Youth players: an extension of ourselves? Liverpool's academy players are reveling in King Kenny's revolution but it's the fans who feel the impact the most
Fans will always identify with the latest baby-faced youngster to sprout out of their academy system, more so than an inflated foreign import: it’s a matter-of-fact. When they run out, all bandy legged and acne-ridden, fans fawn over - not just his prospects – but also the idea that he is a product of their own environment and is therefore an extension of their own socio-economic and geographical characteristics. Essentially he will symbolise, as the Canadian philosopher and mystical-foreseer of the Internet, McLuhan, termed it: ‘an extension of themselves.’
For fans, the extension of themselves to the club can be formed in many, varied ways. In some instances they may conjoin and mutate to their prized season ticket seat, whilst others unable to summon powers of mutation simply tie themselves down with a scraggly bit of rope and a faint knowledge of knotting attained in Scouts. A stranger phenomenon in the book of fan-to-club-extensions is Chelsea fans seeing the clubs success as an extension of their own, hence they support the Pensioners instead of Fulham, now masquerading as a football-club-cum-shrine to one of their legendary sons, Michael Jackson. Either that or they also happen to be owned by a Russian with a permanently befuddled look etched across his face. And for the egomaniacs, there is always Barcelona; a club so engulfed in their own tiki-taka, pass, move, pass, move, pass, move, pass, move, pass, move, pass, move, pass, move philosophy, that they can’t even imagine Stoke City on a rainy, Wednesday evening.
It goes without saying, almost, that fandom is many different things to many different people. Myself, being an Everton supporter, see their customary slow-starts to the season as mirroring my own slow-starts to the day. As with Everton, I kick-on and surge into the day, only after lunchtime and a rollicking about my lackadaisical performance during the morning period.
Seriously, though, my support probably owes much more to ideals of working class-ness. However, with Everton it’s a life of little-reward in often appalling working conditions – it is, in a way, more authentic when juxtaposed with Liverpool’s working class-ness of Five European Cups and smatterings of other glory-tinged-silverware. The working class, you see, just shouldn’t be privy to such wonders. Despite the prestige, though, Liverpool has always managed to maintain ties to the working class community through the incubation chamber of its youth academy. From the peroxide-blond-high-jinkers generation of Matteo and Fowler to current graduates such as Spearing and Flanagan: these geographical products represent an aspect of the cities working class heritage, without which the club would loose a limb of its identity.
Post-modernity, for a period though, has threatened to dismember the local populaces ‘extension of themselves’ at Anfield during the naughties. Modern times bought with them modern trappings. Gone was the nurturing of local talent and in was the purchasing of exotic, continental types, leaving Gerrard and Carragher, with brief cameos from Mellor, Warnock et al in between, to fly the flag for scouse-ness. As Hall laments in Introduction: Who Needs “Identity”, modern times ‘bought about a fragmentation of identity, and at times a split identity, which is embodied in various, even contrasting practises.’
A succession of sublimely-named-but-fatally-useless footballers that sounded World Class, yet delivered Pub Football Class, sauntered in and out of Anfield proceeding the promotion of a tough-tackling, scowling young man by the name of Gerrard. And, despite the relative success of these foreign-steeped squads, the identity of Liverpool as a production line for local talent was waning. You see, a sense of identity for local, national and worldwide fans is to be found in the promotion of young players from the academy – an identity of shared values and ideologies, often manifest in a shared supporting of Liverpool FC and a shared desire for them to succeed, which many foreign players – Robbie Keane aside, who supported many clubs as a young man in Ireland – just don’t posses.
To rectify the identity crisis, Liverpool went back to the future. Out went Woy and in came King Kenny Dalglish. No doubt, upon entering the dressing room he would have been met with quite a scene: Poulsen brooding over a headbands catalogue; Jovanovic bemoaning the lack of Serbian culture in Merseyside; and Cole, little Joey Cole, searching endlessly for his lost talent. On the pitch, performances were lacklustre. Things got so bad during Woy’s reign that the stadium wasn’t even selling-out and you could forgo the thousand yearlong waiting lists for tickets. Crikey.
Since the King’s return, there has been a renewed sense of hope around the club. Strangely, it is a different kind of hope to the one that tricks Liverpool fans each August into believing that this is their year. Aside from the marquee signings of the man all Ghanaians love to hate, Suarez, and the man who entices people to burn his cars, Carroll, there has been a swath of young, local players featuring with greater regularity. There is the terrier-like Spearing, with his small arms that resemble the limbs of a t-rex; and the young full-backs, Flanagan and Robinson, the former of whom wouldn’t look out of place terrorising local estates, decked out in black North Face gear. Oh, and despite his injury, we mustn’t forget Martin Kelly, who has excelled at both left and right back, as well as at wingback.
Speak to many Liverpool fans though, and they will tell you the same thing: Suarez and Carroll both appear to be very astute signings, but it is the academy players’ seamless progression that excites them most.
The promotion of Flanagan, Spearing, Kelly and Robinson has re-established the fans extension of themselves. Despite the clubs support no longer being solely comprised of ale-slugging, flat-cap-wearing, industrial folk; there is an aura, belief even, around Liverpool FC and their fans, that industrial characteristics of discipline, hard work and loyalty are needed to remain authentic and true to their roots. Anyone who has watched these players throughout the season will be able to confirm that, indeed, they are proponents of the working class ethos.
Whilst Liverpool can continue to promote local players from the academy, they will maintain links to the fans, and, by this, the fans will continue to see the club as an extension of themselves.
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