Gary O'Neil has explained the privilege and joy of being asked to play a part in shaping the journeys of some of Liverpool FC's up-and-coming talents at the Academy.
After being appointed as Barry Lewtas’ assistant with the U23s, the former Portsmouth and West Ham United midfielder is aiming to enjoy every moment of his first job in coaching.
He is also hoping to use his wealth of experience from playing first-team football across a 21-year career to help the Academy starlets try to fulfil their ultimate goal of one day making it as a professional footballer.
Read our exclusive chat with O’Neil below as he speaks about joining Liverpool, the chance to coach some of the most talented players in the country, and what it was like being asked to man-mark Steven Gerrard at Anfield…
Gary, a very warm welcome to Liverpool. How excited are you to be here?
I’m really excited. I’ve been desperate to get going. It’s been going on for a little while and obviously with the break and the Academy having to take an even longer break than the first team, I’ve had to wait a little while. But now it’s finally come around and I’m really excited and can’t wait to get going.
How did this move to the Academy come about?
It was a strange one really. I was still playing and was planning to keep playing because I thought I had a good few years left in me because I was at Bolton the season before last. I had a good year and won the Player of the Year there. Then just as I was trying to find a club that summer, I ended up rupturing my Achilles tendon. I had already been been in dialogue with Alex Inglethorpe about the Academy and I popped up to have a chat. I’ve done all my coaching badges and have known I’d wanted to go that way for a very long time. I think I’ve made no secret of the fact that I want to manage eventually, and when Liverpool speak to you about a job there’s only one answer you give generally – and that was a very quick yes!
How much are you looking forward to working alongside Barry Lewtas with the U23s squad, because there are some very talented players here, aren’t there?
Barry is great. He has got a wealth of experience of working with the boys. Obviously he’s come through a lot of the age groups with the lads as well, so he knows them very well. That will be handy because there’s two ways of looking at it: I’m getting to see them with a fresh set of eyes, which can be useful as well, but Barry offers a wealth of experience and obviously I’m new into coaching. I think as a team, me and Barry will work very well and there’s some fantastic players to work with. For me to have the opportunity to work with such a talented group of young players at such an early part of my coaching career, I feel very privileged.
When you spoke with Alex and Barry, did you find you had very similar views on football and youth development?
Yes. I think you are always learning and I’ve been playing first-team football since I was 16, so 21 years I’ve done pure first-team football and pure results are all that matters and we need to win on Saturday, that’s the be all and end all. Obviously there’s parts of that I can bring to the Academy and help get them ready for when they go into that. But also the other side of it – that Alex and Barry focus on as well – the way you try to develop the player. It’s not all about the result at the end of the week and there’s a lot more that goes into developing the lads and making sure that, firstly, they are hopefully ready for a career at Liverpool. And if not, we get them prepared and ready for a career in professional football.
How have you found life at the Academy so far?
It’s an amazing facility, isn’t it? The people are so friendly. I came up last season a couple of times and it was all so bubbly and very busy. The last few days I’ve been in with the lads for pre-season, it’s been a bit different obviously with the regulations and the protocols we have to stick to at the moment. But just being in there, getting to meet the lads, getting to have chats with Barry in the afternoon, doing some socially-distanced training that we’ve done in the last few days has given me the opportunity to meet the lads in some smaller groups. It’s been great and I’ve really enjoyed it. I can’t wait until it gets going for real and we can get to put on some proper sessions and start playing some games. But the first few days have been great and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Looking on from afar in the last few years, how encouraging is it to see lads like Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott breaking into the first-team squad, and how much hope does it give the other lads you will be coaching with Barry looking to make that giant step?
It’s obviously a two-way street, our job, and the guys at the Academy have done a fantastic job of making sure the boys are good enough because obviously the first team will only take them if they are good enough. Also, the fact that the lads know if they do get to a level where they are good enough, there is a pathway. Last year was great for them getting to play in the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and they’ve done well in their own competitions as well. You got to see people like Curtis, who made that progression and hopefully will still go on and have even more of an impact next season. I have been watching from afar but you can see it is extremely well-run, extremely well-organised and there definitely is a pathway if the lads are ready and good enough.
