“Small five v five, three v three games. Indoors, cordon it off, no referees. ‘There’s the ball, there’s the goal – go.’ Proper street footy, no instruction, no drills.”
For the five to eight-year-olds working under Ian Barrigan, Liverpool’s head of pre-Academy recruitment, life at the club is less about strict regimes or scientific monitoring, and more about nicknames and running jokes.
About having Liverpool songs sang at you until you join in – whether you support the club or not.
And about breathless small-sided games played schoolyard-style in what Ian terms ‘the best playground in Europe’.
Mention any Kirkby Academy graduate from the past 20 years and the chances are Barrigan can tell you where they’re from, their mum and dad’s names, what they were like when they were Primary 1 age, and at least two or three funny stories about them.
A match-going Kopite since the late 1970s and a club employee since 1997, despite not actually being born in the city – as his fellow coaches enjoy loudly pointing out in the open-plan office they share at the Academy – Barrigan is as Scouse as they come, and his methods, though not always orthodox, are reaping majorly impressive results.
A significant proportion of the youngsters that performed so fearlessly for the first team in domestic cup competitions this season are products of the pre-Academy, including five starters and two on the bench when the youngest XI in Reds history knocked Shrewsbury Town out of the FA Cup at Anfield.
And that’s without even mentioning his most famous pupil, the one wearing an ‘I love Ian’ T-shirt in a photo on Barrigan’s phone, but we’ll get to him later.
“The pre-Academy is absolutely flying,” the 54-year-old tells Liverpoolfc.com in a conference room overlooking the pitches where he and Academy coach Roy Smith serenade the kids – and sometimes even visiting Evertonian parents – with choruses of ‘We’re champions of the world’.
“It’s been an unbelievable couple of years, [Academy director] Alex Inglethorpe has been a massive shot in the arm. What’s been brilliant for him and for me is his lad being in the pre-Academy, so he’s seen the experience and how important it was.
“He’s massive on: ‘Let’s not make it like Disneyland.’ Other clubs might take you to exotic places on your signing day, but if you want to sign for Liverpool, you do it at Anfield. You still have a fantastic signing day, but Alex doesn’t want it to be some big fantasy thing, he wants to keep everybody grounded.”
Barrigan joined Liverpool at the tail end of an era when players like Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher had arrived at the Academy effectively pre-packaged after obsessively honing their skills on the streets of Toxteth, Huyton and Bootle.
In the age of Fortnite and Minecraft, the street footballer is rarer – hence the insistence on small-sided games in Kirkby – but, in any case, ability isn’t the main concern when potential recruits are appraised these days.
“We look for athletes, kids with agility who glide over the turf,” Barrigan, from Huyton himself, explains. “We’re not particularly interested in football, it’s more about agility and pace, because if you think about it, if you want to play in Liverpool’s first team now you’ve practically got to be an Olympian. You just know, and once you get them in you’ve got 10 years to make him a player.
“Steven Gerrard wouldn’t have done structured training at six, seven, eight, so that’s why we’ve cut out being professional too early. The Gascoignes, Gerrards, Lampards, Suarezs – they need to be that when they’re babies.
“You can’t turn every player into a pass-and-move water carrier, and that’s one of the things I’m really impressed with about Alex. Truly, he does not care about results, just individual performances. Jamie Carragher started as a centre-forward and ended up playing 700 games in defence for Liverpool. If you sign a kid and just say, ‘He’s a boss centre-half’, he’ll be gone by 13.”
The biggest change since 1997 is nothing to do with technique and physicality, however. The youngsters vying for Barrigan’s attention across his north-west beat are now more culturally and ethnically diverse than ever before, especially in inner-city areas, and Academy staff have resolved to make sure that’s reflected within the Kirkby complex.
“Liverpool as a city is so much more diverse,” the former area manager and grassroots co-ordinator observes. “For instance, this year we’ve signed a Scouse Brazilian. Born in Brazil, dad’s a Scouser, mum’s Brazilian. He went home for Christmas, just after the Club World Cup final, and his uncle’s a Flamengo fan!
“Our aim is to get an U6 league in Toxteth, that’s the endgame. I went to Manchester a few weeks ago and there’s four leagues with five and six-year-olds playing – there’s only one in Liverpool, so the kids need to be playing football in these more ethnically diverse areas.
