Liverpool welcomed back three old boys this week when Brendan Rodgers brought Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Rob Jones onto his staff to work with the youngsters at the club. The trio brings a wealth of knowledge and experience, having played a combined 976 games for the Reds and also representing England on numerous occasions.
Rodgers explained that their involvement is "about individual work with the players" and will be position-based, meaning McManaman will spend time helping the wingers and attacking midfielders, whilst Jones is going to work with the full-backs. That's great, as long as he's kept well away from the strikers. Jones was a wonderful player, genuinely top class, but when it came to goalscoring, he made Danny Welbeck look like Lionel Messi, racking up 243 games without finding the net even once. Letting Jones anywhere near the club's young forwards would be akin to bringing Barry Venison in to give the lads fashion tips, or having 'Big Jan' Molby provide dietary advice.
Fortunately, that won't be necessary as Fowler is there to tutor the young forwards, although I'm not sure what he can actually teach them about the art of putting the ball in the net or of being in the right place at the right time. That was something he was born with and he's one of the most natural finishers the English game has ever seen. Is that coachable? I could see Fowler stepping onto the training pitch, pinging one into the top corner with his left foot, drilling one into the bottom corner with his right and then finishing it off with a diving header, before adding: "OK, lads! Just do that and you'll be sound."
Like every other top club, Liverpool have specialist coaches to work with the youth players, and there's probably not too much that the ex-pros can offer in an actual coaching capacity that the current, fully qualified, youth coaches cannot. There will be some things of course: Subtle suggestions on technique and tips on how to gain an advantage on your opponent, little bits of knowledge picked up during their playing careers that can be passed down to future generations. But Robbie Fowler cannot coach someone to be Robbie Fowler - his talent was nature, not nurture.
That's not to say Fowler can't coach -- he's reportedly working toward his UEFA 'A licence,' and I'm sure he has plenty to offer on the training field -- but according to Rodgers, the trio will be mentoring as much as coaching. That makes sense, particularly in the case of Fowler.
As a local kid turned national superstar almost overnight, he can certainly pass on the benefit of his life experience, the pitfalls of fame and fortune, and being in the media spotlight. Fowler made some high-profile mistakes and got into the occasional scrape. He was only doing the kind of things Liverpool players had been doing for years, but unfortunately for him, he was doing it at a time when the game was just beginning to move into an era of sports science, strict diets and ultra professionalism.
You can't go out for a pint in midweek now. In fact, you can't even do it directly after games any more. Alcohol is almost completely off-limits to footballers in the modern game, but the temptation is always there for young lads.
Having someone such as Fowler mentoring the 18-21 age group is a great idea; he's still young enough to relate to them and many will have seen him play. He is to this generation what Ian Rush and John Aldridge are to mine, and what Rodger Hunt and Ian St. John are to my father's.
The Academy lads will obviously know who Rush and Aldridge are (and hopefully St. John and Hunt, too, for that matter), but they'll naturally relate more to a Fowler or McManaman, especially as both walked the path they are all looking to tread, having come through the club's youth system to go on to become full internationals. In McManaman's case, a Champions League winner with Real Madrid, too.
Rodgers is obviously very keen to tap into the wealth of knowledge and experience of the club's former players. For example, former striker Neil Mellor has worked with the Under-21s, too. Mellor represents a different kind of role model for the players at the Academy than a Fowler or McManaman. There will be youngsters at the club now who are flying under the radar, perhaps not at the present level of some of their teammates, and not getting too much outside attention. Not everyone is a superstar at 16 years old.
Mellor was a late bloomer. Nobody noticed him until around the age of 18 or 19, as previously he had never stood out and often found himself on the substitutes' bench. Had the present Academy system been in place back then, he would have probably been released at the age of 18, but the Academy league was for under 19s back then so he got that extra year to prove himself. He went on to hit 50 goals in that season at reserve and Academy level.
Players such as Fowler only come through once in a generation, but the Academy players at Liverpool can look at somebody such as Mellor and take inspiration from his career. Very few of the young players at the club will go on to establish themselves in Liverpool's first team; that's just the nature of football. Mellor never managed to do that, either, but he left an indelible mark in the club's history by scoring against Olympiakos, and also with the cushioned header to set up Steven Gerrard's famous late strike in the same game. Quite simply, without Mellor's contribution, Istanbul would not have happened. He eventually had to leave Anfield to play regular first team football, as many of today's young players will have to, but he'll always be remembered for what he did in limited first-team appearances.
One thing that Fowler and Mellor share is that overwhelming desire to put the ball in the net. It's like a drug to them. Aldridge, Michael Owen and Rush had it, too, but of the current crop, Adam Morgan looks to be the only one who shares that complete obsession with finding the back of the net. Like those named above, Morgan will celebrate a tap in with the same vigour he would a screamer, and he lives to score goals. In the modern game, strikers need to be so much more than just goalscorers, and as a result, for some young forwards, goals are no longer the be all and end all.
The expression "he'd knock over his own granny to score a goal" used to be heard often in years gone by, but it's increasingly rare to hear it about a modern day player. It sums Mellor up perfectly, though. This is a man who desperately tried to steal a goal off his own keeper when he was playing for Preston. Goalkeeper Andy Lonergan launched a huge clearance that his opposite number misjudged, and had to watch helplessly as the ball bounced over his head and into the goal.
The thing that amused me wasn't the comical aspect of a goalkeeper scoring a goal, it was the centre-forward wearing the number 33 shirt absolutely busting a gut to try and get a touch on it before it crossed the line. He couldn't quite get there, but that incident summed up the obsession Mellor had with scoring goals. He'd have happily robbed Lonergan of a once-in-a-lifetime moment if it meant adding another tap in to his collection.
Fowler, Rush, Aldridge and Owen would all have done the same, and perhaps that's the kind of thing that Rodgers is hoping the ex-players can pass on to the stars of the future.
Hopefully this is just the start, as there is a wealth of knowledge and experience among Liverpool's former stars that can be tapped into and used to benefit the club's Academy. Even if they are not brought in for permanent roles, it just makes sense to have the youngsters learn what they can from star players who have played their position and are willing to share their experiences.
Personally, I hope that John Barnes is the next recruit. That man has far too much knowledge, experience and common sense to not be involved at Liverpool in some capacity. Get him on board, Brendan.