Just touching on your playing career, you enjoyed a great career with the likes of Portsmouth, West Ham United, Norwich City and then you ended at Bolton Wanderers before you hung up your playing boots…
It was an eventful playing career. I was never quite good enough to get to the sort of heights of the Liverpools, but I had a decent career. I think playing in the Premier League is still a success as an English player as it’s very difficult to get into there now and to keep your place because the levels are so high. I came close to joining some big clubs along the way but I’m very, very grateful for the experiences that I’ve had. I’ve worked with some fantastic managers, taken lots of bits from different people and tried to learn. I figured out at an early age – maybe mid-20s – that I wanted to manage and coach at some point, so I started to take bits from different people and then try to mould it into my own way. But I still have an awful lot to learn. So the fact that I’m going into a place like Liverpool to learn off the guys there and to be able to work with some fantastic young players is an amazing opportunity for me, and hopefully I can pass on some of my knowledge and experiences to the boys.
You played against Liverpool 14 times in your career, coming up against the likes of Steven Gerrard in midfield. Just how special was he to play against?
It was basically impossible! I used to dread those games. I remember one time when Harry Redknapp asked me to follow him around everywhere and it was literally impossible. He was so powerful, so quick and you only had to switch off for a second and he was smashing a volley into the back of your net! Especially at Anfield in the second half when they were kicking towards the Kop, you literally felt like the walls were going to cave in! It’s an amazingly special place. I only actually went back last season and it was the first time I’d actually been there as a spectator for the West Ham game. They didn’t perform great by their standards and it was a tough one but they just came through the game and managed to win. But the atmosphere, it felt special when you were playing but when I got to sit back and look at it as a spectator, it’s an amazing place! I’m extremely privileged and feel very lucky to be part of such a special club.
With all the experience you have from your playing days, you have a lot to offer to these young players at the Academy. So what are your main aims looking ahead in the role?
I’ve had very long conversations with Alex about the vision and what we think and obviously they get a lot of fantastic coaching and some technical stuff and some great work from the guys at the Academy. But maybe from my side of it, I can add and just get them ready for that next phase. I can offer them maybe just five to 10 per cent little bits that can get you ready from going from U23s football to first-team football – whether that be on loan at a Championship club or League One. Obviously I spent the last few years of my playing career in the Championship and it’s a relentless league for very different reasons to what the lads may be used to playing in U23s football. I’m hoping that I can offer a lot but I expect them to be teaching me a lot as well. I’m sure I will learn just as much from the experience as the lads will.
I know recently you’ve been working on your own Academy that you have set up. Just tell us a little bit about that…
I’ve got a little boy who is only six, so he’s a baby but he loves his football and I was taking him round some local places. I just felt there was a gap down here where I’m from – sort of Bromley way in Kent – for something that was a little bit better than what was on offer. Sometimes you take your boy to it and there will maybe be a dad running it and no offence to people out there, but I just think if we can get kids of a young age with qualified coaches, good coaching, access to good facilities, so Nike have been fantastic. They’ve helped me out and sponsored it for me and gave me the footballs. So we’ve got all top stuff for the kids, good surfaces for them to play on. Obviously I’ve got my own stuff going on, so it’s not something that we are looking to make a profit from, so it’s not like we will be taking money out of it. Everything that comes our way goes straight back in and be reinvested. I just feel like I’m in a very privileged position with my playing career and what I’ve learned and obviously being part of Liverpool now and what I’m going to learn there, it would be a shame to not put something on for young kids. From the age of four we are starting at and maybe even younger, there might be a toddlers’ section as well once we get going. In my area when I was younger, I wasn’t privileged to have that and I used to play on the street and learn my own way. But hopefully I can offer something to the young lads around here to give them the opportunity to have some experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have over the last 20 years.
Obviously it’s been a while since most of the young lads played a competitive game. How have the lads been in training? I know they couldn’t wait to get back out on the field again...
I feel for them and it must have been extremely difficult to lose six months of your development when you are competing in a tough industry and you are keen to get going. [For] some of the lads, the challenge of being stuck indoors with no football, it would have been tough for them. It’s great to see them back out there with big smiles on their faces and training has been modified the last few days. The lads have been great since they’ve come back and they have all worked extremely hard, good attitude with big smiles on their faces. And hopefully once we get going properly, the enjoyment and level of the quality of stuff we can get into them will increase over the next few weeks.