InterviewAlex Inglethorpe on new deal, LFC story so far and Academy vision
Liverpool FC Academy manager Alex Inglethorpe has signed a new long-term contract – and he spoke to Liverpoolfc.com about why there's nowhere else he'd rather be.
Another key building block is staying in place at LFC.
Inglethorpe will bring up 10 years with the Reds before Christmas and with that landmark comes a renewed commitment to the vision for the club’s next generation of footballers.
A new contract – announced today – will further extend his tenure, ensuring continuity in the vital area of youth development as Inglethorpe oversees the progress on and off the pitch of some of the region’s finest emerging talent, working with a dedicated coaching staff and alongside players’ families, with all involved totally committed to the principle of maximising potential.
Given that this process takes place amid the expectations and pressures that go hand in hand with all key roles at Liverpool, Inglethorpe would perhaps be forgiven for thinking a decade of service was more than enough. For the man himself, though, there was never really a decision to make.
“I’ve trusted the club from the moment I walked in the door,” he says in his small office within the coaches’ room at Kirkby, each Academy year group marked out on the wall behind him.
“It’s Liverpool Football Club. You have to be careful if you choose to leave. Like many people, I think this is probably the pinnacle. I’m a coach so my way of connecting and developing the talent here is to work with them, whether that’s a nine-year-old or a 21-year-old, it’s the same.
“My primary role is to be around the players and to help them. It’s a privilege and an honour. Every day I feel very lucky to be getting out of bed and working with the staff that I am and working with the players that I’ve got.
“It really isn’t much of a decision. Like most people, I spent the best part of 20 years trying to get here and when you’re here you don’t really want to leave. I think that’s probably true for a lot of players too.”
The journey to Liverpool
For Inglethorpe those 20 years included a playing career as a forward, which started at Watford before a successful spell at Leyton Orient and finished at Exeter City around the turn of the millennium.
Management followed at Leatherhead and Leyton Orient U19s before Exeter named him their boss in 2004. There, he produced one of the moments for which he’ll always be remembered, taking his non-league side to Old Trafford and securing a 0-0 draw with Manchester United in the FA Cup third round in 2005.
His next step was to join Tottenham Hotspur as an academy coach, before Brendan Rodgers recruited him to join Liverpool in 2012. “After six years at Tottenham, I felt ready for a different opportunity,” he recalls.
“Coming in here as reserve-team manager from the U18s at Tottenham, it was the progression I wanted to test me.”
After two years as essentially the U21s manager at Kirkby, the opportunity arose to take the reins as Academy director.
Inglethorpe thought others were better qualified and suggested as much to the club. But Reds owners Fenway Sports Group knew who they wanted and eventually the man himself concurred.
He says: “For whatever reason they were keen I’d give it a go and I suppose in the end I thought, ‘Why not?’ I had my own ideas and the desire to implement them and it seemed like the right opportunity.
“I’m not sure anyone starts in football wanting to be an academy director; I’d always seen myself as a coach and probably always hoped I’d end up as a first-team coach somewhere, that’s certainly where my career had been prior to coming here.”
A new vision for Kirkby
Newly appointed as director of the Academy, what was it that Inglethorpe wanted to establish within its walls? What culture was he seeking?
“Like everything in life it’s probably seeing what’s being done well and looking to retain those elements,” he explains. “And then if you think there’s the opportunity for change and improvement, you try to capitalise on that.
“Being reserve-team manager allowed me to see what was being done well and also see some areas I thought we could improve. Having lived it first-hand was something I found really beneficial.
“Of course, along the way you reflect and there’s plenty of things you’d do differently but also plenty of things you look back on and are quite proud of the decisions you made.
“Largely I’ve got to be responsible for setting the standards and setting the culture. I’ve been very lucky that all the environments I’ve been in have played a part in shaping my views and values.
“Watford as a kid under Graham Taylor very much was ‘us against the world’ standards, family values. I was there from the age of 11 through to 22 so that played a significant part.
“If I speak to John Barnes now a lot of what we’ll speak about in terms of our values and our footballing culture stem from that similar upbringing.”
The ‘sliding doors moment’
Barely a year into taking the helm at the Academy, Inglethorpe had the opportunity to become a first-team coach at Melwood under Rodgers.
It was a big decision to make and he ultimately decided to continue with his work at Kirkby.
“There was an awful lot of trust in me guiding this project, I felt very aligned with lots of new staff who’d come in, and loved the job I was doing,” says Inglethorpe.
“I felt this was a better fit for me. It still allows me to get on the grass every day, it still allows me to coach and develop players. I feel I have more use to the club in this role than in the other role.
“I guess it’s one of those sliding doors moments but it’s one I look back on and think it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.”
Inglethorpe would instead be instrumental in recommending another young coach to the first team, one Pepijn Lijnders, who he had brought in from FC Porto as U16s coach.
Now an integral part of Jürgen Klopp’s staff, Lijnders remains a huge supporter of the Academy.
