Alex Inglethorpe's Academy review: Trent inspiration, Kelleher and U21s change

InterviewAlex Inglethorpe's Academy review: Trent inspiration, Kelleher and U21s change

Published 11th June 2022
By Steve Hunter

It has been a season to remember for the Academy.

Jürgen Klopp handed out seven first-team debuts to Kirkby graduates, while goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher played a starring role as Liverpool won the Carabao Cup against Chelsea at Wembley.

For Academy manager Alex Inglethorpe, it’s a campaign he can look back on with a lot of pride.

Seeing Trent Alexander-Arnold win every major honour with Liverpool at the age of 23 was the icing on the cake and, in Inglethorpe's own words, the Scouser remains the inspiration for all Academy hopefuls to emulate.

That task is far from easy, of course, but for Inglethorpe and his staff, the aim remains the same: to provide the best possible pathway for prospects to sample life with the seniors.

Read on for Liverpoolfc.com’s exclusive chat with the Academy manager as he reflects on a season to remember, changes in the Premier League 2 format for next season and why the hard work never stops in Kirkby…

On how he reflects on the 2021-22 season from an Academy perspective…

When you reflect on the Academy, it’s not just necessarily what happens here with the U9s to U23s programme. I still consider Trent and a few of the boys who were out on loan. Working backwards, I’d say it’s great that Trent has continued to evolve as a player and as a person. To have played in the four competitions and won two of them – the two he hadn’t won before, so I know how much that would have meant to him. I also know how disappointed he was that he wasn’t able to get the other two as well. So to see him evolve has been really good. I think with Curtis Jones it’s the same. Curtis has been able to play his part and the percentage of games he’s playing each year is creeping up, so I think that’s a real positive.

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For the likes of Neco Williams and Nat Phillips to both get promotions with Fulham and Bournemouth having gone on loan, I think it is also fantastic for us. The Academy doesn’t just mean what goes on in Kirkby. We have to remember that we have had a lot of players out on loan – whether that is Sepp van den Berg, Neco, Nat – and I’m really proud of all those players and how they have progressed.

Within the Academy, it’s nice to have seen Tyler Morton get a few games. The young lads more than played their part against the likes of Shrewsbury Town, Preston North End, Norwich City to help us get to the finals that we did. That bodes well. And on top of it, there’s some nice potential to watch in both the U23s and U18s, and further down as well. Watching the teams and players at the Academy last season has been a very enjoyable experience for me.

Whether it’s the U18s or U23s, I never get caught up in league positions. It’s never something that’s worried me and it’s never something I look at because I know that it’s transient. I know you will have players to play in it or you won’t have certain players available to play in it. The way we work is with smaller squads and we try to promote players as quickly as we can. It means that often players who have got potential to be around the first team won’t play in the U23s games. It’s about creating opportunities and pathways for other players. I don’t think the club judges the U18s and the U23s on league position. If we did, I think it would be a big step backwards because at the minute we are happy promoting the players that need promoting and giving them the opportunities so they can go on and progress.

On Kelleher playing a major role in helping Liverpool win the Carabao Cup…

That was a great moment because Caoimhin is someone who can quite easily slip under the radar – and that’s not because of his performances, it’s because he is really low key as a person and he’s incredibly low maintenance. The boy that arrived here from Ireland and the boy that you saw at Wembley, you can see many similarities – but you can also see this huge shift in terms of belief and confidence. If you had to single out one moment from the whole of the season, you’d probably say it was his performance in the final against Chelsea.

On Morton starting in all four competitions for the club in 2021-22…

Again, the continuous message or the compliment the first team have paid us is that Tyler would be representative of when the boys go up there they have to be humble, they’ve got to have the confidence to go and play there. Tyler certainly is that. He’s willing to learn, he’s fully committed to the club, he’s prepared to be patient and he’s been rewarded with starts in all four competitions last season. He also knows he’s got a lot to do. He’s got an awful lot to do to be able to wrestle the shirt off the players who are currently in there, but what an experience to be able to go and play the games he has played and contribute the way he did.

On seven first-team debuts for the Academy in 2021-22…

Debuts, I think, are one thing, but I don’t really consider a player [to be] a first-team player unless they have played two years as a starter. To make your debut is an amazing achievement, it is so special and it is something that can never be taken from you. But there is a marked difference between a debut and becoming a Liverpool player. To become a Liverpool player and to establish yourself and become two years as a starter is, of course, incredibly difficult to do. There are different ways of doing it. We are very fortunate to have a manager like we do and a manager who is prepared to give boys an opportunity and give them debuts. I know Pep [Lijnders], Vitor [Matos] and John Achterberg, they are all huge supporters of youth and the most precious gift they can give them is opportunity, and that’s what they do.