“When you think about it, if you’ve come here from Somalia or Syria, your kid playing football is probably right down the list of priorities. So we need to be more supportive of that, and I think the best way to do it is to work alongside the LFC Foundation and with partners inside places like Toxteth.
“What we want is a mum to be able to walk past with the pram and two kids, and her kid going, ‘I want to do that.’ We’re working with Liverpool County FA and someone who used to work at the Academy is now full-time at the Foundation to act as our link with them. It’s something I’m really excited about.”
Over on the opposite side of the city from Toxteth is Walton Hall Park, former base of operations for the Walton & Kirkdale Junior Football League. The backstory of Barrigan’s involvement with Liverpool – and of several young Scousers that have successfully navigated the long and winding road to the first team – starts here, on muddy pitches on Sunday mornings.
“My father-in-law was Jimmy Aspinall, the scout who signed Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman,” Ian recalls. “A player called Ian Dawes – who eventually ended up working at the Academy as a coach – had left Everton. I knew his dad and persuaded him to come and meet with Jimmy and Steve Heighway, and Ian signed for Liverpool.
“I was running a local team in the Walton & Kirkdale league for my little lad, so they just said, ‘You’re the scout for the Walton & Kirkdale League.’ And that’s how it all began. I had Country Park, and in one year when I was the club secretary 35 kids signed a professional contract. That’s the team Jon Flanagan, Adam Lewis and Trent Alexander-Arnold played for.”
To Alexander-Arnold, then. It’s him in the aforementioned photo, having borrowed the ‘I love Ian’ T-shirt after it was originally worn by Barrigan’s assistant Steve Gorst in a light-hearted video sent to players’ parents.
The bond between the pre-Academy chief and the Alexander-Arnold family goes all the way back to Country Park circa 2005 and remains strong now, with the former citing the latter’s participation in two Champions League finals and a Club World Cup final as his proudest moments in football.
“I was his manager when he was just a baby, and suddenly there we are at Anfield with the Champions League trophy,” Barrigan reflects. “I’ve been to six European finals following Liverpool but Madrid was proper nerve-wracking. Trent gave me and my son tickets and paid for our flight. After we won, on the day of the parade, Trent came to me and said, ‘Let’s get a photo.’ I was getting all emotional.
“We were at a rooftop bar in town with all the players’ families, and all Trent’s mates and family were there, and his mum Diane was crying, and I was like, ‘If I go over there I’ll be the same!’ I’ve known her since Trent was six years of age, she used to collect the subs for the team. Trent used to come to my kids’ birthday parties.
“Then at the Club World Cup, when Trent got the ball [before assisting Roberto Firmino’s stoppage-time winner in the semi-final against Monterrey], I knew we would score. I just knew.
“When we went to Kiev and lost to Real Madrid, again he gave me the ticket for it, and, to be honest, I have no bad feelings about it. To get a kid from U6 to the Champions League final is the ultimate, really. When you’re walking to the stadium to see one of your kids play in a game like that… it’s unbelievable.
“Trent is a lovely kid when you meet him as well, and what’s brilliant is he can inspire kids that it can be done, and we’ve got a manager who supports kids. He knows these kids will run through a brick wall for him.”
The progress of players such as Curtis Jones, Alexander-Arnold and Neco Williams just goes to show that there is no exact formula for success at the Academy, as the trio could not have been more different in their early years under Barrigan’s supervision.
“Curtis always had that bit of swagger, to be honest; a bit cheeky, but not soft, not going too far. I remember going to Japan with him and he was throwing peanuts around on the flight back. On the way there you can say, ‘Do that and you’re not playing’, but on the way back…!
“Trent’s always been good as gold off the pitch, but a terrible, terrible loser! If he lost a game of tiddlywinks he would kick off.
“And then you’ve got Neco, who never said a word for about five years. He talks now, but not then. You’ve got kids who are a bit cocky and kids who are shy, but Neco has ice through his veins, he doesn’t get fazed by anything. So you’ve got to be careful with the different types of kid you’re looking at, because everyone is an individual.”
For all the joy felt by Academy staff with so many of their alumni prospering, the memory of Stephen Packer, an U9s player who tragically passed away from cancer in 2012, is never far.
“He was a lovely kid,” Barrigan remembers.
“We signed him in the May and he passed away in the November. The U9s changing room is now called the Stephen Packer Changing Room. It’s then that you realise how much of a family club we are. You get people complaining about game time or needing a new pair of socks. Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it?”