I’M excited by Joe Gomez. Or I was, until I was told it is very likely he will be loaned out immediately by Liverpool. So now I have no idea when I will see him play for Liverpool. The lad has been picked up by The Reds from Charlton, shifted into Liverpool, only, it is expected, to be shunted off somewhere else almost immediately. He’s spoken of being excited about working with Brendan Rodgers. Well, that isn’t going to happen, mate. Soz.
He probably knew that, being fair to Liverpool. They probably said, this is what will happen. And so it comes to pass. It just feels counter-intuitive about football. Whether it is in our reserves or our first team I want a Liverpool signing to be a Liverpool player. Play for Liverpool. Be in Liverpool. Being here is important. As said many times before, we’re a mad city. Come to terms with it, feel it beneath your feet. Don’t get onto some weird footballer plane of existence if you are coming in from outside, recognise what it is you play for. Be as one with us (did you hear Mackin, Sampson and Nevin talk about Joey Jones? Be like that. It doesn’t half help).
It is difficult to do all that when you are on loan at a Championship club.
We’ve been here before. So much so that I wrote about this in our book about 13-14 with reference to Tiago Ilori. Tiago Ilori: subject of this excellent piece in the Liverpool Echo by Neil Jones, currently doing a very solid job at centre back for Portugal in the U21 championship. Tiago Ilori who you cannot see starting for Liverpool next season. Tiago Ilori who you would have struggled to pick out of a line up three weeks ago. I’ve Googled Tiago a lot recently. He has a lovely smiley face. There’s a magnanimity to it. God knows, given his career path and injury record over the last three seasons he could do with being magnanimous.
What follows is an abridged version of what I wrote around the signing of Ilori two years ago, something which now applies to Gomez. It doesn’t just mention Ilori, who is supposedly down for a new contract, it also mentions Coates, who is supposedly — with only a year left on his Liverpool contract — set for a cut-price £2million move to Sunderland. Young centre back prospects. Doesn’t matter who you are, what sort of player you are – you are going to find it hard. What applied to Coates applied to Ilori, what applied to Ilori will apply to Gomez. What applies to Gomes will apply to the next one. And the next one. And the one after that.
Weird life the footballers have. Anyway, this is what I said then:
On the morning of the last day of the summer transfer window in 2013 Liverpool bought two central defenders: Mamadou Sakho — then aged 23 — and Tiago Ilori — then aged 20. There is three years’ difference in their ages, but Sakho had made 151 senior appearances for Paris Saint-Germain whereas Ilori had made 12 for Sporting. Sakho cost Liverpool £15m, Ilori reportedly around half that, though his fee has never been confirmed.
Without getting into the merits of Sakho, he was clearly a signing for the first team. He was ready for the first team. You could point at those games for PSG, the fact he had worn the captain’s armband, the fact that he had French caps under his belt, and you could say that this player was a first-team defender. And, should he be a success, at his age Liverpool have eight to ten years of him at the centre of their defence.
Ilori, on the other hand, was a gamble. He wasn’t a signing for the first team. By the end of the campaign he had made no first-team appearances for Liverpool and had gone out on loan to Granada in Spain, where he played fewer than ten games.
Three years’ difference in their ages, huge differences in their profiles, significant but not definitive differences in their price tags.
My problem, though, isn’t the money paid for Ilori. He really could turn out to be very good. My problem is this:
When does he get his game?
He arrives at Anfield, on 2 September 2013, with Skrtel, Agger, Touré and the newly bought Sakho all ahead of him. You can make an argument that Andre Wisdom is ahead of him too; he started at centre back against Notts County. Some would love to say Martin Kelly is as well. When do you play him?
This is nothing new. A list of names:
These are all young centre backs Liverpool have bought in the last 20 years. Some for small fees, some for large fees. The point remains the same — none could establish themselves in the first team. Some were clearly good players. Some have gone on to be very good players — Paletta is now an Italian international (Roqué’s opportunity to reach his potential was tragically cut short after he died of pelvic cancer in 2012). All this is before we look at prospects that have come through Liverpool’s youth ranks.
None could get into Liverpool’s first team and stay there. Some — Sebastián Coates for example — are just unlucky or badly managed or the wrong fit. He should have started as many games as possible at the end of Kenny Dalglish’s final season when Liverpool could no longer plausibly finish fourth. He should have kept his place after Manchester City at home in 2012 under Brendan Rodgers. That he didn’t is suggestive of why these players struggle to establish themselves. Managers, at the highest level, are under a pressure to succeed that precludes giving young centre backs extended chances. (See also Alex Ferguson and Phil Jones.)
Young players are exciting. They give life to a team, give zest. They’ll go through a brick wall, as Brendan Rodgers often says. We love watching young players. They make football a joy.
If they are attackers.
Attackers can try things. A young attacking player can try 10 things and if three of them come off, he looks inordinately exciting. One could lead to a goal. Imagine what he’ll be like in five years, we can say, just imagine. Bring him on, he plays without fear. Give him the last 20, he’ll go at them.
Do you want a defender who plays without fear? Who tries things? A young defender plays and if he does 10 things and gets nine of them right, you remember the thing he got wrong; it could have led to a goal. It’ll almost certainly have led to a goalscoring opportunity. And now he’s worried, he’s concerned and 45,000 people have just gone bananas. Because while a footballer or football team might try and play without fear, part of supporting a football team is the fear of conceding.
Footballers need to play to develop. For defenders to develop they need to play against the best and the best make everyone look daft. But they also need to make mistakes against those who aren’t the best. And if you are at Liverpool, where the aim is to win every game, where one mistake can mean the difference between first and second, fourth and fifth, silverware or empty cabinets, then it becomes harder again.
Tiago Ilori merely joins this list at this stage; perhaps he’ll buck the trend. But it appears to me that the only way we know is if he plays. And to play he has to elbow very good players out of the way, keep his place in the team and manage all this while occasionally not being very good and settling in a new country. Sakho makes sense as a signing. His youthful follies have been on Paris Saint-Germain’s time. I’m reluctant to have anyone’s on ours. Because I want to win.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo/PA Images
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