What do you do when you meet an old friend after a few months? A friend you probably shared rooms with, spent years together? If you are Jon Flanagan, you probably tackle him into submission. Raheem Sterling knew he would have it tough when he visited Anfield earlier this month for the first time following his acrimonious exit from Merseyside last summer.
What he may not have expected was that it would be Flanagan leading the charge in the first minute of play between Liverpool and Manchester City.
And Sterling could have been forgiven for discounting Flanagan’s presence. After all, the full-back was in the midst of his 20-month injury-forced layoff when Sterling gave the now infamous interview to the BBC in 2015, and finally packed his bags and left for the Etihad.
However, it was not Sterling’s presence which evoked the crunching tackle from Flanagan on March 2 and forced Manuel Pellegrini to substitute England’s leading winger at half-time. Flanagan was just fighting for his future.
The death of local talent in the top flight of English football has long been mourned. According to the CIES Football Observatory, of the 10 most experienced young footballers, born in 1995, 1996, and 1997 each and playing in Europe’s top-five leagues, only four were English: Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, Dele Alli, and Joe Gomez.
Unsurprisingly, none of the aforementioned players are still with their boyhood clubs. Financially more powerful clubs will always pick up young and promising talent from the weaker ones. What baffles the mind is when they ignore their own catchment areas.
Popularity of home-grown players decreasing with time
Sample the following from the CIES’ November 2015 report: “The proportion of club-trained players in the squads of the 31 leagues analysed has decreased steadily between 2009 and 2015. It has fallen from 23.1% on the October 1, 2009 to 19.7% six years later.”
A club-trained footballer is one who has been with a club for at least three seasons between the ages of 15 and 21.
Flanagan joined Liverpool’s academy at the age of 11 in 2004. A year later, Scouse heroes Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher would bring back the Champions League trophy to Anfield for good. Fast forward 11 years and Flanagan was on the brink of leaving Liverpool for next to nothing.
Football must be a level playing field, and any club that ignores certain players will eventually lose out. Several decades ago, it was the clubs which were unwilling to sign black players. Over the last decade or so, it has been the clubs which haven’t looked closely enough into their own backyards. Flanagan, handed a new three-year contract this week, continues to play for his club. But had he moved on to pastures new in the summer, it would have been Liverpool’s loss.
It’s not for nothing that local footballers are revered much more than others. The often-mentioned bond between the public and players is not an abstract idea. And if a team is devoid of the bond between itself and the supporters, it runs the risk of losing them. More importantly, it risks the supporters’ wrath for letting solid, local youths go over a few thousand pounds while continuing to spend blindly on foreign players.
Flanagan had his fair share of struggles
Flanagan did not have a spectacular start to his Liverpool career, often coming across as hesitant, unsure of his positioning, unwilling to bomb on. But come the 2013-14 season, and the naturally right-footed full-back made the left-back position his own. Cryuff turns were executed, a goal was scored at White Hart Lane with some ferocity, fists were pumped with such joy that the visiting Liverpudlians knew he was one of their own.
Everyone cheers for the greats of their era. But the passion and fervour in the stands goes up several notches when it’s your son, nephew, or friend on the pitch.
Unfortunately, Flanagan’s new contract does not put the issue to bed for Liverpool. If the full-back’s injuries were a reason to hold back on a new contract, it is confounding that another youngster, Jordan Rossiter, is faced with the prospect of leaving his boyhood club this summer. Rossiter, whom Robbie Fowler has called “potentially the next Stevie G”, has impressed Jurgen Klopp enough to make his league debut.
If not for an injury, Rossiter may well have added to his single league appearance. However, he continues to spend time on the sidelines with an uncertain future.
Clubs are guilty of taking their players’ loyalty for granted in their pursuit of trophies. Local players have it even tougher, with the pressure to emulate academy pass-outs who have now become legends. Moreover, they know they will be vilified should they force an exit – just like Sterling – if the contracts offered are not satisfactory.
Flanagan fought for his contract on the pitch just as he was expected to. However, it is worth considering if clubs are asking for too much from the youth who constitute their grassroots.Published 20 Mar 2016, 17:24 IST