When Rafael Benítez invited a 15-year-old Raheem Sterling for a tour of Liverpool's
training ground in February 2010, the Spaniard knew that he had no choice but to
give the teenager the hard sell. His club were engulfed in political infighting and
mired in penury and Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal were circling,
hoping to tempt the Londoner from Queens Park Rangers.
Benítez had been stung years before when Arsenal's personal touch snared Aaron
Ramsey; there would be no such mistakes this time. Sterling and his mother were
invited to Melwood; the club's captain, Steven Gerrard, was enlisted to provide a
dash of stardust; and Benítez outlined just how bright the winger's future could be
at Anfield. Sterling was told that he was not being bought as a prospect, but as a
player on the fast track to the first team.
Benítez would be excused if he allowed himself a wry smile on Sunday as he watched
Sterling's impressive home debut - against the Barclays Premier League champions, no
less. How fans view the Spaniard's legacy to Liverpool rather depends on which side
of the Anfield divide they fall, but this was his last great project - the revamp of
the academy - made flesh.
"I have seen a lot of development in him in a short time," Brendan Rodgers,
Benítez's eventual successor, said after the 2-2 draw with Manchester City. "He
takes on a lot of the concepts and he is very good with instructions. He is
improving tactically every day. I'm certain over the next few years he will develop
into a very good footballer.
"One of the things I have specialised in is the management of top young players. He
is in that bracket. I look at players like Scott Sinclair and he is certainly up
there. He is maybe more advanced at his age. His attitude is wonderful. I like
exciting players and he is a player that excites you.
"We don't have the money that some of our rivals have. I want to make the philosophy
through the club that allows us to bring players from the academy to the first
That, too, was Benítez's vision. It centred on a philosophy that he had imported
from his homeland, where Barcelona and Real Madrid trawl the country, cherry-picking
the best young talent and using their youth systems as a crucible of excellence.
With his adjutants, Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borrell, the Barcelona-schooled coaches,
Benítez wished to see the best playing with the best. He was not alone.
At the Premier League, discussions were under way about how to rejuven-ate England's
failing youth system. The result was the Elite Player Performance Plan, a
controversial revamp in which the 90-minute rule - which allowed clubs to recruit
only from their local catchment area - was abolished and fixed transfer fees
introduced for under-18s.
The controversy centred on the plan aiding larger clubs in their attempts to hoard
the best young talent. The fear was that smaller sides would be unable to develop
the prospects who provide, once matured, the transfer funds that are their
Whether that comes to pass remains to be seen, but there is little debate that the
model it replaced had been proved to be ineffective. Gone are the days of youngsters
facing gnarled old pros in reserve-team football; in their stead, a new under-21
league, launched this year, where all those sides with toprated academies face each
other in mini-leagues and play-offs. The best, with the best, against the best.
That, too, was the principle behind the NextGen series, the brainchild of Justin
Andrews and Mark Warburton, sporting director at Brentford. Sixteen teams from
across Europe - including Liverpool, Ajax, Manchester City and Barcelona - took part
in the inaugural under-19 tournament last season. With Borussia Dortmund and
Athletic Bilbao among those added to their ranks, 24 will compete this year and
plans are afoot to expand even more.
At Liverpool, those who have watched Sterling's progress see the NextGen as a
crucial stage in his development; the chance to play against the finest players in
his age group gave him a taste of truly competitive football.
At Aston Villa, where Gary Gardner emerged last year after starring in the
tournament, they no doubt say the same. Certainly, NextGen's organisers are doing
something right: they are close to securing a TV deal and sponsorship for this
year's competition; they had 30 applicants for the tournament at the end of last
season; and, with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, their success has
even prompted Uefa to hold talks over launching an under-21 Champions League next
They, too, can take some satisfaction from the emergence of Sterling, who could
perhaps become the competition's first genuine star. He will not, one suspects, be
Young guns ready to fire
Filipe Chaby (Sporting Lisbon): the 18-year-old playmaker at the heart of the
Portuguese side who twice crushed Liverpool in last season's competition.
Viktor Fischer (Ajax): probably the player of last season's tournament, the Danish
forward is now in his club's senior squad and is being monitored by Manchester
Stefano Denswil (Ajax): another NextGen alumnus promoted to Amsterdam club's senior
team, the left-sided defender scored a stunning free kick as Ajax finished
runners-up in inaugural competition.
Samuele Longo (Inter Milan): the striker's five goals helped the Italian side to the
title last season. With Andrea Stramaccioni, the former youth-team coach, now in
charge of the seniors, he can expect to be promoted to the first-team squad.
Jean-Marie Dongou (Barcelona): the Cameroonian is regarded as the brightest prospect
to emerge from La Masia for several years; quite a compliment, given the calibre of