Behind the BadgeFrom youth player to coach – Joel Bonner comes full circle with LFC
There is a saying that it is about the journey and not the destination – but for Liverpool Academy coach and analyst Joel Bonner both can be seen as true.
The 24-year-old has come full circle in his Reds journey, from joining the youth ranks at the age of 12 from local side Mossley Hill to now working for the club he so dearly loves in his early twenties as a youth coach.
Bonner's playing trial lasted six weeks before he spent the next four years balancing school and developing as a centre-back alongside the normal social life of a teenager on Merseyside.
It was at the age of 16 when he found out the first part of his Liverpool association was to come to an end, though a link to his boyhood team always remained.
"I suppose it's only when I look back at it you sort of realise how tough the period was," Bonner tells Liverpoolfc.com.
"I got told quite early that I wouldn't get a scholarship at the club. I suppose that kind of helped me in a way because that gave me as much time as possible to find another team. There was a good support network in place.
"Just because there wasn't anything for me in the years beyond that at the club, throughout that period I could go back and train. I remember I picked up an injury so I could still go and see the physio - the door was never closed.
"I ended up doing quite a lot of trials, I was quite unlucky in that sense to not pick a club up quickly. It wasn't until about March the following season where I went to Shrewsbury Town.
"It was quite an intense year in terms of having quite a few setbacks, but the club was always there. I think having that experience does toughen you or builds a bit of resilience."
Bonner now holds a split role at the Academy; on one side he is an analyst and individual coach for the Reds' U15 and U16 teams, and on the other he provides on-grass tuition for the club's U11s.
His role is very much focused on helping youngsters develop, learn, and lead on feedback that will contribute to their career both on and off the field.
He is also tasked with trying to unearth the next big local talent - similarly to current first-team right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who, incidentally, he rose through the age groups with.
"Trent is probably the main player from that group," he laughed.
"It's funny when you see what he has gone on to do now because playing with him at those ages you could see how good of a player he was.
"He was very complete, could play a lot of positions and could do a lot of things with and without the ball, but I suppose until someone makes it you don't realise just how good they were."
Bonner went on to Shrewsbury, completing a two-year scholarship before his link with the professional game came to an end.
He explored options, but it was Loughborough University and a Sport & Exercise Psychology degree that caught his attention.
The chance to also feature in their football performance programme was a huge tick in the box, with Loughborough's first team playing in the National League system - alongside entering both the FA Cup and FA Vase - and the Premier North, the top division of university football.
"I'd always enjoyed school and education," he added.
"Even when I was 15 or 16, in the back of my head some sort of back-up plan was to go to university. In terms of who I was and enjoying learning alongside playing football it was a really good next step. Balancing football and university was something I felt I could do and there's the social aspect too.
"You can grow, meet new people - it was a perfect experience for me. There are loads of lads who get released and there are lots of different options.
"You can go out to America; you can go and play football in Finland or Sweden to try to play professionally. There are quite a few exciting options, but for me going to Loughborough was the perfect one."
Loughborough's facilities also provided an elite environment to learn in, with British Olympic athletes, the England cricket team and Anthony Joshua among the many of those to utilise the state-of-the-art university as a training base.
He made more than 100 appearances for Loughborough's first team and won Players' Player of the Year in the 2017-18 season.
Bonner's interest in the tactical side of football never dwindled during his education, even as he majored in a different area to the one he now primarily works in.
Whisper it quietly, but it was a year-long placement at Manchester United that confirmed his love for the finer details of the sport.
"I would say I was one of those players that was fascinated by the game and really interested in the tactical side - those small details that define games," he said.
"I played as a centre-back, so from that perspective you can see the whole pitch. Even if our team had the ball higher up, you'd have to be communicating, seeing things, and anticipating things before they happened.
"It was quite subconscious in terms of just developing my passion for that side of the game. With how much analysis grew throughout my journey in the Academy and then once I was at university, it was a viable career pathway to go down."
Throughout his learning Bonner kept in touch with the club through Liverpool's alumni programme - taking advantage of an invitation to visit the Academy and the Reds' regular trips to Loughborough.
It was November 2020, during the final part of his degree, that a phone call changed his pathway forward and offered up an opportunity he simply couldn't refuse.
"Everything in football seems to come out of the blue," he smiled.
"I wasn't expecting anything, but I had good conversations with people and tried to make a good impression.
"It was a year down the line when I got a phone call asking if I'd be interested in a position that had come available at the Academy. I didn't aim or anticipate having a full-time job at Liverpool already - but I think the experiences that I have had have equipped me without realising.
"In terms of going through the Academy journey, going on to do my scholar at Shrewsbury and going to Loughborough University - it all kind of added up and made it possible.
"It's probably something I can do well; relating to the Academy players I work with about what they are all going through. I feel like whether they stay on, or do get released, I can provide a good perspective on options on next steps or how to navigate through it all."
Bonner has completed his UEFA B licence with the PFA and is currently completing an advanced youth award having fully graduated in July after splitting his final year to take up his Reds role.
He was handed the Premier League Academy Alumni Award earlier this year, too - a prize that aims to recognise achievements by players released either inside or outside the game.
"Obviously for academies they are there to provide and supply talent to the first team. That is one way to define success for sure, but there are so many other ways you can define it," Bonner said.
"I've ended up in this role a lot earlier than maybe I thought I would, it's up to me now to continue to develop and get better at what I am doing.
"I've been lucky enough to be given a chance at the football club again in a different capacity, so I just want to make sure I keep improving myself to make sure I am a good analyst, a good coach and a good mentor to try to provide a positive influence on the Academy players.
"It's truly a great place to work, especially as a massive Red."