On all eyes on the young players with the U23s based at the AXA Training Centre…

The relationship was absolutely fine when the first team was at Melwood. I think moving here has been brilliant and really it’s about relationships and it’s about trust. I think there’s a trust from the first team for us to do our job in preparing the boys the way that we do and there’s a trust that when they go up there they are going to be given the final layer of coaching or expertise and something we could never do here at the Academy. It’s working well.

On Premier League 2 changing the age limit from U23 back to U21 in 2022-23…

I welcome that because it gets it back to the reality of what it actually is – which is an U19 league, in my opinion. Therefore, it allows players to play in it who are slightly older and I guess every club is going to do it slightly differently. For us, it doesn’t and it won’t change anything. Sometimes you can have players that you know are too good for the level and I think that can be equally as frustrating. I remember when Neil Critchley was in charge of the U23s and he mentioned to me that a few of the boys had gone past this and they needed another challenge because it had become too easy for them. If you look at our U23s side, the average age of the team is 18.94 in Premier League 2. Really, it’s an U19 league.

On the U19s reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Youth League last season…

We are very fortunate because we recognise this is not a competition we can gain entry into ourselves. We do nothing, that’s all down to the first team. So when we are in it, we always try to do as best as we can. I thought our campaign this year was good because, same as the first team, the group was a really challenging one. To have Atletico Madrid, Porto and AC Milan was not just a challenging group for the first team to get out of, but for us as well. We ended up top of the group and progressed after that. It was disappointing not to get to the semi-final because that would have been really good to give the boys that experience of playing the semi-finals out in Switzerland. But it’s a really good competition and I thought our players flourished.

On the FA Youth Cup disappointment to Chelsea and the lessons the players can learn from letting a 3-0 lead get away from them…

The FA Youth Cup always throws up different challenges in terms of managing games, managing momentum. I think for the coaches as well, for a lot of them it’s their first experience of it. I remember Critch having a similar sort of experience in this competition away at Reading. I remember under Steven Gerrard at Anfield and having to manage a very difficult game against Arsenal when Bukayo Saka scored a late goal to force extra-time. It’s not just a learning experience for our players but also for our coaches that we want to develop and we are very proud of them as well. If it was just as easy as saying, ‘Try not to do that again, chaps’ then coaching would be very easy, but I think they’ve got to live a little bit. It hurt but I think it’s something they will be better for, as often you learn more from getting beat and getting it wrong than you do from getting it right.

On former Academy coach Michael Beale becoming the new manager of Queens Park Rangers…

Mick is an outstanding coach and he is an outstanding person. He’s someone who I think has always been destined for a bright future within the coaching realm. If the first club you get to manage is QPR then you’ve obviously done something really correct and you’ve obviously got a very good reputation leading up to it, because often people don’t get their first job at a top Championship side. I think he deserves it. It’s clearly a difficult league to manage in but I’ve got every faith that he’ll show them what he’s capable of doing.

On Neil Critchley joining up with Steven Gerrard at Aston Villa…

I’m still in touch with Mick and Critch. I think Critch has proven to himself, more importantly, that he’s able to manage. He is an outstanding coach but I think what’s really good is he has proven to himself that he can manage a club that’s not blessed with riches and a club where you can buy success, and you’ve got to be smart with that. He was able to do that and having done that I can understand and support his decision about why he wants to go and test his coaching ability in the Premier League with someone of the calibre of Steven. I think it works for Critch because Steven puts a lot of trust in the coaches that he has. It’s a fantastic opportunity for him.

On his pride at the Academy staff, who worked tirelessly during the pandemic…

It’s easier to reflect after a year of coming out of the pandemic and the restrictions that everybody faced. In football, whilst we think we had it tough, there are certainly other sectors who had it far tougher. Speaking from the context of our own experiences, the staff have been outstanding in terms of going above and beyond in making sure that the programmes for the children, whilst they were in lockdown, there was still some form of engagement and there was still something for them to do. Even when we were reintroduced into the workplace again, the restrictions we had to cope with, I thought the staff were amazing in how they just got on with things and adapted as well and as quickly as they did. I want to say a huge thank you from me to them.

On continuing to coach the youngsters on the training pitch and the enjoyment he gets from that…

I’m very well supported, which allows me to go and do what I think I can add value in – which is out on the training field, coaching the young players. I don’t want a desk job just yet! I’m still enjoying the coaching side of it far too much and it is really enjoyable. This is an incredible club to work for. It’s fantastic that we have former Liverpool players Steve McManaman, Rob Jones and Michael Thomas with us. Steve Heighway is still very much part of that as well, working in the evenings – he is amazing. The experience of people like that – legends of this club – is invaluable to these young players we have. Michael has been an incredible addition to our staff and our culture. Steve and Rob highly recommended him and he has been one of the best additions we have made.

Published 11th June 2022