to that group and maybe he would have given us something a bit different.
He’s back now, he scored two good goals in our defeat at Sunderland and hopefully he can stay injury-free between now and the end of the season and continue his encouraging development.
Calum Scanlon has caught the eye at left-back playing for the U19s in the UEFA Youth League and he also made his Premier League 2 debut recently at Manchester City.
Calum has been really good and he has been a little bit unfortunate with injuries, which has been tough for him. He’s got a lot of ability and he has got a really great attitude, which is the most important thing.
He wants to learn, he wants to progress and he wants to improve every day. He is now training pretty much every day after his injury, but we are still having to be very cautious with him with the games that he plays, but he is playing again and we are really looking forward to see where Calum can go.
Obviously we have been hit by a number of injuries at both ends of the field at U18 level this season, which has resulted in U16 players perhaps getting an earlier-than-expected opportunity at this level.
While injuries bring their own frustrations for the players and us as staff, I don’t see it as a negative or an excuse when we don’t quite get the result we are after. I always see it as an opportunity and opportunity arises in many different formats.
Unfortunately when somebody gets injured, it then gives another boy his chance. Whichever way it works out, our job as development coaches is to try to give boys the opportunity to improve, and the simplest way of doing that is to put them into the games.
We give them situations where sometimes it’s a bit stressful and maybe it’s a bit too much for them at that moment, put them out of their comfort zone, but the great benefit of this is they will learn and they will grow. They will then start to consolidate all the things we are trying to help them with, and then hopefully they will start to improve.
On Saturday we are back in action when we host Wolves in the U18 Premier League North and the boys are desperate to try to get back to winning ways.
We played Wolves back-to-back in the league and cup before Christmas and we lost both games, but both were pretty close, so let’s see if we can put in a good performance and get a good result.
We have got players out on loan at the moment and it has been nice to see the development of Tyler Morton and Conor Bradley, who are doing really well at Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.
Tyler and Conor of course were part of our FA Youth Cup team when we reached the final against Aston Villa, and it’s great to see them getting out and getting that exposure at different levels.
We also had James Balagizi going out on loan and he did well before he had to return because of an injury. That’s what it’s about: boys getting into adult football, real football I guess, in the right sort of time format.
If they can get exposure in our first team, then that’s fantastic, but if they are not ready for that just yet, and if you look at the level of quality we have it’s extremely difficult to break into that squad, the next-best scenario is they go out and get games somewhere else.
It’s important for them to get that first-team experience and learn about the real world of football, shall we say.
We have a close relationship with the U21s and myself and head coach Barry Lewtas meet and speak on a regular basis. Barry is a great guy and ultimately that is the role of the Academy, to get players through to the U21s and hopefully beyond to the first-team squad.
By the way, we want to win every game, as players and coaches we want to at every level, but we can’t just focus on winning, because sometimes if you just win you can sacrifice areas of development which might hold the boys back further down the line.
So, we have to make sure we are helping them with their game, we have to improve them with their game day in, day out, and then hopefully the performances will come and the results will then follow.
Marc Bridge-Wilkinson was speaking to Liverpoolfc.com's Steve Hunter