“Pep still comes into the Academy a lot,” reveals Inglethorpe. “While his role is now different of course, he still has a real interest and a buzz around which of the next generation is coming through, which are the next players coming through.
“He wants to know about it – there’s a real enthusiasm from him to give youth its chance. And of course with Vitor [Matos] coming in, he’s the bridge on a daily basis between the two.
“I don’t think I could wish to be at a club where there is more support for an academy than there is from our first-team staff.”
Justifying your existence
Of course, the main priority for all clubs who have academies is to help produce the players of the future.
Inglethorpe’s stewardship has seen Kirkby provide a steady stream of debutants to the Liverpool first team, from a generational talent like Trent Alexander-Arnold to an established member of the senior squad like Curtis Jones.
Last season, in particular, the value of the work in Kirkby was made even more apparent with the likes of Caoimhin Kelleher, Tyler Morton, Neco Williams, Conor Bradley and Kaide Gordon all making an impact as the Reds fought for glory on all four fronts.
Inglethorpe is very clear about the role the Academy must play within LFC.
He says: “We’re certainly not a charity, we’re a business, I don’t hide behind the fact that we’ve got a business element to the club and rightly so.
“So the easiest and most linear way to justify our existence is to create hopefully a Trent or a Curtis or a Caoimhin to go into the first-team squad and play their part, which of course means the first team don’t have to buy someone to perform that role.
“The second way is if a player gets close but doesn’t quite make it here and we end up selling that player – a Kevin Stewart, a Rafa Camacho, a Rhian Brewster, Harry Wilson, Ryan Kent.
“The owners have been unbelievable in terms of their support for the Academy and it’s been really genuine.
“If we win a Youth Cup or a UEFA Youth League game, I never expect a phone call or a text. But the minute someone plays in the first team I will always get a phone call or a text saying ‘thank you’ and there is also gratitude for developing players who go on to enjoy a career elsewhere.
“This is because we have given them a pathway but also because we have generated revenue that can then be reinvested. It’s always in terms of ‘we’ve been able to do this with this money’. It’s fantastic because it gives everyone a real purpose – this is what we do.
“We take great pride in filling the Football League with players who have come through our Academy. They may not be something that shows up on the bottom line of a spreadsheet but there’s a huge sense of pride when you see boys playing in the Football League.
“Finally there’s the boys where football just isn’t for them for whatever reason. We take a real pride in hearing the stories of boys who go on to be successful doing what they do, irrespective of whether that’s in football, industry, education, or whatever it might be.”
This can’t be fantasyland – we must be a reflection of the city itself
Modern football academies are often criticised for cosseting their young players, and Inglethorpe’s previous lower-tier experience is at the heart of his desire to ward against that at Kirkby.
So too is his belief that the Academy must be a reflection of Liverpool itself.
“Whether it’s Leyton Orient or Leatherhead Football Club, I feel like I’ve done the hard yards in terms of being in some environments where you have to be hands-on – I’m not a footballing snob working at Liverpool, thinking this is how football always is,” he says.
“I’ve washed the kit, cut the grass, lined the pitches, driven the buses, strapped the ankles, warmed up the goalkeepers.
“I’ve painted the walls in the offices as Exeter manager after the players went home and tried to make out next day that we had the money to afford decorators.
“The Academy can’t be fantasyland, it can’t be a football Disneyland, it can’t be a place where there is excess.
“Because having lived here for 10 years, that’s not what the city stands for – the city stands for hard work, honest people, fantastic people. Graft, it’s the humility around it, but then there’s a cheekiness on the pitch, there’s a way of expressing yourself on the pitch which will entertain and excite. That’s what the club is.
“And I’ve got to make sure that the players we have here recognise that. That they understand they’re not allowed to drive flash cars in – if anyone buys a car I don’t approve of they can go and park it somewhere else because it won’t be here.”
Keeping a local heartbeat
The Academy has been a welcome home under Inglethorpe for those who have LFC running through their veins, with Jay Spearing recently becoming the latest former player to take on a coaching role there.
He notes: “We’ve got some unbelievable first-team role models and I think you’ve got to earn the right to be in the same company as them. It’s not an entitlement, it’s built on hard work and consistency of performance and thinking.
“Therefore the staff we surround them with also have to share those values. I’ve been very lucky in terms of having some stalwarts like Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, Rob Jones and now Michael Thomas. Steve Heighway as well – I’ve wanted to bring back a heartbeat to the club of people who understand and represent the values of the club.
“I’m a custodian, I’m not going to be here forever and it’s important that I keep the Scouse heartbeat here – it’s important that a large proportion of our coaches are from the local area.
“I think we understand the culture of what the first team want. We understand the manager’s non-negotiables and requirements and we do our best to give him players, whether they’re good enough is a part of it, but they’ve got to be able to go up there and he be able to hook into their personalities.
“And their personalities have to fit in the environment and culture he’s created in the first team.”
First-team debuts for Academy players have been a regular occurrence in the last few years, especially in the cup competitions, where Klopp has regularly placed his faith in younger line-ups.
Several Academy stars played their part in the Carabao Cup and Emirates FA Cup triumphs of last season and while Inglethorpe is looking for players who can play 200 games for Liverpool, not just a handful, he has begun to enjoy the debuts for the achievement itself.
He says: “It’s always a special moment when you see someone put the jersey on and walk out. I’ve become a little bit better at enjoying the moment rather than to project ahead and worry about what’s next, how they’ll get in the team again etc.
“I probably get more emotional about how their families will feel because that’s often 10-plus years of driving them in four times a week, sometimes with a sibling dragged in as well, sometimes enlisting the help of nan or grandad as well.
“I think there’s an awful lot of support to get the boys to that point of putting on the jersey. We always encourage the boys to recognise the people who have helped them on that journey. It’s always a collection of coaches, different voices along the way.
“That moment is a really magical moment for people – if that is the best moment of your footballing life then that’s fantastic because not many people will be able to say that, it really is set aside for a very special few.
“But my job is also to look beyond that. What’s next? How can we help you now create a career which is even more substantial or more sustainable?”
The challenge is getting even harder
One thing Inglethorpe has no doubts about is that it is getting harder and harder to produce players good enough for the Liverpool first team.
Why? Because the level is at an all-time high.
“The challenge is now tougher, in 10 years here the squad is stronger, with greater depth than I can ever remember,” he explains.
“The challenge is now far, far greater. Would Trent come through now? The 18-year-old version of Trent probably wouldn’t get past the 23-year-old version of Trent because the later version is so much more complete.
“So the 18-year-old would have to do it a different way.
“That’s a really good challenge but a tough one, the level now is just so high, the competitions we’re winning, the points the first team are getting, the legacy they’re creating. So to get someone ready to be able to go in and play there is a far greater challenge than it was 10 years ago.”
Creating coaches as well as players
As well as developing the players of the future, the Academy has also become a breeding ground for first-team staff, both at Liverpool and beyond.
Steven Gerrard followed up his time as U18s coach with title success at Glasgow Rangers and now Premier League management with Aston Villa.
He is now assisted by former LFC U18s and U21s coach Neil Critchley, who has already enjoyed success as a manager, earning promotion at Blackpool.
Michael Beale is newly installed at Queens Park Rangers after success with Gerrard at Rangers that followed two stints as an LFC Academy coach.
Inglethorpe enjoys those high-profile successes but also the many other staff who have moved up to other roles within the club.
“Those high-profile ones are great advocates for what we do but there’s lots of others – whether Jonathan Robinson or Daniel Spearritt (analysts), or Joe Lewis (physio), or John Hill (fitness coach),” he continues.
“You can go through every department in the first team and there’s usually one or two people who have gone through the Academy.
“I’m really proud of the fact we’ve been able to help the first team not only with players but with staff who can then go and play a part in the first team’s success. That’s an important part of our role.
“Of course, some staff will see their career in the Academy – first team is not on everyone’s radar. We have lots of examples in the Academy of coaches who just give their life to developing young footballers.”
Relationships key to a successful future
Ultimately, it’s relationships that are keeping Inglethorpe at the helm of the Academy.
One of the biggest developments during his tenure at Kirkby is the arrival of the first team at the other end of the site in the AXA Training Centre, with the U21s now housed in one side of the complex.
The pathway from Academy to first team is now a literal one.
“I was really lucky to have been involved in the design and the initial concept, which I really loved. Every time I go round it I feel proud,” says Inglethorpe.
“But it’s not just about proximity. The relationships when they were in Melwood 15 minutes down the road was just as strong because it’s about connections and it’s about people.
“Proximity helps I guess – it’s great for the players to walk across and the connection between everyone is miles better.
“But really it’s about the strength of relationships and if you get that wrong it doesn’t really matter whether they are next door or not, or the other side of a wall.
“You’ve got to be wanted that side and you’ve got to want to go over that side and I think the building facilitates that in a really good way.”
Inglethorpe speaks with clear excitement about the prospect of working alongside new LFC sporting director Julian Ward, while the strength of his connection with club owners FSG is also clear to see.
He finishes: “People always said to me, ‘You work for people not badges.’ You can be at the best club in the world potentially but if it’s run by people who don’t share your vision or your values…
“It’s quite simple, I really enjoy their company. They’re football people, I think they genuinely care, there’s a genuine interest in the Academy.
“Of course it’s easy to say that about your bosses but they’ve been unbelievable in their support and interest in the Academy, and I think it’s not only genuine but fairly unique.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be offered the chance to continue evolving and creating what we do and I’ve still got as much energy and enthusiasm for the role as I had on day one.
“If they recognise that it’s an amazing opportunity for me. The biggest compliment you can be paid is to be trusted to do your job.”